Green Party "Year in Review", 2009: The "Lost Year"
In the spirit of the season, this is going to be one of those "looking back at the events that shaped our world in the past year" blogposts. Although I’m hoping to make this a little special for Green Party folks by focussing primarily on our own Party. It’s been an interesting, and somewhat disappointing year for our Party. Some have been referring to it as the "lost year". Certainly, after the highs we experienced during the Fall 2008 election campaign, expectations of continued growth on the national scene were not realized, and the Party appears to have taken steps backward. Whether we will be able to re-gain lost ground during the next Federal election remains a big question in the minds of many Green supporters and sympathizers. Some recent positive outcomes, though, have certainly been achieved by our Leader at the tail end of 2009, which bodes well for 2010.
Here’s my own personal list of the highs and lows we experienced during the past 12 months. Certainly, many will disagree with some of my observations, and I suspect that more than a few will be very critical of my analysis of the past year. That’s fine by me, of course. I’m just calling things as I see them. So go ahead and be critical. I just ask that you support your critiques with facts, rather than conjecture or simple contrary statements. By trying to capture a lot of the highs and lows our Party experienced this past year, my own commentary on any particular item is somewhat brief. Rest assured, I could go on. But rest assured, I won’t right now.
February Biennial Convention
The rescheduled 2-year convention was finally held this past February in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and a good time was apparently enjoyed by all in attendance. Keynote speakers offered up some compelling messaging for the consumption of the hard-core Party members in attendance. Indeed, the convention may have been the high-note of the Party’s successes experienced last year, although media coverage of this event was somewhat tepid; indeed, a Liberal Party event held in Halifax during the same weekend gathered far more media coverage, as did the NDP’s and Liberals own Party conventions held later in 2009.
One of the great failings of the convention, though, certainly had to do with the Party continuing to ignore the very important issue of establishing a proxy voting system which would actually create a real delegate-based convention system. Right now, General Meetings of the Party are carried out by those Members who have the resources to attend. By holding meetings in out-of-the-way locations, many members who otherwise might have an interest in attending have few opportunities to have their voices heard and no way to express their views. A real proxy voting system would at least provide non-attending members with an opportunity to take part in the decision-making process. The Party seriously needs to consider implementing this change in the very near future, in order to avoid results which some might consider to be tainted by the regional and economic make-up of Members in attendance. Our Constitution contemplates this voting system, yet we have continued to fail to act on its implementation to our own democratic detriment.
Another, more personal criticism of the General Meeting was the almost complete failure of the live webcast. I was one of those Members who couldn’t afford to take time off from work to travel to Nova Scotia to attend the General Meeting, but when I heard that a webcast of plenary events (including keynote addresses) was being offered through the Party’s website, I made a point of planning to park myself in front of the computer that weekend. Technical issues, however, prevented the broadcast of most of the General Meeting, and I gave up in frustration after several hours of trying to reload the page to acquire a signal. In the year 2009, surely we could have done better than this.
In March of 2009, the Party opened up its candidate nomination process, with the desired outcome to have nominated candidates in all Electoral Districts with Associations in place by the middle of June. A comprehensive set of rules was provided by the Party for EDA’s to follow. The outcome of this process was, to put it mildly, extremely embarrassing, as EDA’s across the nation failed to deliver nominated candidates for whatever reason. By the mid-June deadline, only a small fraction of EDA’s had nominated candidates. At the end of December, 2009, we still only have nominated candidates in 173 electoral districts (according to Pundit’s Guide).
While we’re second-best to the Conservatives in terms of nominated candidates, simply put, the drive to get candidates nominated over the course of 2009 has been an abject failure, particularly given the Party’s massive pre-occupation with an election call which we were almost certain occur this past fall. I also firmly believed that we would be in the midst of an election after Ignatieff decided it was time to pull the trigger. It was only Jack Layton’s 180 degree about-face on his own Party’s entrenched positions on non-co-operation with the Cons which avoided an election (which came as a surprise to me, because I figured that Layton must have at least something he believed in and wasn’t willing to bargain away in the name of playing politics...guess I was wrong).
Aside from being far from prepared to fight an election, not having nominated candidates on the ground leaves us with the inability to begin forming local election teams and gaining positive media coverage between elections. Candidates are the faces and names of our Party on the ground locally. They are the go-to people for media interviews on issues important to the electorate. We should be doing all that we can to promote these people between elections. Where there are no nominated candidates in place, the Party in general is disadvantaged. This is one are we need to get our act together on in the early new year.
