For a select few members of the Green Party of Canada, specifically those who have a particular interest in the machinations of the Party’s Constitution and the glacial-paced manoeuverings of Federal Council, a couple of internal Party issues have become significant distractions as of late. As a result, those "select few" who typically pay attention to these sorts of things has started to grow in numbers, and I have to include myself in this recent growth spurt. Still, though, I suspect that the vast majority of Party members are not in tune with what has been going on "behind the scenes".
These issues pertain to party financing and debt, the laying off of paid staff (provincial organizers) and concerns being raised with the Constitutional requirement for a leadership contest to take place in 2010. Some have suggested that all of these issues are connected to one another, and as the articulated goal of this Party is to elect Members of Parliament, how can they not be? Every decision the Party makes will, in one way or another, impact this goal.
I have largely been silent on the issues pertaining to the Party’s finances, and I will mostly continue with my silence, as I fully admit that I don’t have the level of understanding necessary to comment on the financial matters in a sensible way. I will say, however, that it appears to me that the Party is currently experiencing some financial troubles, manifested in recent requests to EDA’s to defer receipt of transfer payments, and in the laying off of staff. We here in Sudbury recently lost our provincial organizer, who, in my opinion, had been tasked with looking after too many electoral districts as it was. Now, one of the other organizers has been given our former organizer’s caseload, whilst retaining her own. To me, this illustrates that there may be some problems with the Party’s bottom line.
If you hang around here long enough, and keep your ears open, though, you’ll quickly come to realize that issues pertaining to both the Party’s finances and our Constitution are nothing new: they’ve been lingering for some time now, years and years as a matter of fact. With regards to the Constitutional issue which has recently reared its head, I have been taking a much more active interest. Here’s the way that I see it.
Unlike any other Party, the Green Party of Canada requires that our a leadership contest be held every 4 years, with a 2006 baseline date; a date which coincides with both the election of our current leader, Elizabeth May, and with the adoption of our existing Constitution (which replaced a previous version in its entirety). Clearly, our convention in 2006 was a point of renewal for the Party. I was not around at that time, but I understand that one of the reasons for replacing the former Constitution with the new one was an effort to contain the powers of the party leader. Not for any particularly nefarious reason directed at Elizabeth May, but because the Greens who crafted the current Constitution wanted to really do politics differently.
Instead of vesting all of the Party’s power in the position of Leader, or in the dual positions of Leader and Party President, our 2006 Constitution took a bit of a different approach. The Leader of the Green Party of Canada, while having legislative obligations and requirements to fulfil under the Elections Act, would largely, for the purposes of Party governance, be a spokesperson of the Party; power would be distributed amongst a significant number of Federal Councillors, elected on a provincial and at-large basis; the leader would be just another councillor, albeit with an extended term. But by and large, and to this day, our leader is just one amongst many councillors, according to our Constitution.
The leader of our Party doesn’t even appear to have the same level of authority within our power structure as say a Mayor has within a municipal council. Federal council meetings are chaired by someone elected by Council to that position; it is not automatically assumed by the leader (Elizabeth May is not the current chair of Federal Council). Unlike a Mayor, who can claim to be "first amongst equals", our leader is just another councillor with some unique job qualifications (which include other Constitutionally mandated roles). In my opinion, the 2006 Constitution created a very diluted power structure within the Party.
Where power and decision-making is decentralized, a couple of things should come as no surprise to those paying attention. The first is that making decisions will consequently take a little more time. This is the price we pay for our democratic structures. Authoritarian regimes at all levels can often exercise their decision-making powers a little more flexibly than those who rely on democratic processes. We all need to keep that in mind when we rag on the Party for the slow pace of decision making. Now, that’s not a reason to quell criticism, which I believe is a fundamental part of the democratic process. Just understand that things are going to take a little more time to sort themselves out.
