Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part II: Creating Local Opportunities for Success

In Part 1 of this series, I took a little look at how the Party has ended up where we are at today, through the lens of the struggle between the “grassroots” and the “Central Party”. The strategy of the Central Party has been to continue centralizing and mainstreaming the Green Party’s power structure, in order to make Greens more palatable and electable to average Canadians. That this initiative has been pursued by the Party during a time of fiscal restraint has led to a situation where the grassroots structure of the party has taken both a hit in terms of power- and resource-sharing, and has been generally ignored by the Central Party, intent on pursuing its own centralist and campaign goals at all costs.

The grassroots response to this struggle has largely been to slowly disengage. It’s fair to say that we’ve seen the grassroots of the Party whither throughout the nation, with once-strong EDA’s such as Guelph and Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound shed members and vote share. EDA’s have been deregistered by Elections Canada at an alarming rate; they have not yet been replaced. Other EDA’s have become inactive in communities, and exist largely only on paper. Nationally, membership numbers are down.

But there hasn’t been much in the way of pushback from the grassroots on the Party’s march towards centralization. While some grassroots advocates tried to put their issues front and centre at the August BGM, by challenging a bid to change the Party’s Constitution to remove the 4-year Leadership Contest requirement (by replacing it with a “leadership review” 6 months after each general election), the grassroots failed spectacularly to accomplish much of anything. A poorly attended BGM in Toronto (due, in part, according to some, as a result of there not being the expected Leadership Contest), coupled with a sincerely anti-democratic approach to Party decision-making (if you can afford to attend the BGM, you can vote…otherwise, too bad, you and your EDA get no say beyond the Bonser Ballot), meant that the Central Party found itself in an enviable position to push forward the reforms it felt necessary to keep the grassroots in line. Ultimately, the Central Party emerged victorious, with support of their policy initiatives hovering at or below 18%of the Party’s membership.

The grassroots, however, can not continue to be ignored by the Central Party any longer. Not if there is to be any hope of moving forward in 2015 to recapture popular vote share. Historically, only a handful of our total membership has been engaged with the Party at all, and this circumstance has come about due in part to the lack of health of the primary interface which members have with their Party: the Electoral District Association. Where EDA’s are not active, this primary grassroots interface is lost to our members, and other potential supporters. It is therefore very critical that the Party now begin to turn its attention to creating and maintaining healthy EDA’s throughout the nation.

This does not mean that the Party must forgo its move towards centralization and mainstreaming. On the contrary, both efforts can and should be complimentary to one another. A mainstreaming of the Party can offer opportunities to broaden local levels of support, and to build and create coalitions with local and national organizations.

However, the Party is still operating with limited resources, and therefore the development of a strategy for the wise use of those resources must be the first item of business on the agenda of the next Federal Council meeting. While it is important to build and maintain local associations throughout the nation, it is certainly more important to do so in parts of the country which may become potentially “winnable” for Greens.

Focus on “Winnable” Ridings

Arguably, there aren’t any “winnable” ridings for Greens right now beyond Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI); this argument would certainly be bolstered by our drop in popular vote throughout Canada. Nevertheless, there have been some parts of the country which Greens have identified as providing more of an opportunity for success. These areas can be broadly identified as being: 1) Vancouver, the lower mainland of B.C. and parts of Vancouver Island; 2) Southewestern Ontario, stretching from Kitchener-Waterloo, through Guelph and north into Dufferin and Simcoe Counties, and on into Grey-Bruce. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to these areas as “B.C.” and “Southwestern Ontario” from hereon.

B.C. might prove to be the most fertile ground for Greens, especially if the provincial B.C. Green Party can get its act together in time for the scheduled May, 2013 provincial election. Provincially, though, it seems that the Greens have been squeezed out by the NDP, and the provincial party may have to take a serious look at where best to expend its own resources. Certainly, there will be opportunities on Vancouver Island which should be exploited. Following the model of the GPC, provincial party Leader Jane Sterk and other provincial Greens might want to focus on winning just one seat (although it’s not clear that Sterk’s riding of Esquimalt-Royal Roads is the ideal location…but it may be, if all resources are brought to bear on winning it).