The Green Party’s worst-kept secret created barely a ripple in the national media when it was finally revealed in early September that Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would ben seeking the Party’s nomination in the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI). Speculation had been running rampant amongst the Green blogosphere for months prior to the announcement, and those who made an effort to piece together bits of information were aptly able to predict that E. May would be heading west long before the announcement was made. The announcement itself was greeted largely with a yawn by the national media, after a summer of absence on the national stage by our Leader and Party.
Many Greens embraced the notion that our Party had decided not to have our Leader run again in the Central Nova riding which was perceived to be unwinnable. Internal polling suggested that if we were to have any chance of electing a Green to parliament, the best place to do so would be in SGI, described as being one of Canada’s most environmentally friendly ridings. An added advantage here would be having Elizabeth May face off against less-than-stellar Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn, and potentially against nobody Liberal and NDP contenders as well.
Of course, the Green blogosphere was in a-twitter over this decision, speculating that Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound or Guelph might have been better choices (Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley was also mentioned. A recent by-election there, however, had Greens barely showing). Some of the speculation regarding the choice of SGI had to do with the desire on the part of Elizabeth and the Party to go up against an incumbent Conservative rather than the Liberals who occupied Central Ontario Ridings. Indeed, the Green Party didn’t have its best showing in 2008 in SGI, with a number of prominent local Greens from the area having defected to the Liberal campaign of Renee Heatherington.
Elizabeth May’s move to SGI might yet prove to be the boldest political decision in our Party’s history if we can get her elected as MP there. I believe that SGI was likely the best riding for her to choose. The choice to move to SGI itself showed bold Leadership, as May had previously said that she was intent on running where she lived. Under pressure from the Party, though, to find someplace where a better result would be more likely, May picked up her life and shifted across the nation. I understand that she’s even bought a house in SGI, which she has now made her home.
This grassroots champion had the moxy and/or audacity to challenge Elizabeth May as a nomination candidate in SGI, citing in part his concern that May would be a parachute candidate from outside the local bioregion. Whether you agreed with Hertzog or not, or whether you agreed with his desire to run against the Party Leader, kudos to our Party for taking the moral high road in this case: permitting the challenge to occur. Our Constitution does not exempt our Leader from having to go through a nomination process, and in September, May faced off against Hertzog and won the nomination.
Now, many in the Green blogosphere provided nasty comments about Hertzog, including personal attacks. This was well below what I would expect to hear from Greens regarding another Green engaged in a legal nomination process. Concerns were raised about how all of this would look to the wider public - politically speaking - and often forgotten was the fact that if the public was even paying attention (and they weren’t), what they really might have taken out of Hertzog’s challenge was that the Green Party at least appears to play politics differently than do the other Parties. After all, who could ever imagine someone challenging the Leader for a riding’s nomination?
I say that the Green Party "appears" to play politics differently because this whole episode was certainly not without controversy. Hertzog’s filing of an official complaint with Elections Canada over unfair practices and undeclared transfer payments was really just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly remember seeing the big banner at the top of the Party’s website urging Greens to get behind Elizabeth May in SGI before the nomination vote. Additionally, an email went out to Members from the Party with the same messaging. It did not appear that the Party had offered the same resources to Hertzog, seemingly in contravention of nomination contest rules.
Elizabeth May’s nomination to be our candidate in SGI was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the year. But it’s unfortunate that the process has left question marks hanging over our Party, especially when there was absolutely no need for them. Although Hertzog is undoubtedly a capable Green crusader, the "threat" he posed to E. May’s success was never a tangible one.
Federal Council Elections
This was the first time that I participated in an email (or mail-in) election process, and I have to say that I was impressed with the ease of being able to cast a ballot for Federal Council. Congratulations to all who stepped forward for these important, but largely thankless, positions, and congrats especially to those elected to lead our Party.
Although the internet voting process itself was a success, I have to wonder how many votes were actually cast? If voter turn out was less than desirable, certainly that’s more of a reflection on the Membership here than the Party, as there was ample opportunities made for ballot-casters.
