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Jack Knox: A Dunkirk for the NDP, but Greens stuck in the sand

At least the New Democrats can celebrate their version of the Miracle of Dunkirk. Yes, they won fewer seats than in 2015 — a lot fewer — but no, they didn’t get annihilated, as many expected when the campaign began.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, is consoled by MLA Sonia Furstenau at the Victoria Conference Centre on election night, Oct. 21, 2019.

At least the New Democrats can celebrate their version of the Miracle of Dunkirk. Yes, they won fewer seats than in 2015 — a lot fewer — but no, they didn’t get annihilated, as many expected when the campaign began.

Jagmeet Singh proved to be this year’s version of Christy Clark in 2013 — a new leader who came in as an outsider unloved by caucus, who was dismissed as more sizzle than steak, but who nonetheless emerged as a great campaigner.

It has to hurt to fall from 44 seats to just over half that many, but it could have been worse — and being in a position to hold the balance of power in a minority government should ease the pain.

The Green Party? They were left searching for sunshine on a grey day.

This was supposed to be the year of the Green Wave. Four weeks ago, with students mobbing the legislature lawn, Greta Thunberg all over the news and Elizabeth May declaring the election to be a referendum on climate change, polls showed the Greens with a good shot at breaking the NDP stranglehold and winning perhaps five of Vancouver Island’s seven seats.

More important, they were making noise back East, giving them a chance of breaking out of their little beachhead way out here in the Pacific.

Their hopes were buoyed this spring when Paul Manly won a byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, making him just the second MP ever elected as a Green. A golden opportunity arose in Victoria when Murray Rankin, the greenest MP in the NDP, chose not to run again this fall.

In Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, the Greens had a strong candidate in the personable David Merner, a former Liberal candidate who switched parties the day Justin Trudeau bought the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

At all-candidates forums, May spoke of electing enough MPs to influence a minority government. The wave was rising.

But then came Singh’s resurgence across Canada — and some political hardball by the NDP locally. “At the national level they ran a good campaign,” May said Monday night. “They only ran a scummy, embarrassingly low campaign on Vancouver Island.”

Maybe that’s only to be expected when you play in the big leagues. New Democrats, who had long had the left side of the lake to themselves, weren’t going to let the Greens fish out of the same water without a fight.

They went after the Greens hard, the attacks including distribution of a pamphlet suggesting the party would cosy up to the Conservatives in a minority government (which, on left-leaning Vancouver Island, is the equivalent of wearing a Boston Bruins sweater) and that it was prepared to reopen the abortion debate. May said the NDP literature put quote marks around things she had never said. “They lied.”

Whatever. The reality is that, for whatever reason, the Green Wave turned into more of a ripple. May and Manly won, but Merner lost, as did Racelle Kooy in her race with city councillor Laurel Collins in Victoria.

The Greens did win a seat in Atlantic Canada, a big deal for a party keen to break out of its Vancouver Island beachhead, but that was it (among the losing candidates was former CBC Radio host Jo-Ann Roberts, running in Halifax after failing to knock off Rankin in Victoria).

Nationally, the Greens’ support increased to 6.4 per cent from 3.4 per cent in 2015 — a nice boost, but still nowhere close to where it has to be to make a difference.

The question now: If the Greens can’t make a breakthrough when their signature issue, climate change, is right at the top of the public consciousness, when can they?

What comes next? May is 65 years old now and newly married. At what point does she tire of playing Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill, never reaching the top? Monday night she gave no indication that she was giving up.

Just going by wins and losses, you could argue that the NDP, who lost close to 20 seats nationwide, fared more poorly than the Greens, who picked up one.

Still, at the end of the night it was the NDP celebrating its Dunkirk, the rescue of its five Vancouver Island seats, and it was the Greens who were stuck on the beach, spinning their wheels in the sand.

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