The Greens aren’t in it to win it — and that means they can have the courage of their convictions

OPINION: Mike Schreiner knows the Green Party won’t be forming the next provincial government. That’s why it can run on a platform full of unlikely ideas, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 15, 2018
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner yesterday unveiled his party’s platform for the June 7 Ontario election. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

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Mike Schreiner isn’t going to be Ontario’s next premier. If that sounds mean, it’s not: the leader of the Green Party said as much himself Monday morning at Queen’s Park.

“We’re hoping to be an opposition party,” Schreiner told reporters as he unveiled his party’s platform for the 2018 election. “We’ve got to be honest with people about the role I think we can play in the legislature.”

He cited the case of British Columbia, where a small Green caucus has been instrumental in keeping the New Democrats in government, and of New Brunswick, where David Coon has held a seat for the Greens provincially since 2014.

But the frank acknowledgement that the Greens won’t form government comes with something parties more single-mindedly focused on winning elections don’t enjoy: the freedom to propose policies that none of what Schreiner calls “the status quo parties” is willing to consider.

The Green Party Platform includes a number of policies that go further than those of the three largest parties in the election:

  • Introducing road tolls on all 400-series highways leading into Toronto and a dollar-a-day tax on public parking spaces to cumulatively raise $3.4 billion for transit and cycling infrastructure;
  • Increasing payments for social assistance — Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Payments — to 100 per cent of the current low-income measure;
  • Moving Ontario to a 100 per cent renewable electricity system. (Not immediately, Schreiner acknowledged — Ontario isn’t going to quickly give up the nuclear reactors that provide more than half its electricity.)

Some of the other parties have milder versions of these policies in their plans — the Liberals have started a pilot program for high-occupancy toll lanes, and the New Democrats have proposed smaller increases to OW and ODSP — but nobody is going whole-hog on any of these ideas.

There’s a reason for that: these things are politically toxic in huge parts of the province.

Tolls are probably the most obvious example, because we’ve been down this road before: in 2017, Toronto city council got a taste of what happens when its desires come up against the Ontario government’s political need to avoid making enemies of 905 commuters. (Toronto’s explicitly stated desire to fund its own spending on the backs of those commuters didn’t help matters.) By definition, any government in Ontario is going to be made up largely, if not mostly, of MPPs representing the 905.

In another world, increased funding for Ontario’s basic social-assistance programs to keep recipients out of poverty might not be controversial, but in this one it is, and it’s by far the largest change in spending proposed in the Greens’ platform.

The nuclear question is perhaps the most interesting one. Over decades, governments of every stripe have found that the nuclear industry is nearly untouchable: it’s a significant employer in ridings around the GTA (and up in Bruce County) and provides thousands of unionized, well-paying jobs. Parties may tinker around the edges, but the reactors stay.

Meanwhile, the last decade of renewable energy policy has made wind turbines and solar panels politically contentious across large swaths of the province. Even the Liberals, who, once upon a time, proclaimed their support for renewable power, slammed the brakes on offshore wind projects when they threatened seats held by Liberal MPPs.

So if we woke up in an alternate reality in which the Greens had won the majority of seats, a government led by Mike Schreiner would face all the problems its predecessors have: the status quo is what it is for politically understandable reasons, and we’ve avoided dramatic changes for politically understandable reasons. That’s not a reason to stay with what we have, but for voters it’s at least comfortable, like the grooves in the sofa cushions — even if the sofa actually isn’t that comfortable.

The Greens would say that’s exactly the problem: the status quo is unsustainable (they’re obviously right on that), and things like road tolls are painful but necessary if we’re to put our way of life on a more secure footing.

Their critics — including the three parties who actually elected MPPs to the last legislature — would say that their pledges could never actually be implemented and that what looks like honesty is actually the irresponsibility that comes with never having to back up words with deeds.

Of course, all three of those same parties are guilty of their own magical thinking when it suits them, so anyone marking the box for the Greens can’t be blamed for choosing their particular brand of optimism.

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