Campaigning for positions, though, remained an issue, as only limited resources can be brought to bear for those running for positions. The inability of the Party to provide a complete list of Members was problematic for all would-be Federal Councillors. Perhaps this is something which should be addressed at the next General Meeting.
But even this relatively straight-forward election process couldn’t escape the taint of controversy. Prior to the election, the blogosphere was alive with recommendations for Federal Councillors being made by Green bloggers; essentially, readers were encouraged to vote for certain nominees who best represented the direction the blogger thought that the Party should take in the future. This kind of endorsement is part and parcel of the democratic process, and blogging of this sort should be encouraged.
Some existing Councillors, however, and would-be councillors refused to take part in endorsements, which was their choice (although frankly I don’t see any harm in Councillors pointing out to voters who they would rather work with...others might disagree with my position. I also acknowledge that the "high road" here is probably the safest one to take). Our Leader herself indicated that she would not be endorsing particular nominees in a blogpost to the Party website...and then proceeded to list a number of nominees who she felt were making positive contributions to the Party. I believe that this post was later removed.
What was unacceptable, however, was having paid staff provide their list of endorsements for Council positions. Why? Surely our staff are some of the most committed Greens we have in this Party (which they certainly are). Shouldn’t they be able to offer up opinions on who would best lead our Party? If the staff were all volunteers, I might be inclined to agree, but they’re not. Staff contracts are handled by Federal Council. So we found ourselves with a situation on our hands where some of our paid staff were advocating for electing some of their own paymasters. Conflict of Interest maybe? Well, maybe. We didn’t have any clear rules on this at the time (we do now), but most would agree that this sort of advocacy was inappropriate. It shouldn’t have happened, and it made our Party look foolish to anyone paying attention. Luckily for us, I guess, hardly anyone was paying attention.
Back in June, our Campaign Committee released an election strategy document which would form the blueprint of how the next election would be fought. It contained a lot of really excellent strategic directions, including the provision of certain templates for candidate teams (signs, literature, etc.), along with campaign training (through Adriane Carr and through "Campaign Universities" to be held in the Fall of 2009).
One of the more controversial aspects of the strategy, though, is that the focus in the next election will be on electing our Leader as the number one priority. At first blush, this sounds sensible: we know that Elizabeth May needs to be in Parliament for many reasons, not least of which is because our Party really needs to start experiencing electoral success. However, since the release of the Campaign Strategy, some (and I include myself here) have been noting what appears to be a lack of follow-through on the part of the Party with regards to some of the commitments made. Sure, I realize that the Campaign Universities were cancelled in anticipation of a Fall election, but what about many of the other resources? What about providing updates to EDA CEO’s or campaign managers on where we stand with regards to election readiness?
Others have criticized the Strategy more generally, and with good points as well. Why are we, as a Party, committed to putting just about all of our eggs into the SGI basket? What about the other 307 ridings across Canada? Yes, the Strategy does identify resource transfers to other potential "winnable" ridings, but what about the rest of us? If we’re going to progress as a Party, we need to increase our vote totals everywhere. We can’t ignore the also-rans, because today’s also-rans should be the ridings we turn to tomorrow for electoral success. But to do that, we need to be build from where we’ve left off. The criticism here has been that it seems that very little building has actually been occurring. And there are lots of examples of how we’re not currently in building mode in most of the country (starting with the missing candidates!).
For me, more than anything else, this focus on Elizabeth May at the expense of all others has been the biggest contributor to making 2009 the "Lost Year" for our Party. Particularly since it wasn’t announced until September that May had chosen a riding to run in. While we could have been talking SGI up throughout the summer, instead we played a waiting game, hoping to generate media interest when the announcement was finally made, at a time which was hoped to be just before an election call. In the end, the strategy generated very little in the way of "splash" for our Party, and instead we find ourselves sinking in water which is rapidly rising over our heads.
Thank goodness (in a way) that Layton turned yellow back in September, and decided to support Stephen Harper, because the truth is we were not prepared to find ourselves in the midst of an election back in September. Heck, one of the big stories of this past year has been the fact that we continue to find ourselves in a deficit situation from the 2008 election: we still owe money.
You may not have been aware of this. Really, though, there’s no need to panic. We’re on our way to paying back that debt. A fulsome effort to increase contributions to our Party has been underway for some time now. You may have been receiving the emails and phone calls requesting your donations. I certainly have been; once every few weeks it seems. I think, in a way, it’s great that we’re reaching out to our Membership, requesting that they help with the Party’s finances. We’re all in this together after all. And, as a part of that process, Members are being reminded in advance that it’s time for renewal. This is pretty good, and whoever came up with this strategy should get a big gold star.
