A bolt of lightening from a clear blue sky could not have been more shocking than news that popular Green Party MP Jenica Atwin was crossing the floor to the Liberals on June 10.
It was one of the biggest national political stories of the year thus far.
Atwin was voted in narrowly in the 2019 federal election, beating Conservative candidate Andrea Johnson by 1,600 votes. The incumbent Liberal, Matt DeCourcey finished a very close third.
Her victory was a product of her own hard work, social connections (her father is mayor of Oromocto) and character. But it also owed a great deal to the coalition that came together to vote her in.
It is not clear if a similar coalition can be brought together again to keep her in office, but it is not impossible if she can inherit DeCourcey’s vote tally. However, many of the people who supported her as a Green will not support her as a Liberal. It would be surprising if not a few Liberals were equally dismayed.
Atwin’s defection came on the heels of criticism of her pro-Palestinian social media posts. The Palestinian occupation will have nearly no impact on the next federal election in Canada. But it is a Roarschach test of how to position Atwin, and she has positioned herself very poorly.
By jumping to the Liberals and then renouncing her view on the Israeli occupation of Palestine (“there are not two sides”), she has alienated those who would defend her against charges of anti-Semitism coming from the political right, where criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism has been unduly conflated.
But Atwin also now has powerful enemies in the Liberal Party, who have distanced themselves from her.
Atwin’s defection might seem like a storm in a Fredericton tea kettle, but it has a broader national context.
The main outcome of her meetings with Dominic LeBlanc at the Lincoln Big Stop may end up being the serious wound her departure inflicts on the federal Green Party, which has subsequently torn into its recently minted leader.
While the Green Party does not hold the balance of power in Parliament, they arguably cost the Trudeau Liberals a second majority government in 2019, as they drew a significant portion of their vote away from Liberals in marginal Conservative ridings.
Trudeau’s Liberals lost 27 seats and 900,000 votes in 2019 over his finish in 2015’s election. Half a million of those votes went to the Greens, and though they picked up only three seats, they deprived the Liberals of a dozen more.
With only a third of the vote, the Liberals actually polled lower than the Conservatives—whose voters stacked up high on the Prairies and in rural Ontario, but almost nowhere else. Weakening the Green vote helps the Liberals find regional fixes that lead to national majorities.
The Green Party did extremely well in Atlantic Canada in 2019, winning 12 per cent of the vote. That vote surge directly cost the Liberals two seats: Atwin’s Fredericton, and West Nova, which went Conservative. Throughout the region, they held on to several ridings (Miramichi; Cumberland-Colchester; Summerside) by the skin of their teeth, with strong Green Party challengers nearly allowing Conservatives to come up the middle.
The Greens also whittled away Liberal support in battleground ridings in Ontario, allowing Conservatives to come ahead in ridings they otherwise would have lost: Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte; Dufferin-Caledon; Parry Sound-Muskoka; Hastings-Lennox and Addington; Flamborough-Glanbrook; Niagara Falls; and Kenora.
Those seven seats are mostly in outlying areas, beyond the Greater Toronto Area housing boom, with sizeable rural populations who support conservative economic policies, which increasingly damage the environment.
In five other BC seats (Cloverdale-Langley; Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge; South Surrey-White Rock; Port Moody-Coquitlam; Steveston-Richmond East), the Conservatives won seats the Liberals would otherwise have taken with support of the Greens. These ridings are suburban/exurban communities of Greater Vancouver, and are historically competitive for the Conservatives and social and economic conservativism.
Several other seats across the country won by the Liberals were held by razor-thin margins, with the Greens bleeding votes away from the Trudeau Liberals.
Of course, this is largely due to the Prime Minister’s own policies: his support for pipelines first and foremost, but also his refusal to contemplate electoral reform legislation, a decision that dooms the country to an eventual return to power of the Conservative Party.
In March, the delegates to the Conservative Party convention refused to acknowledge climate change as a reality.
Crossing the floor to join the Liberals is cynical for many reasons. In addition to the party’s failure to act on Green Party priorities for which Atwin was elected, they also forced her to walk back her stance on the Israeli occupation. In the process, she has diminished the already shrinking space that Palestinian- and Muslim-Canadians have to draw attention to the suffering of occupied Palestinians.
The move is cynical also because for the Liberals, it had more to do with the national picture, and less to do with Fredericton. The federal Liberals saw an opportunity to weaken a rival, and took it.
In Fredericton-Oromocto and on the New Brunswick Greens the effects are no less relevant, however.
The Green movement in the province is a coalition of, on the one hand, disaffected NDP progressives who left the party during Dominic Cardy’s belligerent reign as its leader (before decamping to become the Conservative cabinet minister he always wanted to be), and on the other, rural conservationists with deep roots in the environmental movement in the province.
These two movements share some commonalities, but they are also different, especially on the urgency of addressing the effects of growing wealth and income inequality. In some respects, the split reflects currents of urban progressivism who vote NDP in other parts of Canada, and the rural conservationism of New Brunswick that has yet to be shaped into a consistent progressive political force able to restrain timber oligarchs and “free” markets (for billionaires), which do such damage to the environment.
David Coon, the Green provincial leader, has managed to bridge the two movements, in large part due to his years of challenging JD Irving’s forestry practices. In future, whether from the Left or from the Centre, winning seats at election time will require holding this coalition together.
Nationally, divisions within the Green Party reflect similar tensions: Annamie Paul succeeded Elizabeth May as leader as an alternative to the left-leaning eco-socialist wing of the party.
Annamie Paul’s inability or unwillingness to reign in her staff and publicly defend her MPs challenges the ability of the Green movement to hold that coalition together and limits the potential of the Greens to further grow their voter base in the next election.
The party that benefits from that is the party Jenica Atwin now represents. Atwin’s decision is a master-stroke for a Liberal Party doing what it always does so well: finding a way to win on the broader Canadian chess board. It certainly merits a cabinet post.
For those hoping for progressive alternatives to the Liberals, this makes the lightening bolt from a clear blue sky all the more disheartening.
Matthew Hayes is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.