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Green wave: why more Atlantic Canadians are supporting the Green party than ever before

Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May speaks to reporters Tuesday morning in Charlottetown. She was on the campaign trail Monday and Tuesday in P.E.I. helping to drum up support for the Green Party heading into Tuesday’s provincial election.
Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May speaks to reporters in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in this file photo. Earlier this week a poll from Narrative Research found that 14 per cent of voters in Atlantic Canada would vote green if a federal election were held now. - SaltWire Network

Voters in Atlantic Canada are beginning to see the Green party as a viable alternative to the status quo, experts say, which may mean tangible results at the polls in October.

Recent polling suggests a surge in popularity for the federal Green party, which was largely seen as a fringe option for many years, mostly at the expense of the Liberals and NDP.

Earlier this week a poll from Narrative Research found that 14 per cent of voters in Atlantic Canada would vote green if a federal election were held now, and support was as high as 22 per cent in P.E.I. -- just 10 points behind the governing Liberals.

This comes on the heels of some huge wins at a provincial level in elections in New Brunswick, where the Greens won three seats, and P.E.I., where they won eight and formed the official opposition.

According to University of P.E.I. political science professor Don Desserud, there’s a number of factors that have played into this uptick of Green support -- and concern for the environment doesn't top the list.

“I think what we’re seeing is some dissatisfaction with the mainline parties,” Desserud said.

“People are looking for a credible alternative.” -University of P.E.I. political science professor Don Desserud

Don Desserud
Don Desserud

The massive, sweeping showing of support for the Liberals in 2015 has inevitably led to some disappointment, Desserud said, and those to the centre and left of the political spectrum are not going to put their support behind Andrew Sheer’s Conservatives.

“The NDP doesn't seem to have the same appeal that it did when that party when Jack Layton was leading even when Mulcair was leader. People are looking for a credible alternative. Credibility comes from success and the Green Party has had significant success in two of the Atlantic provinces,” he said.

Desserud doesn’t fully discount the impact of their environmental messaging, but he said at least provincially the Greens have been downplaying that in order to avoid being branded as a one-issue party.

“They're broadening their appeal more on a whole range of other issues, some quite socially progressive like guaranteed income, but others more old-fashioned, free-market ideas, (like) bringing in more individualistic approach to regulation,” he said.

While Nova Scotia seems to be following New Brunswick and P.E.I. in jumping on the Green bandwagon, support doesn’t seem to have risen at all in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Don Mills, former CEO of the polling company Corporate Research Associates (now Narrative Research) said he suspects they’re just late to the party.

“Political trends  tend to kind of come there last,” he said.

Memorial University political science professor Alex Marland said it could also be related to the party’s position against the commercial seal hunt.

As for the rest of the country, Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak said Canada may be experiencing some of the political restlessness and “populist bug” that’s being observed in other parts of the world, but without the gravitation towards extreme right-wing populism seen elsewhere.

“The Greens are potentially well positioned to capitalize on some of the public angst because they represent a sort of moderate populism,” he said. “Critics of the Greens might say that they're extreme left but actually the platform is not that extreme.”

Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May said while she’d like to think that the surge in support for her party is entirely based on their platform, she knows frustration with the other options is a factor.

“People who are traditional Liberal voters are coming up to me almost on a daily basis and saying I just can't vote Liberal again. And people who are traditionally ... Progressive Conservatives just don't see themselves in this sort of Reform Alliance version of conservatism,” she said.

May said she believes that the success of the party provincially in P.E.I. and New Brunswick has had a spillover effect federally, and people who may have supported the Greens’ platform but were hesitant to vote for them are now seeing them as a viable option.

“It appears what happened here in P.E.I. is repeating itself federally, and that's hugely exciting for us who have been around for a very long time.” -P.E.I. Green MLA and provincial party leader Peter Bevan-Baker

P.E.I. Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker. - SaltWire file photo
P.E.I. Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker. - SaltWire file photo

P.E.I. Green MLA and provincial party leader Peter Bevan-Baker said it took decades to build that credibility among Islanders and to reach a point where they felt comfortable voting Green.

“Sometimes in politics that shift is very sudden and very profound,” he said. “It appears what happened here in P.E.I. is repeating itself federally, and that's hugely exciting for us who have been around for a very long time.”

Whether this early indication of support will stick around until October, however, is still yet to be seen.

“The strategy of the Liberals is obviously to instil fear of the Conservatives and to rally the anti-Conservative vote behind them, but if that doesn't work then the prospects for the Green Party to win multiple seats are very good,” Desserud said.

Mills said generally Green party support is not stable, meaning polls will often reflect greater levels of support than they actually get at the ballot box.

“People have a hard time pulling the trigger but eventually they're going to have a breakthrough,” he said.

While much is still up in the air, Urbaniak said other parties, especially the NDP, ought to start looking at the Greens as a real threat.

That means the Greens will become more of a target during the campaign than they have been historically, and will have to tread carefully.

“They have to start taking candidate recruitment very seriously. They cannot simply put warm bodies on the ballot,” he said. “If I were advising the Greens I would say vet your candidates very very carefully right now.”

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