But, for what I hope is a minority of Party members, all of the solicitations for funds has been very off-putting. Here in Sudbury, we’ve lost more than one member who was disgusted at the constant requests for money coming from the Party (not the EDA; we’ve got the reverse problem: we’re far too timid to ask anyone for money for goodness sakes!). They joined the Green Party thinking that we were different. All they started to see from the Party was the Party holding its hand out.
Finding the right balance when it comes to asking for money is always difficult. I, for one, believe that we’re moving in a better direction here, given that we are a political Party after all. For members who don’t like receiving the emails requesting contributions, there’s a list which they can add themselves to so as to stop the solicitations. Yes, I’m concerned that our debt remains from 2008 (particularly because paying it down needs to be our primary focus still, even though we should be gearing up to fight another election). I’m encouraged, though, to hear that it will be paid off soon.
Loss of Greens
Constant requests for money from the central Party were not the only reasons cited by Greens for abandoning their memberships this past year. One of the problems which the Green Party has always had is that we don’t seem to have many "prominent" figures in our Party. They’re there, if you look hard enough, but chances are that the majority of our Members wouldn’t know whose these people are. This past year, we lost a few really important Greens, for whatever reason. This loss of historical knowledge of our Party, as well as constant contributors to the success of our Party, has been damaging. Sure, all Parties go through times like these, and eventually new blood replaces old, or the old sometimes comes back to the fold. Nevertheless, as an organization, the loss of many of the wizened old Greens has been an issue in 2009.
Sure, some left to pursue other initiatives. But others found themselves turned off of the way we do politics in this Party. For me, that’s a really big issue, left over in part from the 2008 election. Many of us were left hurting when it was reported in the mainstream media that our Leader was telling voters to vote for non-Green candidates in order to avoid a Harper majority. Others were turned off as a result of the political game-playing which led to Elizabeth May’s candidacy in SGI, or the taking over of local candidate nomination processes by the Central Party. What many have been describing as the "centralization" of the Party has been quite off-putting for some Greens, who have always extolled the grassroots nature of our Party.
While it could be argued that the Party has been forced to step into playing a more prominent role in just about everything we do because local EDA’s still are not the healthy vehicles for on-the-ground organization which they should be, that argument is disingenuous. The fact is that the Party hasn’t made much of an effort to get the EDA’s running at a level where they can make a difference. Once-healthy EDA’s have declined due to a lack of interest in the Party or a lack of respect for the Party. This is a terrible situation, particularly as it arises at just the same time that our Party should be assuming a prominent role on the national stage.
What gives? I have to say that we have a number of committed individuals in this Party who are putting a lot of effort into making us as successful as we can be. However, their definition of "success" is predicated on the notion that our primary purpose must be the election of Elizabeth May in the next election. Simply put, I believe that the majority of those in charge of the Party have invested heavily in this strategy, and there really is no turning back now. The rest of us will have to wait, and/or make a go of it on our own with whatever we can muster. Only a few EDA’s are ready to do so. For others, it’s a constant struggle to hold on to what we had in 2008, much less prepare for our future.
Those who have taken us down this road will either be vindicated or proven completely wrong after the results of the next election. If Elizabeth May becomes and MP, even at the cost of declining Green vote totals elsewhere, you can chalk that up as win. If she doesn’t, though, where will our Party be left?
Loss of Momentum
Which brings us to the fact that our Party has been losing momentum throughout 2009. Not only have many Greens left the Party, the media has largely abandoned the Party as well. Recently, even Green-friendly pundit Chantal Hebert has been questioning just what happened to Elizabeth May and the Green Party. Surely, 2009 should have been the time which we seized upon the brass ring. With interest in the other mainstream Parties on the wane, we Greens should have offered a viable alternative for the public to put its trust in. We did not. In fact, we dropped the ball quite seriously here.
