From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2008
Addenda to Swinging Canadian elections keeps the sealers swinging clubs: Animal Alliance of Canada pursues electoral strategy
Commentary by Merritt Clifton
Long before University of Texas at El Paso philosophy department chair Steven Best became a popular speaker at animal rights conferences, noted for fiery defenses of "direct action" vandalism, film maker Stephen Best of Shelburne, Ontario became quietly known to animal advocacy insiders--and the political opposition--as one of the most astute strategists in the cause. When defenders of the seal hunt produced strategy papers, obtained eventually by news media, Best was repeatedly identified as one of the voices most essential to isolate and neutralize, even though few grassroots activists had ever heard his name. Grassroots activists knew his work. Best's 1973 documentary Seal Song, commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, "became part of the long-running British television series Survival," he remembers. More than that, Seal Song put the annual Atlantic Canada seal hunt into living rooms worldwide. Eighteen years earlier, film maker Harry Lillie brought back the first film of the seal hunt, inspiring an informed few to revive anti-sealing campaigns that had previously been waged in the early 1900s, late 1920s, and late 1930s, but it was Seal Song that turned the cause into a cultural phenomenon. Best produced wildlife documentaries through 1980, then accepted a full-time job with IFAW. From 1980 to 1984, Best "developed and managed various political, election, and public relation campaigns in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Belgium," he recalls. These campaigns won a ban on the import of baby harp and hooded seal products into the European Community. "The ban reduced the number of seals killed in Canada's commercial seal hunt from almost 200,000 per year to about 20,000," Best recounts. Best in 1985 helped other ex-IFAW staff to found the Inter-national Wildlife Coalition, but left IWC in 1998, after "finally admitting that the environmental movement was making no net progress," he says. "Despite 5,000% growth in monies and membership between 1970 and 1998," Best adds, "the international environmental protection community achieved a further 40% degradation in our environment." Best returned to screen production, while contemplating new approaches to ending the seal hunt.
The hunt, nearly history a decade earlier, had been revived in 1995 with higher quotas than ever before. Having heard nothing from Best in 10 years, and having been unsuccessful in an attempt to find him, I had no idea what Best had been doing since 1998 when I wrote my May 2008 ANIMAL PEOPLE commentary "Swinging Canadian elections keeps the sealers swinging clubs." I learned a month later that Best and Animal Alliance of Canada executive director Liz White had co-authored a similar essay in November 2002. Though distributed to mass media and posted to the Animal Alliance web site, it did not reach ANIMAL PEOPLE, and received much less attention than it deserved. "Despite decades of intensive, well-funded anti-seal hunt protesting," Best and White wrote, "the seal hunt is larger now than 30 years ago...more cruel, and is managed with less regard for science, conservation, and the survival of harp and hooded seals. What this dismal record of failure proves is that all the strategies and tactics used in Canada in the past to end the seal hunt don't work. "The only reason the anti- seal hunt community was able to secure the European seal import ban [in 1983] was electoral politics," Best and White observed. "For individual politicians in Europe, defending Canada and its seal hunt became an electoral liability." Almost a year later, in September 2003, Best produced a document entitled End the Seal Hunt Strategy Framework, also posted to the web, yet largely overlooked by anti-seal hunt campaigners. "The seal hunt will end--or be dramatically reduced--when two conditions are met in Canada: the political cost of the seal hunt to federal politicians and political parties exceeds its political benefit, and there is a plausibly justifiable reason for reducing the hunt, other than appearing to succumb to the pressures created by advocacy," Best wrote. "Politically," Best determined, "the Canadian seal hunt has a value of seven to a dozen federal seats in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. In the current Canadian political environment a pro-seal hunt policy is necessary for a politician or a political party to get elected in these districts. An anti-seal hunt policy would insure defeat. In the rest of Canada, the seal hunt is electorally irrelevant: seal hunt policy does not influence enough votes to matter. [Therefore] It is obvious to every politician and to all the federal parties that a pro seal hunt policy is good politics. "The political benefits of a pro seal hunt policy can be eliminated and turned into unacceptable political costs by direct involvement oin elections," Best projected. "Electoral involvement means conducting election campaigns in electoral districts that the voting history and polling suggest will likely be decided by 5% of the voters or less. The campaigns should have the objective of shifting votes from one candidate to another, i.e. influencing who wins or who loses. It is this kind of political activity that is of concern to politicians. "The federal government and all political parties have strong pro seal hunt policies," Best emphasized, "not because they believe sealing is intrinsically important, but rather because they are cognizant and wary of the political power wielded by the fishing community and, to a lesser extent, the sealing community...Power resides in the pro seal hunt advocates, not the seal hunt issue." Best was already mobilizing.
"In 1998," White told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "Animal Alliance founded Environment Voters, our political arm. The intent was that Environment Voters would reward politicians who had a supportive environmental and animal protection record and punish those who did not. Best was instrumental in helping us set up Environment Voters, assisting with strategic decisions and campaigning in a number of key elections. "We were involved in provincial elections and by-elections, federal elections and by-elections, and municipal elections," White continued. "In 2000, amendments to the Canada Elections Act were introduced that would eliminate any meaningful involvement of third parties in electoral politics at the federal level. The National Citizens Coalition through Stephen Harper," now the pro-sealing prime minister of Canada, "challenged this change right up to the Supreme Court of Canada. Although Harper won in all the lower courts, he lost in the Supreme Court. So, third parties can only spend just over $3,000 per riding [electoral district] and $120,000 to pay for general electoral information but not specific riding information. "Through Environment Voters," White said, "we demonstrated that we could shift 4% to 5% of the vote in any given riding. In ridings that were won or lost by less than 4% to 5%, a campaign to shift the votes could affect the outcome. The cost ranged from $15,000 to $20,000 in tight races and more in ridings that were not so closely contested. The effect of the amendments to the Canada Elections Act was to remove any possibility of influencing votes in the swing ridings. "Around the same time that the Supreme Court set strict limits on third party spending," White added, "the Court removed the barriers to forming a political party. The only way to be involved in an effective way now at the federal level in Canada is to become a political party. In December 2005, we achieved party status. We are now the Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada. We are in the process of building the party so that we can influence the electoral process around the seal hunt and other issues." The Animal Alliance supports the boycott of Canadian seafood called by the Humane Society of the U.S., "and we support the initiatives in the European Union to get a European ban on seal products," White added. But their bottom-line strategy now is swinging votes.