Green Party leader Elizabeth May in Toronto in 2015. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributing columnist

With the federal election expected to begin in the late summer or fall, Canada’s political parties are preparing to battle for as many of the country’s 338 ridings as they can — and prognosticators are warming up, too. Will the Liberals hold on to government? Will they retain their majority? Which issues are going to dominate the campaign?

For months, the Liberals and Conservatives have been in a fairly close one-two race — with the latter picking up steam. Most polls have the former in front. Commentators and pundits, me included, have been saying that the smart money is on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hanging on to government, perhaps with a reduced majority. He remains popular — or popular-ish, depending on which polls you read. The economy is doing well on aggregate. A start-up party led by disgruntled former Conservative member of Parliament (and former cabinet minister) Maxime Bernier is set to drain support from his old crew. And the New Democratic Party (NDP), with whom the Liberals compete for left and center-left votes, are currently weak.

But in politics, as in life, there are threats you know about and threats you don’t. And then there are wild cards. Enter the Green Party of Canada. Led by Elizabeth May — one of the hardest-working parliamentarians in the country, a deeply informed and fierce debater, and a long-term champion for doing what it takes to address climate change — the party, for years, has had one seat in the House of Commons. That tracks with the Greens’ success around the country — not much of it. Until recently.

In the 2017 British Columbia election, the local Green Party went from one seat to three in the provincial parliament, about doubling its popular support from 8 percent to nearly 17 percent. It ran the idealist campaign: saying no to money from unions and corporations, distancing itself from the old punch-counter-punch of the Liberals and the NDP, doubling down on a clean environment platform and the need for, you know, a habitable planet. In 2018, in Ontario, Mike Schreiner made history as the first Green elected to the legislature in that province. In New Brunswick, after a wacky election, the Greens are benefiting from growing public support, drawing from the Liberals. And in Prince Edward Island, some are suggesting the Greens could make history by winning the election and forming government — a year out from the race, they are effectively tied for first place. Recently in Maclean’s, Jason Markusoff profiled the party, asking, “Where in Canada will the Greens win next?”

The Greens are clearly a growing force.

Federally, in November, Green Party leader May was polling at 11 percent as preferred prime minister — tied with the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Now her party is hovering around 7 percent on the aggregate polling numbers. That’s good news for them and potentially bad news for Trudeau. As David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, put it on Twitter: “Many, including me, say a weak NDP helps the [Liberals] in 2019. But if the Greens pull 8-10% of the vote, that’s tough for the [Liberals].”

I think he’s right. He concludes, “I’m starting to think that @JustinTrudeau’s greater threat is @ElizabethMay, not @theJagmeetSingh.” Agreed, again, although I’d add that the combination of the two is a particularly serious challenge for Trudeau, especially if either — or both — parties perform well in some of the 34 ridings the Liberals carried by 5 percent or less in 2015 (out of 70 such nail-biter contests in total).

The Liberals may not be past their best-by date yet — Canadians typically grow tired of federal governments after a few rounds — but they’ve been in government long enough that running the smiling 2015 “Hope and hard work” campaign will be tricky. They’re no longer the scrappy underdog on a quest to unseat the embattled, mean Conservative prime minister. They’re now the ones who broke a promise on electoral reform. They’re the ones who have struggled to build a pipeline — they had to buy the project from the private sector for it to even have a chance — that opponents claim is inconsistent with the government’s environmental agenda. They’re the ones pushing a (morally right and necessary) carbon tax backstop against the will of several (morally wrong and intransigent) provinces. They’re also the target of routine, increasingly nasty attacks from the Conservatives. And now they’re facing a growing scandal over alleged involvement by the prime minister’s office in an attempt to protect the Montreal firm SNC-Lavalin from prosecution over its alleged business practices in Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

The Greens, on the other hand, are rising across the country. Modestly, sure. But notably. They don’t come with baggage. They can run the optimist, hopeful-crusader campaign underwritten by credibility as guardians of the sacred environmental trust — as the environment, day by day, is becoming a more salient issue for voters. Plus, May (as I said, a strong debater) is set to take part in the leaders’ debates in 2019 thanks to rule changes. She’ll be a force onstage. All of that is good news for the Greens and bad news for the other parties. It’s also good news for voters who want and deserve a range of credible options on the ballot.

Read more:

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Sandy Hudson: The nefarious political agenda behind Ontario’s war on university fees

David Moscrop: It’s an election year in Canada. Here’s what could bring down Trudeau.

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