Nationally, the Green Party can expect to find itself better able to present a small number of candidates in B.C. for the consideration of voters, especially after the provincial party’s electoral successes. Breakthrough provincially in B.C., especially on Vancouver Island or within Vancouver, can only lend legitimacy to the national party. GPC members throughout Canada need to understand this. That means every effort should be made by the national membership to flood into Sterk’s riding (or wherever the GPBC chooses to focus its efforts) and volunteer in the same way that members did to help elect Elizabeth May. Our national success really does in part depend on provincial success, especially in B.C.

Southwestern Ontario presents a lower-order priority, only because the provincial election here will take place later in 2011, and will long be forgotten by the time of the 2015 federal election. However, there is a possibility that Ontario might elect an unstable minority government later this year, which means that the province will be operating in a hyper-political environment, much as we went through nationally. An unstable minority situation in Ontario could prove to be a real boon for Green success in Southwestern Ontario.

Although perhaps not as much of a priority as B.C., there are some opportunities for national party success in Southwestern Ontario which Greens should not now overlook. A strategic geographic convergence for electoral success is underway, now that one of the Green Party of Ontario’s most successful candidates ever has decided to make his return to provincial politics. Recently, Shane Jolley announced that he would be throwing his hat into the ring by seeking the Party’s nomination in the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound (BGOS), where he captured 33% of the popular vote in the 2007 provincial election. Jolley is a popular and articulate local, with a strong David Orchard-style organization (well, a David Orchard-style organization on a Green Party scale anyway) backing him. I suspect his return to provincial politics will reinvigorate BGOS in a manner that national candidates in 2008 and 2011could not.

That BGOS is held by the popular, folksy, ultra-conservative MP, Bill Murdoch, means that Jolley can attempt to do what he did last time: collapse the vote and present himself as the only real alternative to Murdoch. That Jolley clearly understands the needs and concerns of the ridings rural residents is quite clear. However, all non-Progressive Conservative candidates in Ontario are going to be in tough this election, as PC Leader Tim Hudak’s party has been way out in front of the polls, and offering populist fare for consumption. The PC’s may prove to be unbeatable, and with Jolley up against one of the most populist of the populist candidates in Murdoch, his task is going to be cut out for him.

Next to BGOS, and within the same area of media influence, is the riding of Simcoe-Grey. Greens haven’t traditionally had a strong presence in this riding, but with GPO Leader Mike Schreiner taking on steady, if unremarkable PC MPP Jim Wilson, this might prove to be a riding worth focusing on provincially.

The important thing for the national party to keep in mind is how best to exploit our advertising and media resources by looking for opportunities where groups of ridings which share common interests can be targeted. Those concentrations of ridings exist on Vancouver Island, and to a lesser extent, in Vancouver itself. It might be that the Party considers targeting only certain Vancouver ridings, such as Vancouver Centre where Deputy Leader Adriane Carr has been working on building a strong organization (although the continued lack of results in this riding might mean that it’s time for Carr to look around for a better home).

In the recent election, we here in Sudbury experienced the benefits of media synergies, as the Sudbury and Nickel Belt candidates were often interviewed together by the media, or hosted joint press conferences. Now, admittedly, the opportunity to carry out this strategy made a lot of sense in Sudbury/Nickel Belt, due to a fairly robust, locally-focussed media.

Those same media circumstances, however, certainly exist on Vancouver Island, and to a lesser extent, in Southwestern Ontario (although the shared media there is really just TV and radio, as print media in BGOS and Simcoe-Grey is fractured, with papers in Owen Sound, Meaford, Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, etc.).

One or two other ridings, with popular and qualified local candidates, might also prove to be priorities for the Party. Wherever these priorities are, however, the Party needs to begin the process of building and maintaining the strongest and healthiest EDA’s in those areas.

Organizing and EDA Building

Building strong and healthy EDA’s means that the Party has to lend a hand by providing strong and experienced organizers, who are able to promote clear strategies for local growth. That’s a bit of a tall order, given that the Party was forced to lay off a number of its experienced organizers back in early 2010; those organizers are just now being replaced.

Organizers have to get out into the field, and spend more than a few hours in each riding. They must meet with active Greens in every riding, and get local buy-in for workable growth strategies. They must also be prepared to teach local volunteers the basics of Organizing 101. Powerpoint presentations, YouTube videos, and printed hand-out resources must be all a part of a complete package of materials which Organizers will use as part of an educational process.

Organizing isn’t simple, and what works in one riding isn’t going to work in another one. But there are many lessons which are transferable. Our Organizers must become more active in ridings, with the goal of building up local knowledge, which could then be transferred between neighbouring EDA’s.

