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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Biking on the campaign trail, leader of Ontario's ecologists says it's not easy being green

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

There have been no complaints about the food being served up on Frank de Jong's campaign.In small part, that's because there have never been any members of the news media along to complain -- but in much larger part because there's no budget for food.

Nor has there even been a bus, Frank de Jong being an Ontario political leader who bikes to media events the media largely ignore.

Early yesterday, it was off to a solar-powered laundromat in the Toronto Beaches to say that the Green Party of Ontario will drop the provincial sales tax on any business improvement that involves the use of conservation technologies.

That out of the way, he would turn his mind to the launch of an elaborate e-mail blitz that is aimed at getting de Jong a podium position at the Sept. 23 leaders debate, an opportunity the fast-pedalling politician sees as critical to getting his message across to voters who don't actually listen much to anyone these days.

"We live in a massively apolitical society," says de Jong from his home in Toronto. "Only .5 per cent of Canadians are members of a political party or donate to a political party."

What the Green Party is up against, says de Jong, is "the Great Canadian Middle" -- that vast centre long occupied by the Conservatives and Liberals. With few exceptions, it has created a country where elections amount to the two "playing musical chairs every four years or so."

De Jong likes to say: "It doesn't matter whether you're left or right anymore, it only matters whether you're Green or grey" -- "grey" being the old-line parties that do nothing about such blights as urban sprawl and pollution -- but he is acutely aware that he leads a fringe party and the chances of electoral success are even thinner than the tread of his back tire.

"Maybe I shouldn't be saying this to you," he says, "but we are a very small, very weak party -- incredibly weak."

There are only 1,150 members of the provincial Green Party, and yet it has somehow managed to field candidates in all 103 ridings.

"That means about one out of every 10 of our members is also a candidate," says the 48-year-old elementary-school teacher. "But in the 1999 election, we had only 400 members and fielded 58 candidates -- that's one in eight. So we're improving. We want to get to where it's one in 100."

The Green Party platform can look inspired from one angle, naive from the next. Policies endorse sustainable energy as well as non-violence. The party believes in taking the cap off electricity costs to force consumers to wake up to the realities of meter watching. It argues that the current democratic process is so flawed that some form of proportional representation is the only way the system can ever be repaired.

A system that would also reward smaller parties for their electoral showings, however, would have done little for the Green Party in the last provincial election, as the 58 candidates polled less than 1 per cent of the popular vote.

But Frank de Jong is nothing if not optimistic. A year ago the Ontario Greens blipped onto the pollsters' radar screen when they reached 6 per cent in a survey, leading de Jong to predict it would be 12 per cent by Christmas and 20 per cent by election day -- something that is simply not going to happen.

Even so, the Ontario Greens take heart from the British Columbia Greens, who managed 12 per cent in the election and recently polled close to 20 per cent. Eventually, de Jong says, the Greens will win a seat.

De Jong himself is running in Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey, the riding of Progressive Conservative Leader Ernie Eves. And though de Jong has said in the past "Leadership is about having the courage to dream," he is under no illusions.

Victory, he argues, means different things to different people.

"There are many ways to win," the last page of the party's platform argues. "When we engage the public in new ideas and new debates, we win. After all, as history has shown time and time again, when the people lead, the leaders follow. When we nurture a new generation who will take up our challenges with passion, energy, talent, creativity and vision, we win."

It will take a long time, de Jong believes, and he is still near the beginning of his own journey into Canadian politics, a trek he has so far completed almost entirely on two wheels.

Soon, however, the leader must head out to carry the word to such distant destinations as Ottawa and Thunder Bay -- and at that point he will have much more in common with Eves, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and the NDP's Howard Hampton.

He will use a bus.

"This province," he says, "is a bit too big to do it all on a bicycle."



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