In September 1997, my most trusted advisor took me aside confidentially to show me something he had been working on for a few months. I had just been acclaimed to my second term as leader of the BC Green Party following sixteen-month period of instability in which my star candidate and his allies had been drumming up a series of non-scandals in an effort to prevent me from seeking a second consecutive term.
I was twenty-five years old and had served as leader of the BC Green Party for more than four years. I enjoyed the ongoing support of the party’s founders, Paul George and Adriane Carr, who ran BC’s then-largest environmental group, Western Canada Wilderness Committee. I had the support of Greenpeace co-founders and lifelong rivals Jim Bohlen and Paul Watson. Following Andy Shadrack’s two attempts to tar me with allegations of financial impropriety backfiring, it seemed like plain sailing for the BC Green Party.
We had run in seventy-one of seventy-five ridings and placed ahead of the Social Credit Party in the previous election. And thanks to Julian’s persuasive and tactical skills, Angus Reid had changed their polling methodology and we had jumped to 5% in provincial opinion polls. Julian and I had also teamed-up with Troy Lanigan of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation and Sonja Sanguinetti, president of the BC Liberal Party to create the Electoral Change Coalition, a collection of groups across the political spectrum representing more than 100,000 British Columbians in their membership rolls, calling for proportional representation.
But in that meeting, Julian suggested that we gamble all that and take the biggest political risk of our lives. He suggested that if we wanted to achieve real power in BC, we would have to reach some kind of accord with the NDP and follow the lead of European Green parties in forming a Red-Green governing alliance.
This would involve nothing short of a 180-degree turn in all my public statements about the New Democratic Party and unknown consequences for the base on which we relied to remain in charge of the Green Party’s governing council.
Let me be clear: we failed. Two and a half years later, we and everyone we had tried to make a deal with was out of a job, politically, except Art Vanden Berg, Canada’s first Green city councillor who would, by the end of his term, be sitting in the NDP municipal caucus in Victoria
I never achieved the high office John Horgan and Andrew Weaver have, nor am I an instantly-trustworthy stalwart for either group of partisans. Still, I think the Nobel Prize winner and premier-elect might benefit from knowledge of our small story from the 1990s and how such promising accords can come crashing down no matter how much they seem to be delivering. Maybe this cautionary tale can avert a similar fate for North America’s first Red-Green governing coalition.
Let’s begin with the poem I recited prior to every meeting after I adopted this plan:
There are those who would build the Temple,
And those who prefer that the Temple should not be built.
In the days of Nehemiah the Prophet
There was no exception to the general rule.
In Shushan the palace, in the month of Nisan,
He served the wine to king Artaxerxes,
And he grieved for the broken city, Jerusalem;
And the King gave him leave to depart
That he might rebuild the city.
So he went, with a few, to Jerusalem,
And there, by the dragon’s well, by the dung gate,
By the fountain gate, by the king’s pool,
Jerusalem lay waste, consumed with fire;
No place for a beast to pass.
There were enemies without to destroy him,
And spies and self-seekers within,
When he and his men laid their hands to bebuilding the wall,
So they built as men must build
With the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other.
In 1997, Julian reasoned that the first step towards a provincial coalition needed to be made where left-Green vote-splitting had produced the worst consequences. And so we began our project in Vancouver at the municipal level. The Coalition of Progressive Electors, which had formally absorbed the Civic NDP in 1993, had lost every seat on Vancouver city council, parks board and school board in 1996 and the mainstream media had placed the blame for the loss pretty squarely on us, the Green Party, after a spirited campaign in which our candidates got as much as 23% of the vote.
The fact that the NDP name was not attached to COPE also made them an easy starting point, along with the long history of crossing party lines with mixed slates of Communists and New Democrats. It was not hard to obtain an audience with COPE, still reeling from their first total electoral shutout since their founding in 1968. The late Frances Wasserlein took the lead on the COPE side in championing an alliance but, despite our shared interests and literal mutual destruction in the previous campaign, it was hard to cut a deal.
In particular, the electoral system proved a nearly insurmountable barrier in negotiations and led to the agreement’s ultimate unravelling during the 1999 campaign. COPE had been fighting for a single-member plurality first-past-the-post municipal voting system since its founding; “the ward system” as they euphemistically called it, was as close to a COPE article of faith as any policy could be. With the NDP generally winning a majority of provincial seats under first-past-the-post in Vancouver, implementing the same system municipally appeared to be a recipe for a permanent COPE majority.
But for Greens, this would mean, at best, chronic underrepresentation and, at worst, no representation at all, with our party’s vote evenly distributed across the city’s geography. In the end, Julian had to produce a series of maps for COPE showing that we could still implement municipal wards in the city even with the proportional representation that formed the foundation of our negotiating position. We also had to sacrifice all of our “limits to growth” and development freeze language from our policy in order for COPE to agree to a proportional system of municipal wards. But that took over a year of negotiating, to push that through, ultimately requiring the skill of our most personable negotiator, Paul Alexander, the first Green candidate to place third in a provincial election back in 1996.
By that time, I had moved to Victoria to join Art Vanden Berg who had only narrowly lost his 1996 municipal election bid to attempt to replicate the agreement with an official NDP affiliate and begin the work of fashioning some kind of provincial bargain. But there were other reasons to move by then. Shadrack and his allies, emboldened by my recent bout with clinical depression, had begun an aggressive campaign to remove me and my allies from the leadership of the party. As we hit 11% in the polls in the fall of 1998, there was a growing sense of urgency to move forward with the alliances because our time might be running out.
We might be inking deals with municipal NDP affiliates and the labour councils that backed them but, to do so, we were burning through our own political capital at an alarming rate. More on that in part 2.