On Monday last a major scientific report endorsed by 109 countries asserted that human activity has put in danger of extinction one million species, or about one eighth of Earth’s identified plant and animal types. Land development, fossil fuel burning, over-fishing and pollution are the main activities destroying habitat and species at an accelerating rate, according to the first comprehensive United Nations report on biodiversity.

Lead author, British chemist Sir Robert Watson, provided a fitting summation: “Business as usual is a disaster.”

The following day, the surprising by-election victory of the Green Party candidate in the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith had some members of the punditry forecasting the imminent extinction of the government led by Justin Trudeau and the party led by Jagmeet Singh. Trudeau’s Liberals finished fourth on Monday, behind the third-place NDP who won the seat in 2015.

Mind you, the cognoscenti were quick with the caution about reading too much into a by-election result, before rushing to do just that. Among the omens imagined from the by-election result: the final demolition of the Liberals’ progressive façade; the Greens replacing the NDP as “conscience of parliament,” and the emergence of climate change as the country’s dominant political issue.

As much as the latter is to be desired, that and the other harbingers are a leap too far. For one thing, Vancouver Island voters are unique. In 2015, they gave six of their seven seats to the NDP, the other to Elizabeth May. When not voting Green or NDP, they tend to go Conservative. The Liberals haven’t held a seat on the Island for years, so their finish, with 11 per cent of the vote, was about par for the course.

As for the rise of the Greens, the key was their candidate added slightly to the vote total he accumulated in 2015 while other parties saw theirs drop along with the turnout – from 75 per cent in 2015 to 41 for the by-election. Another discordant note is the result of a January by-election in the provincial riding of Nanaimo, which contains about half of the voters in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. The NDP candidate won with close to 50 per cent of the vote, the Green candidate managed only seven per cent. A lot of NDP-Green switchers in Nanaimo, it appears.

Despite such inconvenient facts, the by-election win, combined with a small uptick in national polls, made the rise of the Greens a big political story, focusing less on the Greens themselves than on their impact on the other parties. The unfortunate irony, thanks to our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, is that a party whose recent success is said to be linked to growing concern about climate change, may end up helping Conservatives, the party of maximum oil and gas.

To paraphrase Robert Watson, such an outcome would demonstrate that “politics as usual is a disaster.”

Seat projections

The CBC’s poll watcher Eric Grenier, although taking into account an Abacus  finding that Green support could come from all parties, projected that New Democrats would lose by far the most seats from a rise by the Greens to 12-member official party status and 16 per cent support. Conservatives would lose some votes but would gain a few seats, moving them to within five seats of a majority in the House of Commons.

For what it’s worth, here is a “what if” seat projection based on polling averages from the CBC’s May 7 poll tracker, which showed the Conservatives at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 30, the NDP at 16 and the Greens at nine.(BTW, Atlantic Canada reflects the national picture at 35 per cent for the Conservatives, 34 for the liberals, 15 for the NDP and 11 for the Greens).

PartySeat Count May pollsSeat Count Greens 16%
Conservatives 161164
NDP 30 22
Bloc 16 14
Greens 3 12

As the table shows, the impact of a nearly 80 per cent (from nine to 16) rise in Green support moves the Conservatives closer to the 169 seats needed for a majority. This is despite a two percentage point drop in overall support resulting from the rise in the Green vote, the perverse result of FPTP.

As argued here first-past-the-post has in the past encouraged the Conservatives to pander to elements of their base with trash like a barbaric practices snitch line. For their part, the Liberals like to highlight the Conservative fringes to scare voters into their camp.

The “vote Green, elect Conservatives” notion is already becoming conventional wisdom in the media. It will surely be amplified by the Liberals to convince voters to hold their noses and vote for them to keep the Conservatives out. The Liberals have played the fear card with varying degrees of success in 2000, 2004 and 2006. In those elections it was scary conservative leaders with hidden social agendas. Five months from now the scare tactic could be the prospect of a Conservative government prone to inaction on climate change.

There are a couple of reasons why this may be a hard sell, starting with the threadbare quality of the Liberals’ own  climate change policy. And then there’s the fact that many Canadians, asked to vote for a party they don’t like to stop one whose policies they fear, may remember why they are again being faced with this frustrating choice. The reason would be continuation of first-past-the-post, the electoral system that Trudeau, with great fanfare, committed to abolish during the 2015 election campaign.

Trudeau’s party deserves its comeuppance for breaking that promise. It’s just too bad Canadians may also have to suffer.