Communication between neighbouring EDA’s must also be promoted through the Organizers. Synergies can be looked for, and relationships developed. Far too often, neighbouring EDA’s have little contact with one another. This has to change.


Choosing the right local candidate is going to be important for all EDA’s, but doubly so for those ridings which have been identified as priorities. With “priority status” first put into place, the Party can then begin to approach excellent potential candidates, and explain to those individuals what it is that the Party will be doing to make give their candidacy the highest profile.

In short, we need the best candidates possible to run in our priority ridings.

This approach, however, might not sit well with local EDA’s. Any hard feelings will need to be ironed out between the local EDA and Central Party over potential candidates, and these situations should be addressed years in advance of the next election, and not just months or weeks.

I’m not suggesting parachute candidates need to be the rule, but I am saying that the Party should not rule out parachuting an excellent candidate into a priority riding. We’ve done so before, and experienced significant success, because we did it in the right way. Elizabeth May actually picked up her life and moved to SGI. She was not the typical parachute candidate. Ideally, this would be the model that the Party pursues in the future, but we may have to acknowledge that due to personal circumstances, it might not always work out that way.

However, getting the best candidates into priority ridings must be the focus of any winning strategy.

And who might these candidates be?

With Elizabeth May proving to Canadians that Greens can be elected in a first-past-the-post electoral environment, I believe that the Party must begin a serious effort to recruit candidates, potentially for both local and priority ridings. In the past, candidate recruitment has been one of the primary roles of the EDA. I would suggest that for priority ridings, the Central Party and EDA’s work together to find the best qualified candidates. The Central Party can lend strategic resources to candidate recruitment. By this I mean being able to offer a potential candidate a commitment to back and fully fund a campaign, when the writ is dropped, and to provide pre-writ financial and volunteer resources, much as we did in SGI.

A phone call from Elizabeth May or better, an in-person chat, would also go a long way.

We need to turn our attention to high-profile academics and environmentalists, along with green business leaders. For too long now, those in environmental organizations have remained neutral on politics, and those in academia have decided to sit out. I understand that there have been some good reasons for doing so, but I believe that there is a growing understanding that we are running out of time. With May in Ottawa, other high-profile climate change and environmental professionals and activists can and should be recruited to the Green Party banner.

This may mean that Party members, as well as the Central Party, might need to begin public appeals to select individuals, asking them to join us, telling them that they can no longer remain apolitical, because only through a political process can we begin to implement the changes that we all know need to be made.

Candidate Nominations

Candidates should be in place by the end of summer, 2012. Ideally, having a majority of our candidates identified by the time of the next BGM (which should be held on Vancouver Island, in order to lend support to the B.C. provincial Green Party’s electoral success). It’s critical that nominated candidates be in place, so that all future efforts of EDA’s can be focussed on building a candidate’s profile through local media, social media, and through public attendance and participation in community events.

Our nominated candidates must become the “go-to” people on Green issues in their ridings. To do so, they must start the process of profile building (unless they already have one). Showing up at community events, speaking out about important matters in front of local Councils, even running for municipal Council; all must be a part of establishing a nominated candidates presence in a riding.

A candidate who puts forward their name only and then only materializes in the public realm when the writ is dropped is absolutely not what the Green Party needs. One of my major criticisms of the Liberal Party is that their nominated candidates seem to disappear once they’ve gained a nomination, and only show up when there’s an election. I’m sorry, but that’s not the way to build local profile.

And building a local profile for a nominated candidate is a very important component of building a healthy organization. The nominated candidate becomes the face and voice of the local organization, hopefully drawing out volunteers from other organizations, community groups, and activists associations to join with the EDA and to build a campaign team. That’s why it’s so very critical that the right candidate be found. A nominated candidate who is not prepared to do this necessary work, or worse, who is polarizing and will turn off many potential supporters, simply isn’t the right fit for most EDA’s, and certainly not for those priority ridings.


Along with helping EDA’s get themselves better organized, and selecting the best candidates, the Central Party must assist with education and information about how EDA’s can now best go about raising money. In the coming political environment where the per-vote subsidy appears to be doomed, it will be doubly important for local organizations to reach out to supporters and ask them for donations.

I’ve personally always loathed asking people for money, but I have to acknowledge that without money, the chances for electoral success are not very good. Promoting a local nominated candidate and building and maintaining a healthy EDA is going to require raising and spending money during the pre-writ period. For priority EDA’s, fundraising is going to be absolutely critical.