The second is that power abhors a vacuum, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that informal processes sometimes must kick in when exercising decision making authority has become time-consuming. There are some times when decisions simply can’t wait, but if the structure of a particular organization is such that a decision will take too much time to go through a full process, what’s the final outcome? A decision of some sort is ultimately made, a course of action is decided upon. Sometimes it’s clear where those decisions come from, sometimes it’s much less so.
Think of any large organization where power is decentralized, be it the Federal government, a municipal government, an NGO with a board of directors, or a private enterprise with shareholders. These organizations will be less adept at making timely decisions, although they will be better at making representative decisions (in theory).
Our Party’s Constitutional structure, in my opinion, is heavily tilted towards the democratic side of the decision-making process in principle, and as a result, the structure itself is not particularly nimble and flexible. While this may be considered a positive attribute of responsible governance, it can also be problematic for an organization tasked with making decisions which are often reactive in nature. And those are just the sorts of decisions that our Party often finds itself having to make, as we are largely not in the drivers seat of public opinion.
Now, some will suggest that it has been in direct response to this cumbersome yet Constitutionally mandated power structure that a new power structure has emerged within the Party, centred around our current leader. The suggestion has been made that real power within the Party is in fact wielded by this alternative structure. I say, if that’s the case, it’s only because the Party itself has let it happen.
Do I think that Elizabeth May has more actual power than that granted to her as just another member of Federal Council? Sure I do; but I would suggest that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The paper structure of the Party is just that: a set of rules, a promise that decisions and activities will follow certain processes and stay inside of established structural boxes. What a paper process can’t ever do is take into consideration human elements.
In any power structure, ultimate power is going to be dictated by a number of factors, including the ability of an individual or collection of individuals to assert themselves through a number of means. This is "influence".
In my teen years, I played this game called "Diplomacy" as often as I could. In Diplomacy, 7 players started out with relatively equal positions on the gameboard, with three or four pieces under their control. The object of the game was, within the constraints imposed by the rules, to eventually increase your number of units from 3 or 4 to 18 in order to win. This could only be accomplished at the expense of the other players. The only way to win this game is to influence the other players, ultimately to your advantage. For me, I often liked to present my opponents with logical arguments of why it would be best to work in concert with one another (the "carrot"). Sometimes, threats of force were necessary (the "stick"). At other times, outright deceit and manipulation were the order of the day (the "stab"). Judicious use of the stick and especially the stab were often necessary: too many threats too early, and stabbing for little gain would likely be signals to your competitors that you were an immediate danger and could not be trusted.
The power structure of the game, though, remained set by the rules: a paper structure. Real power was exercised by the successful players at the expense of the unsuccessful. But all within the context of the rules.
This example is not to suggest that the machinations of our Federal Council are like a game of Diplomacy. This is only to suggest that a paper-based power structure is always going to be influenced by the individuals involved. And in the case of the Green Party of Canada, we have a very experienced, charismatic leader to whom we have entrusted (through our votes) to lead this Party to success (a bit of an undefined term, as it turns out, although I would agree with those who define success initially as "electoral success", rather than simply influencing the platforms of other parties). If she has been successful in exerting influence over the decentralized decision-making process, so be it, the structure of the Party is wide-open for that to occur.
Given this reality with our power structure, I don’t think we should be losing too much sleep over the way that decisions are being arrived at, as long as those decisions are in keeping with the rules. Whether we agree with those decisions or not, though, is certainly something which Party members can and should be concerned about. And where decisions are proposed to be made outside of the defined rules, we should be more than concerned: we should be kicking and screaming. Ultimately, upholding the rules is paramount, and is more important than what we perceive to be bad decisions being made.
And that, in part, is why I personally have been far more focussed on the Constitutional matters which have lately been troubling our Party, in preference to those financial matters. The financial decisions made in the past may or may not be problematic, but I strongly suspect that they were made within the context of the rules (as Elections Canada monitoring is ultimately a requirement). The constitutional issue around whether to hold a leadership race in 2010 has been another matter completely.
