Ethan Cox is a Montreal-based writer and political organizer. He was formerly FTB’s news editor and the Quebec director of Brian Topp’s NDP leadership campaign. He is currently the Quebec correspondent covering the provincial election for Rabble.ca where this post originally appeared.
Earlier this week rabble was able to sit down with Claude Sabourin, the leader of the Parti Vert du Quebec. We met in a cozy coffee shop in the provincial riding of NDG, where Sabourin is running and where Quebec’s Greens are pinning their hopes of making a breakthrough and finally electing an MNA.
Although Sabourin is from the Laurentians, he moved into a place on Sherbrooke street in anticipation of the campaign, and will remain there if he wins.
Over an iced tea (which was served perhaps more literally than he ordered it, as a pot of steaming hot tea and a cup of ice cubes) we spent an hour discussing the upcoming election, and the place of the Green Party within it. Here are some of the highlights.
Ethan Cox: What are your expectations for this campaign? Do you think that the Green Party will be able to make a breakthrough and win a seat?
Claude Sabourin: Frankly, I know nationwide it will be hard to reach many voters. But here in NDG we were already at 16% in 2007, and we did a survey last December asking people in NDG whether they would vote for the Green Party if the leader ran here, and 22% said yes, which is quite good.
Really it depends how people react to meeting me. I’ll be starting my door to door this Thursday or Friday, hopefully we’ll start phoning people too. It also depends how the Liberal campaign is doing, that’s a big thing. But yes, we really hope to elect our first MNA. This time we really want to focus on NDG, which didn’t happen last time around. We’ve seen what Amir Khadir did on the provincial level, and what Elizabeth May did and they started all by themselves. Hopefully we’ll be able to do the same, and get our first MNA.
Cox: So what have you been doing up to now?
Sabourin: One thing that’s important for us is to have a full slate of candidates. We really have three aims for this campaign. To have a full slate, to have TV ads, which we did, and to get a candidate elected in NDG. Those are our three main objectives.
Cox: How close are you to a full slate?
Sabourin: This morning we had one hundred and two, so we’re getting there. This will be the first time we have had a full slate of candidates. In 2007 we had one hundred and six, and in 2008 we only had eighty six, so that’s why it’s an important goal for us.
Cox: There’s obviously been a lot of attention paid to the Green policy of free education, which you share with Quebec Solidaire and Option Nationale, but which is obviously not shared by the major parties, so I was wondering if you had attended many of the student demonstrations this spring and summer?
Sabourin: Yes, I did attend a few manifestations, probably not as many as if I had been living in Montreal at that time. But I did go to about four in Montreal, and about the same in my riding of Lachute, where I was running in the by-election, because there were casseroles taking place there.
Cox: Do you see the Greens as a vehicle for a protest vote for federalist progressives who are fed up with the Liberals? Is your main goal to take votes away from the Liberals?
Sabourin: Absolutely. I think there’s a big place for a progressive federalist party. Our position on sovereignty for example, is that there have been two referendums in the past, and Quebeckers said no already twice. So as a democrat, really, when you think about what it means, it’s listening to what people are telling you. That’s exactly what we are doing, listening to what Quebeckers already said, and they said no. I don’t see any party holding a referendum in the next five years, I don’t think voters are ready for it. I think that the big question of sovereignty is a thing of the past, I understand people who are working on that, but I don’t think it’s serious anymore.
Cox: It’s an interesting point. Much of the Liberal campaign is built on fear. Be afraid of students, be afraid of sovereigntists, you can vote for the mob or you can vote for law and order. So what do you think of that strategy of scaring people into voting Liberal?
Sabourin: This campaign already is quite heated. It’s mostly negative, it’s one or the other that will be the biggest, strongest Elliot Ness of them all and it’s quite negative. Frankly, if there’s one thing I’d like to do with this campaign, it’s being more optimistic, more positive. I think voters like positivity, and that’s what the Green Party is all about, a better life and a better environment.
