Greens face big challenges as COVID-19 transforms the political landscape

The Green Party missed out on a golden opportunity in the 2019 federal election. The COVID-19 pandemic might rob it of another opportunity in 2020.

Poised for a historic breakthrough — at times running third in national polling, ahead of the New Democrats — the Greens made only modest gains in the last election. The party won just one more seat than it had going into the vote and increased its share of ballots cast to just 6.5 per cent, still lower than its best result in the 2008 election.

Now, with support for the federal Greens and their provincial cousins either stagnating or dropping as Canadians shift their concerns away from climate change toward the novel coronavirus pandemic and the economy it is gutting, the party faces significant challenges ahead.

Wednesday at 9 PM ET marks the deadline for nominations for the Green leadership race. There are seven candidates officially in the running now: Amita Kuttner, Dimitri Lascaris, David Merner, Glen Murray, Annamie Paul, Dylan Perceval-Maxwell and Meryam Haddad.

Murray, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, is the only candidate with elected experience, though all of the others have run for office under the Green Party banner at least once.

The candidates have until September to meet all eligibility requirements. The race is scheduled to conclude in October.

At the outset, the contest provided the Greens with an opportunity for renewal. Elizabeth May, who announced her resignation as leader in November, had been at the head of the party since 2006. But the pandemic has made it more difficult for the campaign to gain any traction.

It also has taken a toll on support for Green parties at both the federal and provincial levels.

Polls by the Angus Reid Institute and Léger published this week recorded national Green support at between five and seven per cent, virtually unchanged from where it was on election night. In British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, where the party holds its three seats, support was lower than it was in October.

The B.C. Green Party — which became the first Green Party in Canada to win multiple seats in an election when it took three in 2017 — had to postpone its own leadership race due to the pandemic. While polls suggest the party's support is no higher than it was three years ago, the B.C. New Democrats under Premier John Horgan have opened up a wide lead over the B.C. Liberals; Horgan's handling of the pandemic is getting high marks from British Columbians.

As partisanship drops, so does Maritime Green support

He's not the only premier to experience a boost in support in recent weeks. Most premiers have — in part because the crisis has encouraged many of them to put partisanship aside and work collaboratively with other parties.

The desire for that kind of politics helped the Greens in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island make their big breakthroughs in the 2018 and 2019 elections in these provinces. But the pandemic seems to be sapping one source of the Greens' political appeal by encouraging the governing parties to take a more cooperative, less partisan approach.

In New Brunswick, the latest Narrative Research poll found Blaine Higgs's Progressive Conservatives leading with 48 per cent support, while the Greens trailed in third with 15 per cent. That is a drop of five percentage points for the New Brunswick Greens since February — and those are the kind of numbers that would give Higgs the majority government he was unable to win in 2018.

The poll found 41 per cent of New Brunswickers choosing Higgs as their preferred premier, an increase of 15 points since February. Green Leader David Coon fell four points to 14 per cent over that time.

Brian McInnis/CBC

In Prince Edward Island, where Peter Bevan-Baker's Greens form the Official Opposition in a minority legislature, Dennis King's governing PCs have surged nine points since February to 54 per cent support. The Greens dropped six points to 22 per cent, putting them in a tie with the Liberals.

While King jumped 15 points to 53 per cent as Islanders' preferred premier, Bevan-Baker fell 10 points to 21 per cent.

Though it could be a momentary blip for the governing Tories in these two provinces (crisis-induced spikes in support don't always last), it should worry the Greens that they appear to have taken a step back in two provinces that once showed great promise for them.

COVID-19 dwarfing climate change as an issue

But the real existential issue for the Greens might be the impact the pandemic has on Canadians' concerns about climate change.

At the beginning of the year, Nanos Research found that the environment was being cited by 21 per cent of Canadians as the most important issue of national concern. The economy trailed in second with 15 per cent.

COVID-19 has completely dwarfed these issues; 50 per cent of those polled by Nanos in April cited the pandemic as the most pressing issue facing the country. It has since dropped down to 33 per cent, though that still makes it the top issue of concern.

The pandemic's surge as a political issue has come at the expense of the environment, which is now listed by eight per cent of Canadians as the most important issue facing the country. But while the environment has lagged, concerns about the economy have increased — it is now cited by 23 per cent as the top issue.

It is possible that as concern over COVID-19 recedes (which may not happen soon, given the threat of a second wave in the fall), the environment will rise again as an issue. But the damage the pandemic has done to the economy makes it more likely that most Canadians will be focused on economic matters in the short- to medium-term.

Cole Burston / Canadian Press

The longer-term picture is harder to forecast. The last time the environment was the top issue in polling was in the mid-2000s, before the financial crash in 2008 pushed it to the back burner again. It took another decade for the environment to re-emerge as the top issue of concern for Canadians.

survey by Abacus Data for Clean Energy Canada offered little clarity about the likely longer-term impact of the pandemic on public opinion. The poll found that 32 per cent of respondents agreed that the pandemic had led them to believe that the focus should be on the economy and health care rather than climate change. But an equal number said it made them more convinced that Canadians can and should make changes to how we live and work to fight climate change.

It all leaves the Greens and the six leadership candidates in a difficult spot. The progress the Greens have made over the last few years has been built primarily on two pillars: growing concern about climate change and fatigue with the old way of doing politics.

But the pandemic has shifted people's priorities and demonstrated that traditional parties can put partisanship aside. Suddenly, those pillars look a lot less sturdy.