It’s no secret to Party insiders that back in November, Federal Council was presented with a motion to outright change our by-laws regarding the 2010 leadership contest requirement. This motion was out of order: Council can’t change our by-laws; by-laws can only be changed by the Membership. Eventually, Council voted to hold a Special General Meeting in February to hold a vote on amending the by-laws. What was less certain was exactly which by-law was intended to be amended, and how. Based on the original motion which died, the by-law in question pertained to the 4-year leadership contest, and specifically the requirement for holding such a contest would be replaced by a new requirement to hold a leadership review 6 months after all federal elections. This would be quite a change for the Party, moving our leader from a fixed-term situation to another where the leader would come and go as they pleased, albeit in situations heavily influenced by the membership.
Whether the current fixed-term approach is as problematic as some have suggested, and whether the new proposed approach is better for the Party is not something I’ll discuss in this blogpost. It’s one of those things, though, which should be open for discussion and comment, and that’s what’s been occurring. And I believe that’s a very good thing for the health of our Party.
What was problematic, however, and which had me kicking and screaming, was the notion that a Special General Meeting could be called to address this single issue in February 2010, which, I believe, could not have occurred within the context of the Constitution. In short, reverting back to Diplomacy-speak, that move would have violated the rules, and therefore could not be made. Specifically, the notice provisions of the Constitution clearly could not be met in such a short timeframe. I believe that there were also other issues as well.
Back when I played Diplomacy, the majority of the time someone tried to make an illegal move, it was because they were ignorant of the rules. Sometimes, though, it was because they were trying to play outside of the rules. We called those people "cheaters".
Now, it seems that the concept of a February 2010 Special General Meeting has been abandoned by Federal Council, along with the original notion that Council could just go ahead and amend the by-laws. For both of these actions, I applaud Council. The sanctity of the rules, the Constitution, remain. If I were adjudicating this round of moves in a game of Diplomacy, I would be satisfied that no moves outside of the rules have been made. No cheating has occurred.
What is now being proposed is that the membership will be left to decide whether or not we amend our by-laws so as to remove the fixed-term requirement for our leader (and avoid having a leadership contest until after the next federal election, potentially longer), or whether we reconfirm our 2006 commitment to a 2010 leadership contest. The best venue available for doing this will be the August 2010 General Meeting, as the rules say that by-laws can only be amended at General Meetings. No populist single-issue plebicites a la Napoleon the third can occur within this Party, as per our rules.
Federal Council will be considering whether to endorse a particular motion in advance of the BGM; likely a motion which seeks to change the 2010 leadership contest by-law, although it seems that at least a few Federal Councillors don’t want Council to be a part of that. Either way, though, nothing will prevent someone else or another unit of the Party from coming forward at the BGM (technically before the BGM) with their own motion to change the by-law. As this issue is going to stick around for a while, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be at least one motion for the Membership to vote on around this issue, and knowing our Party, there are likely to be several (and knowing our Party, we’ll probably end up endorsing conflicting resolutions!).
Either way, though, going to the Membership with a proposed amendment is the very best outcome to resolve the 2010 leadership contest issue. It need not be Federal Council’s proposal; but a clearly worded request for change will almost certainly be brought forward. This issue is not going to go away, because of the friction between the paper-based power structure and the actual exercising of power which has come about. At least by taking this issue to the Membership in August, the Party will be following its rules to establish new rules replacing old ones. The Membership will decide whether or not this is worth doing.
Should any motion to amend our by-laws ultimately be defeated, we’ll have four months to get the leadership contest underway. As our leader, on paper, has the same power as any other Federal Councillors, with some exceptions, there is no reason that we can’t elect a leader using the same format that we elect our Councillors. Those who believe that an in-person convention is necessary to elect a leader need not worry about costs: no in-person meeting is required. In fact, it would be much more equitable to the Party Membership if the leadership contest were held virtually (through the mail, over the internet).
I expect the debate at the BGM around this issue to be very lively indeed. And that can only be a good and healthy thing for our Party.
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