In the lead-up to a Fall election in 2009 (which thankfully did not happen), and in the lead-up to Copenhagen, our Party should have been front and centre. We were not. Instead, we pursued a low-key strategy of promoting our Leader on the local stage of SGI; a strategy which could still pay off for her...but one which has clearly damaged the rest of us. The Green Party should not have disappeared from the national radar in 2009, but we did. I realize that others won’t acknowledge this fact, but fact it is. 2008 may have proved to be the watershed year for our Party. If an election were held today, it is very doubtful that we would capture the same number of votes as we did in ‘08. It is unrealistic to think that Elizabeth May will be invited to participate in the Leader’s debate in the next election. Given this reality, why should the mainstream media pay us much in the way of attention?
The mainstream media continues to be the biggest factor in influencing people’s choices at the ballot box. If we fail to get our message out to the mainstream media, good luck to us to experience much in the way of success.
Our message itself is a huge problem: what, exactly, is it? Sure, the public might have a decent idea about where we stand on the environment. But what about the Afghanistan detainee issue, or Unemployment Insurance changes, or the HST? These are topical issues which even I don’t have a good idea regarding where we stand. And I’m supposed to be out promoting our Party daily.
And what about those abysmal by-election results?
Yes, 2009 was clearly a Lost Year in terms of momentum.
Munk Debates / Copenhagen
Near the end of the year, though, there were certainly some positive signs for our Party. Elizabeth May herself was increasingly in the spotlight. First, during the highly publicized Munk Debate, and then as a correspondent writing from Copenhagen. While both of these successes were clearly limited in scope, successes nevertheless must they be counted as (even though May’s side lost the debate). May was back in her finest form, which appears to be something akin to a compact hurricane. For a little while, it was a pleasure to see her name so often in the media spotlight (except for Chantal Hebert! Ouch!). Here’s hoping that we can continue to build on a little of this momentum in 2010.
And finally...there has been a lot of speculation regarding who might step into next year’s constitutionally mandated leadership contest. Leadership Contest? Yes, that’s right. The Green Party has in our constitution the requirement that we hold a Leadership contest every 4 years, starting in 2006, the date of the last contest. That means that sometime in 2010, the constitution requires us to hold another contest.
Of course, the constitution requires us to hold a biennial general meeting every 2 years, but the Party didn’t feel much in the way of constitutional guilt in postponing the BGM which should have happened in 2008 until 2009. After all, there was a very good reason not to have it in 2008, right? What with their being an election and all. Maybe the requirement for a Leadership Contest will prove to be equally fluid. We’ll likely see more about this in early 2010, but talks at the Federal Council level have been occurring, and ways of avoiding a "politically problematic" Leadership contest could yet be implemented.
Sure, that might be the politically expedient thing to do. It might even make a future contest fairer to anyone who wants to challenge Elizabeth May (especially if she fails to win a seat in SGI). Right now, who in their right mind would want to take on May for Leadership of the Party? If there’s a mis-step in SGI, though, she’ll likely be toast, unless she mounts a considerable political effort.
So I understand that a Leadership Contest in 2010 might not be the wisest venture to embark on. However, it’s a requirement of our Constitution. If we play games with this fundamental element of our Party’s own structure and processes, what will that tell the public at large about what we’re likely to do should we form government one day? We’ll be no different than the rest of those (insert expletive here) politicians, in the public’s eyes.
Of course, the public is likely not to give two hoots no matter what we do regarding Leadership in 2010 (see "Loss of Momentum", above).
In summary, 2009 was a year of ups and downs for our Party, with the downs seriously outweighing the ups. We have a lot of work to do in 2010 just to stay on pace with where we were at the end of 2008. If we’re going to remain a serious player on the national stage, we’ve got to stop playing games within our own Party, and start to get a unified and easy to understand message out there to the public. I’m personally not optimistic that we’ll be able to pull ourselves together at this point. There have been too many questions raised about the direction our Party is going in, and there is much dissension in the ranks. In my opinion, the sooner a Federal Election is held, the better the outcome for the Green Party. If Elizabeth May wins her seat, that’ll be great news for the Party. If she doesn’t, clearly it’s going to be time for a wholesale house-cleaning, starting with our Federal Council who endorsed this controversial Leader-focussed SGI strategy at the expense of building stronger EDA’s and finding credible Green voices elsewhere in the Party. The sooner we know the outcome, the sooner we’ll be able to move ahead. Right now, the anticipated Federal Election seems to have put everything on hold.
As a result, 2009 has truly been a Lost Year for the Party. Let’s turn things around in 2010.
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