Cox: To come back to the issue of the student protests, Quebec Solidaire like to describe themselves as a party of the streets and the ballot box. Do you see the Green Party as a solely electoral party, or as a social movement which also contests elections?
Sabourin: Not that much. There are many organizations working on green issues, Equiterre, Greenpeace, and others. I think we really need to think as a political party. I know many idealistic activists working on these issues, but there are not too many who know how to run a political party. There are a lot more idealistic people in our party than in QS for example, in QS there is much more of a political culture. It’s more of a professional party. There are many well-intentioned people in the Green Party, but they don’t always know how to do things. For instance, fundraising is always a challenge with the Greens. I’d like to develop the professional culture of this party, that’s mostly what I’ve been working on in the last two years as leader. We lost a lot of members over the last two elections, and we need local organizations to build from the bottom up. I really believe a political party needs to be built from the grassroots.
Cox: Speaking of professionalism, I have to ask, there have been issues with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes in press releases, and many have commented on the fact that the media contact on your press releases is your personal cell phone. I know some people who have been put off by what they perceive as a lack of professionalism. So is that a conscious choice, to try to be more accessible to the media? Or is it a matter of lacking the money or the volunteers to have someone answer your calls and schedule your time?
Sabourin Well, I think it’s probably a bit of both. One thing is for sure, we have a problem of visibility, I don’t think that’s news to anyone. I think if I make myself more available to media, that’s a good thing. Then again, to recruit someone as a press attache, as a volunteer, that’s pretty hard. Right now, we just don’t have the money to hire one.
Cox: What about signs? How many will you be putting up in NDG?
Sabourin: Around two hundred in total. We have sixty that are already up, and another hundred and fifty that are coming. We have a lot of volunteers here, and I think we’ll be able to run a good campaign, not as strong as the Liberal campaign, but still a good campaign.
Cox: Before I came today, I asked on twitter and Facebook if there were questions people wanted me to ask, and one that came up several times was why doesn’t the Green Party merge with QS? Or failing a merger, have some sort of cooperation agreement, as QS has with Option Nationale. Why isn’t there more co-operation, given how similar your platforms are?
Sabourin: We’ve been approached by some organizations to cooperate. The first reason is that QS is a sovereigntist party. I don’t think it would be a good message to send to people if we had an alliance with a sovereigntist party. In 2003 we had that sort of agreement with the UFP [predecesor to QS] and we got, well, there’s a word in English I know but I don’t want to use it. We didn’t agree on everything. It kind of turned out badly.
Cox: You said earlier you don’t think any party will hold a referendum in the next mandate, so given that fact, isn’t it more important to focus on the social question? Shouldn’t progressive parties be working together to achieve social goals like free education, instead of being divided by the national question?
Sabourin: You might be right. But when we talk to people, the sovereignty question pops up very rapidly. There are so many people who will not vote for a party that is sovereigntist, or that is federalist. I think it would send a very bad message for us to work with any kind of sovereigntist party.
Cox: So it’s really a question of people’s reactions? That if you were seen to be in any way cooperating with a sovereigntist party that would turn a lot of federalists off from the Green Party?
Sabourin: Yes, absolutely. Look at what Gilles Duceppe said about Amir Khadir and his support for the NDP. If Duceppe can say such a thing publicly and get away with it, I’m pretty sure a lot of people think that way too. Something like that couldn’t be done. It would send a very bad message and I don’t think the Greens should be going that way. If we did merge with QS, the very next day the Green Party of Canada would open a new Green Party here, because it’s part of a global movement.
Cox: Can you tell us what happened with Karo Baillargeon, the Green candidate in Outremont who was a leader of the green square movement [pro-tuition hikes] and was removed when that became public? How was she recruited as a candidate?