Not only that, if we are going to recruit some high-profile candidates for our priority ridings, we need to be in a position to offer them as much as we can during the pre-writ timeframe. That means money, too.

EDA’s must begin to acknowledge the importance of fundraising, and be prepared to devote a small group of volunteers to focus on how best to raise money.

EDA Outreach

EDA’s, along with nominated candidates, must become more active within their local communities, as well. In an effort to build profile, EDA’s need to be encouraged to participate to the fullest extent possible in community events, such as Canada Day celebrations, local festivals, Santa Claus parades, etc. To do so, EDA’s will have to invest in swag, such as banners and flags, and find volunteers to help out (the good news is that participating in these kinds of events is usually a lot of fun, so volunteers are more easily found).

There are many of these opportunities for self-promotion. But EDA’s can limit themselves to just promoting that the Party is here. Real relationships amongst like-minded individuals and organizations should also be fostered. Now that we’ve moved away from a cycle of perpetual election-readiness, we have some time to pause and look around for places to focus our outreach efforts.

Likely, many EDA’s have been doing these things anyway. If you volunteer to help a local Green Party EDA, chances are you’re volunteering somewhere else, maybe as part of an environmental or social justice group, or perhaps as part of a local chamber of commerce. Whatever it is, over the next four years, it’s time to start reeling in some of your contacts, and making them supporters of the Party as well.

In some communities, it might be difficult to get involved, as there are no active community groups which share your same interests. Or perhaps some groups have already been captured by another party. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s time for members of your EDA to start their own organizations, and begin promoting their own issues. If others want to get involved, who might never have considered joining a political party, perhaps they’ll be interested in promoting eating locally produced foods, or advocating for better transit, or building seniors housing.

Some might say that if we use our limited time to promote these other causes, we may be missing out on opportunities to promote ourselves. I say nonsense, especially if those involved in other organizations are quietly political. What I’m getting at here is that their political affiliation should never be a secret, although promoting the Party should never be on the agenda; leave that for the one-on-one conversations over coffee or a beer. Maybe invite allies in these organizations out to a “Green Drinks” night to talk about other environmental issues, using these opportunities to get to know others whom you are working with, and develop relationships beyond specific issues. Chances are if you see eye-to-eye with individuals on one or two matters, you will have more in common with them. Work to recruit members active in these other organizations, because afterall, you likely have this critical mass of shared issues.

And of course, use the media to promote the organization and yourself. This is especially critical for nominated candidates. There’s no reason you can’t be the voice of the Party locally, and the local activist for better public transportation, or the go-to person opposing a wasteful suburban housing development.

Outreach is going to important for EDA’s over the next four years.

Monitoring the Competition

This one might be trickier to do, but it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your competitors as well. Especially the NDP and the Liberals, from whom potentially we could lose votes, or gain supporters. Find out who is being nominated by the NDP or Liberals, and when. Is the nomination being contested? If so, what happens to the failed candidate and their supporters? If this happens early enough, maybe there will be some opportunities to build relationships with them, eventually leading to their being turned. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to poach support from other parties: goodness knows that they are keen on poaching our supporters!

People move around between parties all of the time. We do so largely out of self interest. A dynamic, engaging candidate, for example, can have a lot of influence on moving people from one party and into another (which is why it’s critical to get the right candidates nominated in priority ridings as soon as possible, to start building these individual relationships). To maximize success, though, it’s important to know as much as you can about what’s going on elsewhere.

For EDA’s which can pull it off, having a supporter become a member of another party could provide you with front-line intelligence. This tactic might be especially useful in priority ridings, especially if your mole can find a way onto an EDA’s executive. Some will say that’s not exactly a Green Party approach to politics, and I would agree with them. However, it is a tactic used by all of the other parties, and it works.

Those are my thoughts about what the Party and EDA’s can do at the grassroots to begin preparing for the 2015 election. In my next post, I’ll explore how the Party can engage in politics better, in order to maximize opportunities for gaining advantage for the Party.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be construed to be consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

1 comment:

Sudbury Steve said...

I just found out earlier today that MPP Bill Murdoch (PC - Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound) is in fact retiring! This renders my analysis of Green Shane Jolley's chance in BGOS next to useless. Yes, the provincial Cons are likely to remain very strong in Murdoch's old riding, but without the popular Murdoch running, well...anything can happen!