Tough but fair

Dogwood Initiative runs a non-partisan election model. Campaign Director Eric Swanson answers some common questions about how it all works and in particular, about the May B.C. election.

Are you talking about more than oil tankers this election?

Nope. We think the issue is big enough and important enough to get our undivided attention. Are there many, many other important issues for voters to consider? Yes, but we’ll concentrate on providing accurate, non-partisan No Tankers information.

What kind of information?

We’re going to let voters know where their candidates stand in relation to stopping the expansion of oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast. Right now, the two most prominent proposals are Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, so we’re letting voters know where their candidates stand on those two projects specifically.

What counts as a stance?

That’s a really important question. Should we just parrot whatever line the parties are giving? Should we tell voters  the B.C. Liberals have announced ‘five minimum conditions upon which to base further consideration of heavy oil proposals’ and explain the conditions? There’s a lot of complex information out there on this topic and we think our role should be to cut through as much of the rhetoric as possible and pare things down to the basic factual distinctions. What do most people really want to know? We think they want to know who is firmly standing up to these oil tanker plans and who is not. We put that on our election leaflet.

But isn’t that an oversimplification?

At the end of the day, the fate of these oil tanker plans has always come down to a straightforward political decision about whether they are worth the inescapable, potentially devastating risk to our communities, economy and environment. We’re not going to advertise all of the different ways the parties say they’ll come to a decision, or the mechanistic nature of the decision (Environmental Assessment certificate vs. other permits vs. electricity provision vs. new legislation or pure politics). We’re just interested in whether they’ve made a decision yet.

Yes, but don’t you have to cut them some slack for needing to get all the information before making a decision?

It sounds totally reasonable doesn’t it? That a party can’t decide on something like this before they see a technical application or go through a thorough review? The fact is the parties have more than enough information to make a transparent, defensible decision to either entertain these proposals or not. Governments often make early screening decisions before technical reviews. For example, previous B.C. governments have made categorical screening decisions against nuclear power, uranium mining and coastal drilling.

Prior to NDP leader Adrian Dix’s announcement that he is against turning the Vancouver region into an oil tanker export port, your election materials clearly showed the Green Party as the best. Weren’t you basically just pushing people to the Greens?

That’s where the minds of some partisans tend to go, but this view inaccurately assigns us a motive we don’t have. Remember, we’re non-partisans. Our loyalty is to the struggle, not to parties or candidates. If a candidate or party wants the benefit of our conversations with voters then they should get to work securing the best position and record protecting our coast from oil tanker plans. When the NDP strengthened their position, this was immediately reflected in our election materials.

Did our previous materials give people a reason to vote Green? Yes, but that was simply the natural consequence of them having the best position. This effect gave the NDP another concrete reason to strengthen their position, and that is the intended effect of our non-partisan approach. We can’t build power over the long term if we hold back on our efforts in an attempt to appease one party or another.

But it sounds like you were initially splitting the vote.

We don’t split votes, party positions on important issues do. If voters are worried about vote-splitting amongst people who they see as sharing their values, then they have a choice. They can attempt to vote “strategically” or they can vote on principle. We leave that up to them. Both serve a purpose, both send a message. It’s up to political parties to negotiate cooperation agreements in the lead-up to an election if they want to combine their forces, as it were. That’s not up to us.

Have you considered formally endorsing candidates who have the best factual position?

Yes, we’ve considered it. There are ways to endorse without being partisan (e.g. Conservation Voters of B.C. does this) and endorsements are clearer when you’re trying to distill positions and performance on many issues at once. However, we choose not to formally endorse for two main reasons: 1. It decreases our credibility in our conversations with voters. If it appears like we’re just picking sides then the factual distinctions we are trying to communicate have less effect. 2. We don’t have to. We can quickly communicate the pure factual distinction on our single issue.

Ok, but what about the nuanced character of the candidates? I mean, on this issue you’ve still got your friends and you’ve got your enemies, right?

Well, we’ve got candidates who we think will be more helpful and some who we think will be less helpful, but part of being non-partisan during elections is not seeing things in terms of friends and enemies, and simply seeing candidates. We evaluate candidates first on their current public positions and then, when two candidates have the same public position, on any concrete action they have taken to stop the expansion of oil tanker traffic on our coast.

What does that method actually look like?

For example, in the previous federal election we were working in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. At that time, our campaign was focused on getting a ban on oil tankers through B.C.’s north coast (we weren’t yet campaigning against Kinder Morgan). On the north coast issue, the federal Liberal, NDP and the Green candidates all supported a ban on oil tankers through that area. They were tied when it came to their public positions. However, the NDP candidate Randall Garrison was the only one of the three who had ever taken concrete action on the issue (as an Esquimalt counicllor he sponsored and helped pass the first local government motion in B.C. against expanded oil tanker traffic). So at the door and on the phone, we told people that Randall was factually the strongest candidate.

During the same election, in the riding of Vancouver-Quadra, where there was also a positional tie, we told people Liberal candidate Joyce Murray was the strongest candidate because she was the only one who had taken concrete action by sponsoring private members’ bills to ban north coast oil tankers.