Sabourin: Well, it started because we have a recruiter who works a lot with Facebook, somehow they became friends, and he asked her if she’d be interested in running for the Greens. She said yes, we got in contact and we met a week ago. We discussed a bit about environment, she liked what I had to say, and she agreed to run. But indeed, she forgot to tell me who she was really, we didn’t discuss education at all. Obviously we should have researched her better, done a google search on her name, and we didn’t do that.
Someone found out, it was in the paper, and she refused to change her position. I explained we could discuss it in a convention, but not during a campaign, so we had to thank her for her effort, and let her go. hopefully later in life we’ll get along better on other subjects.
Cox: What would you say are the three platform priorities that you really want people to know about?
Sabourin: Obviously, environment is the big one. We need to go where people are expecting us, so that’s an easy one. The second one is education. In all Green parties across the world it’s the same thing, education, education, education. When you are well educated you can make good decisions. Health is also very important for us. Waiting lists are a problem, and it will get worse over the next forty years with changing demographics, so we need to make choices now to ensure good healthcare is available to all.
Cox: You mention things that would cost money: free education, improvements to healthcare. Where would you find money to pay for these things? Are you in favour of rolling back the tax cuts Charest has implemented for corporations and high income earners, as QS proposes, or do you have a different plan?
Sabourin: I think the Tobin Tax on financial transactions is a good start. Obviously all companies need to pay their fair share of taxes, you don’t have to be much of a left winger to see that companies have not been paying their fair share for years now.
Cox: So the Greens would like to increase corporate taxes?
Sabourin: Yes. That’s for sure. They need to be increased because the middle class are overcharged on their taxes and we need to help them right now. The best way to do that is to raise taxes on corporations.
Cox You said earlier you want to emphasize your position on education, that’s one of your three policy priorities in this campaign, but I notice you aren’t wearing a red square. Can you tell me why you decided not to wear one, given you support free education?
Sabourin: I think right now that continuing the strike serves the Liberals. Jean Lapierre said that a few days ago, that more protests and riots and those things, won’t serve the students, they’ll serve the Liberals. Because in Montreal it’s one thing, but elsewhere in Quebec the student strike is not seen exactly the same way. So when we see riots like that, it’s not serving their cause at all.
Cox: But the red square just signifies support for the student cause, so your concern is optics? If you were to wear the red square it would appear as if you were supporting the strike that you think would help the Liberals?
Sabourin: Yes, at this point in time yes.
Cox: Did you ever wear the red square? Were you wearing it earlier this year?
Sabourin: Yes. I just left the office without it, and I don’t wear it everyday.
Cox: But you still do wear it sometimes?
Sabourin: Yes. I will wear it around on my door to door, but not every day.
Cox: In this election, it’s a very crowded playing field. There are a lot of parties, a lot of undecided voters, when you go out and talk to people what’s your best argument to differentiate yourself from the other parties?
Sabourin: There are a lot of left parties on the ballot, so what makes us different is the world wide movement we represent. For instance, the Greens in France are also backing up the students fighting tuition hikes. What France is trying to do is get all the countries together to ensure that the multinationals and bankers aren’t controlling everything. With Green parties all across the world, we can work together on the same vision, of a world government, a world leadership which can implement laws to make sure corporations and bankers don’t dictate what people can do.
Cox: What do you think Charest should have done to resolve the situation this spring, when the strike first started?
Sabourin: Never undermine the other side. Mr. Charest made a big mistake by thinking the students would not be very solidaire, and put up a serious fight against his government. Obviously he took too long to deal with it, and he still hasn’t. He didn’t care, or at least he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t negotiate with the students himself, and he made the situation worse. There’s only one way to get an answer to a problem, it’s to sit down at a table and discuss it. If he could have sat down with students from the begining, and discussed it he could have resolved the situation. He never even tried, he never negotiated in good faith.
Cox: Now I assume the Greens are opposed to Bill 78?
Sabourin: [laughs] Oh yes! That’s a pretty easy one! I don’t understand anyone, any social group or party being for it. It makes no sense.