Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/4/2011 (3854 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
SAANICH, Vancouver Island -- A video crew, a few volunteers and Elizabeth May are standing on the highway just outside the gates of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital desperately looking for a safe haven.
The Green party leader, a candidate in this federal election in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, is resplendent in a green wool coat that would appear more vivid if not for the uncommonly cold and dreary April weather. May came to the hospital earlier this week hoping to use it as a backdrop for the video shoot. Everyone agreed it was a brilliant plan. Everyone except the hospital itself.
After checking with staff inside, May announced that not only can they not shoot at the hospital's main entrance, they can't shoot on hospital grounds at all. So, May, the video crew and the volunteers trudge up the hospital's driveway and take up a position just outside the main gate.
This is the kind of incident often used as a metaphor for a dead, perhaps dying, campaign. But if May is concerned about the setback, she's not letting on. In fact, everyone is uncommonly cheery. They've all apparently learned the tough lesson May has learned from five years leading the Greens: when you roll with the Green party, you have to roll with the punches.
It was rolling with the punches that brought her out to Vancouver Island for this election, the farthest place in the country from Cape Breton Highlands -- Canso in Nova Scotia, where she ran in 2008. "You know, it's been fantastic on the island here," May said as she braced herself against a brisk gust of wind aided by a passing semi-trailer. "I've canvassed the entire riding and everyone's been wonderful. The campaign plan we have is fantastic. The only problem we've had is that we've run into an unexpected brick wall called 'the consortium.'"
May is referring to the fact that she has once again been denied a seat at the federal leaders' debates. In 2008, a similar bid to exclude her was met with a national outpouring of sympathy that ultimately forced the broadcasters and the other parties to welcome her aboard. No such luck this time as the "Broadcasting Consortium," a shadowy group made up of shadowy figures who appear to have read too much Orwell, dug in its heels and the other party leaders failed to jump to her defence. An attempt was made this past week to challenge the decision in court, but a B.C. judge felt there was not enough time to render a verdict before the April 12 debate. For now, she is out.
The decision to exclude May has apparently convinced the news media to more or less ignore the Greens this time around. Her bid to gain entry to the debate, and her party's national platform, did receive coverage. But none of the national media publicize her daily itinerary. May noted that in the early days of the campaign, most of the national news networks included her picture with the other four party leaders whenever they kicked off election coverage. "After we were excluded from the debate, my picture mysteriously disappeared. And they have not been carrying our policy statements. Green party candidates are being treated as if they don't exist."
If democracy itself were an issue in this election, May would be the perfect poster girl. In addition to the essentially baseless decision to leave her out of the leaders' debates, democracy has been under siege in this campaign. We've had the governing Tories limit questions from reporters and do background checks on citizens registering for campaign rallies. Coalition governments, which are perfectly legitimate, have been likened to bloody coups. Lamentably, there is no indication voters give a damn about these incidents.
Fortunately, the Greens have a new strategy for this election to bypass the national ambivalence. In 2008, May spent most of her time on the national trail away from her home riding where she came in a distant second to Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay. This election, May will spend most of her time in Saanich-Gulf Islands to battle Tory cabinet minister Gary Lunn.
This is, in effect, stealing a page from the playbook of the U.K. Green party, which focused all of its money and energy on a small handful of ridings with the best chance of success. This, the U.K. Greens hypothesized, was the only way to win a seat in a first-past-the-post electoral system, which generally does not reward upstart parties. Employing this strategy in last spring's general election, Green party Leader Caroline Lucas became the first-ever Green MP in the British Parliament. "Clearly, doing a little bit better in each election was not going to do it for us," May said. "We needed to concentrate our efforts to win a seat."
May said the decision to choose Saanich-Gulf Islands (or SGI as it is known to local politicos) was not made lightly. More than two years ago, the party did extensive polling and research to find the perfect riding in which to build the Green party's beachhead. Located just north of Victoria, SGI boasts higher-than-average numbers of upper-income earners and, perhaps not surprisingly, retired civil servants. It also boasts an unusually high number of registered members of the Sierra Club, one of Canada's most prominent environmental lobbies. May served as executive director of the Sierra Club for 17 years.
May has been living in the riding for nearly two years, and dismisses any notion that she's a parachute candidate. May noted that Canada's first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, represented much of her current riding between 1878 and 1882, without ever taking up residence. And she is quick to recall former prime minister Brian Mulroney parachuted into the Atlantic riding of Central Nova without putting down roots. "(Mulroney) took a room at the Pictou Lodge and no one ever expected him to stay."
The strategy -- at least at this point in the race, appears to be working to plan. Most seat projectors and result pundits seem to agree SGI is a tight, two-way race between May and Lunn. There is very little doubt when you talk to May, and listen to her supporters, that they believe they can be giant-killers in British Columbia, bringing down a Tory and complicating Stephen Harper's bid for a majority government.
Everything is going according to plan, except for that damnable leaders' debate. Would she trade the publicity over her exclusion, a commodity in and of itself, for a seat at next Tuesday's debate? "No. I don't think it's a good trade. This is so manifestly unfair. We still have some time left to try and change this decision." Has she accepted that she will not be involved in the debate? "I won't accept anything at this point."
Which explains how a party excluded from the debates and somewhat ignored by the media is nonetheless on the precipice of history.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.