In this year’s provincial election, it wasn’t until recently that a basic positional tie emerged between the NDP and Green party (on Enbridge and Kinder Morgan) and we don’t have the capacity to now do thorough research on concrete records across the province, so we’re sticking to communicating the positional tie.

What if a candidate’s party is muzzling their true stance?

If we were betting, we’d put good money on the fact many candidates don’t think any plans to bring more oil tankers to our coast are worth the risk. We know that at times some of
them have basically contorted themselves to ‘wink-wink’ hint at their true feelings. But they won’t come right out and say it clearly and strongly because that act would contradict the party line and risk long-term exile to the back bench far from party power.

We understand! However, we can’t show up at voters’ doors with speculation. Imagine if we interpreted a candidate’s ‘wink-wink’ as a strong current position, told voters to trust our instincts and then the candidate got elected and did the opposite. The joke would be on us and we’d have compromised our integrity and credibility.

In situations like this, the candidate has made their choice first to run as a member of a political party and then to toe the party line. So they’ve got to wear it. The only positions we’ll pass on to voters are public positions.

So you’re saying a candidate could choose to take a stronger public position than their party and get points for that?

Yes. If a candidate comes out with a clear public position that differs from their party we’ll change our materials and conversations to represent that.

Do you say anything else to voters at the door and on the phone?

We ask them if they’d like to sign our No Tankers petition and then we ask them if the election was held today, who they would vote for.

What do you do with that information?

People who sign our petition are kept up to date on the campaign and on opportunities to do more to help. For people who say they are intending to vote for a candidate with a No Tankers position (these include all candidates opposing Enbridge, Kinder Morgan or both), we’ll follow up with them during our ‘Get Out The Vote’ effort. Once people have made up their minds about who to vote for, we view the persuasive phase of our work over. After that, we’re interested in increasing turnout as much as possible in ways that don’t work against our cause, because higher voter turnout brings a healthier democracy.

So you’ll help get out the Green and NDP vote, but not the Liberal or Conservative vote?

That’s generally right. Both the Green Party and NDP are opposed to proposals by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan to bring more oil tankers to our coast as have some independent candidates and one BC Conservative.  The BC Liberals haven’t clearly stood up against either major project and the BC Conservative party position is in support of more oil tankers on our coast. For the sake of our democracy, we hope turnout is high across the board and we’re not going to actively work against our cause by getting out the Liberal or Conservative vote (outside of Skeena). We haven’t yet determined where to focus our Get Out The Vote efforts, but where we have sufficient volunteers it will be done in a non-partisan manner.

Which ridings are Dogwood Initiative focusing on this election?

We’ve gone back and forth over this question quite a bit actually. Generally, you want to focus on the tight races where there’s a strong candidate on your issue (or a particularly problematic candidate) – someone who stands a chance of winning, because this is where your issue can have the most impact both at a riding-level but also on the overall result. And hopefully some of these places are near your HQ or other places of existing strength.

This election is different for Dogwood though. First, we’re experimenting with an organizing model that could allow No Tankers volunteer teams to be active in all 85 ridings at once. At this scale our efficacy is almost wholly dependent on the number, skill and effort of our volunteers.

Secondly, if polls are to be believed, a single party is set to win a decisive victory. If that’s the case, individual riding results are less important than establishing an overall mandate for strong action on the issue. Mandate is a vague and slippery concept, but one calculation you could make if you want a strong mandate is to shoot for breadth of effect versus depth in any one place.

Overall for the May 2013 B.C. election, we’re focusing in ridings where strong volunteer teams emerge and saving some discretionary resources to supplement especially strong teams and especially tight races or strategic places. We started off with a bit more of a concrete short list, but we’ve pulled back from that to empower our volunteers.

Sounds like there’s still some mystery there.

Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing! We have volunteer teams signed up across the province. Our most active teams are currently in Burnaby North, North Vancouver-Lonsdale, Oak Bay-Gordon Head, Comox Valley, Vancouver-Hastings, Cowichan Valley, Nanaimo-North Cowichan, and Victoria-Beacon Hill.

The goal is wherever we have someone willing to go door-knocking or willing to make calls, to give them what they need and hook them up with others in their area.

I’ve heard that groups are being muzzled this election? How are you able to speak out?

B.C.’s Elections Act, while somewhat vague for third party advertisers like Dogwood Initiative, provides plenty of room to get the facts out there about where candidates stand on important issues. We’ve registered with Elections BC as an ‘election advertising sponsor.’ Furthermore, Dogwood Initiative is not a charitable organization, so we are not subject to federal rules limiting political activities to 10% of our overall work.

How are you paying for your election efforts?

We are raising all of the money for our election work from individual donations, most of which are from British Columbia. So far, we have raised about $21,000 of our $30,000 goal.

How would you sum up your approach to politics and elections?

We’ve adopted this non-partisan model so that we can be tough but fair.

 

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