With the publication of a blogpost from Elizabeth May on the Green Party's website, “Time for a leadership race?”, it looks to me like a decision has been made by our leadership to fight things out, rather than look for a negotiated way out of the current situation our Party finds itself in regarding leadership contests. Those of us in the Party who genuinely hoped that the leadership would come to the Biennial General Meeting in Toronto looking to heal the growing rift in the Party appear to be on a road to nowhere. By “leadership” I here refer to both our Party Leader, May, and our Party's governing body, Federal Council. Even though May does not speak for Fed Council, it was Fed Council's zealous reaction against the Party's Constitution and By-laws which led to this mess in the first place.
And “mess” it clearly is. If anything, perhaps that term is starting to become a little understated.
Rather than use her blogpost to find balance between the two sides on the Constitutional matter of leadership contests, May falls back on her battle-hardened position. She claims rightly that she was not involved in Federal Council's decision to pursue the changes to the Constitution, but it has been clear for some time now, and echoed in this latest post, that she supports Fed Council's efforts to remove the 4-year leadership contest requirement. She concedes that if the membership expresses its desire to do things differently than as recommended by Fed Council, she'll go along with it. But the post itself poses a question regarding the wisdom of a membership that would vote to continue on with the process mandated in our Constitution, as she clearly sides with Federal Council's solution, stating: “Council did its best, working with a range of options. What the majority of council has put forward to the membership is a fair and sensible effort. Accepting it would solve issues not only for the immediate future, but for future leaders and unforeseeable elections.” So, if you disagree with May and Fed Council on this matter, you're not in favour of a “fair and sensible” resolution.
I absolutely agree that it was high time that Elizabeth May publicly begin the process of responding to some of the criticism and concerns which have percolated around the blogosphere regarding the leadership contest conflict. Although this conflict originated with our Federal Council, which did not want to follow the Party's current Constitution for, what remains in my opinion, some very good reasons, May herself has contributed to the current criticism directed at her through her June 29th email to the Party's membership which communicated an unfounded message about her being forced to resign as Party Leader should a leadership contest be held. May blunts her own assertion somewhat in her latest blogpost, by providing a clarification which bloggers have been writing about for months now: she indicates that the Party obtained a legal opinion which stated that, “to be prudent, a leader would have to step down in order to run for leadership due to changes made in 2003 [to Elections Canada rules]”.
This admission, or clarification if you will, moves May's message from “I will be required to step down as Leader during a leadership contest” to “To be prudent, I really really should step down as Leader during a leadership contest”. May could have expressed these nuances in her email to Members which sent during the online voting timeframe for Constitutional and By-law amendments. The nuances aren't that difficult to explain. It's quite different to have a legal opinion which strongly advocates a particular course of action, than stating as fact that there is a requirement (somewhere) for said action. Back in June, May tried to sell the Party's Membership the Party's legal opinion as fact. By not referencing this “legal opinion” and instead claiming only that the approval of certain motions would force her resignation, and by omitting critical information regarding the current requirement for a leadership contest embedded in our by-laws, she left a biased impression with the Membership during the online voting period.
In response to what I perceived as not insignificant bias in the online voting process, I blogged about my concerns (“Green Party Voting: Much More Than Just Going Through The Motions, Part 1: How to Influence People and Game the Vote”, July 25, 2010, for which I've received some pointed criticism). I have heard other members express their concerns about the perceived bias in the “Considerations” (formerly dubbed “Party Opinion”) preface to all motions, and I know that some concerns were raised by Fed Councillors at their meeting on July 11th (although Minutes of that meeting remain unavailable to the Membership, almost a month later).
May had the chance in her latest blogpost to address these concerns with the appearance of bias in both the Considerations and in her email of June 29th, which was, after all, intended to provide a “here's how I see it” perspective on the leadership contest matter. By not addressing these accusations of bias, it's likely that May doesn't have a problem with what she herself has done, and with what's being done by Fed Council to advance the cause of keeping her on as Leader until after the next election.
Again, I need to indicate that I agree with the intended outcomes of this process: I believe that it would be a disaster for our Party to go into the next Federal Election after fighting our way through what is bound to be a divisive leadership contest process, which will only return our current Leader to that position. I understand the arguments that leadership contests can build parties by signing up new members and engaging the membership, and that parties can benefit from increased media coverage. However, the negative arguments for holding a contest now are more robust in my opinion. The typical Canadian, if they are paying attention to our Party at all, will be terribly confused by efforts underway within the Party to “dump” the only widely-known Green in the Party, Elizabeth May, as Leader. The media will paint a picture of a house divided (which would be an accurate portrayal of our Party's situation), and May will most likely wind up as Leader again anyway, for four more years. But what of the Party she will be tasked with leading? Having gone through these further divisions, I expect many important Greens to throw in the towel, or at least back away from what I see as the very important initiative of electing our Leader to parliament in the next federal election.
That's where I'm coming from. I believe that the political reality is such that we need to figure out a way through this current situation so that our Party can continue on with May at the helm until at least shortly after the next federal election (and May, if unsuccessful in her bid to take SGI, should not go and do anything foolish like resigning as Leader on election night, unless a clear majority is won by the one of the other parties, or unless we Greens fail again to elect anyone to parliament. Otherwise, while behind-the-scenes machinations for power are playing themselves out, as they are likely to occur with coalition talks, we will continue to have the need of a strong and known Leader to advance our Party's position). I suspect that May and our Federal Council agree with the political rationale of keeping May on as Leader.
But those aren't the only reasons which have been advanced by Federal Council as rationale for changing the way in which we elect a Leader in this Party. Rather than simply going with the political argument, Council has contorted itself in pretzel directions to claim all sorts of things about the need for change, including the dubious claim that the leader must resign from her position as leader to campaign in a leadership contest. And it's this lack of frankness and honesty with the Membership which continues to fuel my own dissatisfaction with what I see going on in the Party.
May's recent statement that this fact is really just (likely) very good legal advice will shed a little more light on this matter for the membership, and I commend May for making this statement in her blog, finally, after asserting elsewhere (in media interviews and in her June 29th email) that she would be forced to resign if certain by-law amendment motions were adopted by the Party.
However, May didn't take the next step after her clarification: does she feel any remorse at all for misleading the membership about this matter in the past? There is no evidence that she does; there isn't even any evidence that May considers that there has been any bias in the voting process at all. Certainly, she made no bones about the process, and instead chose to endorse the actions of Federal Council without question; nor does she question her own recent actions which assist in advancing Federal Council's position.
And that's why it appears to me that the battle lines are being drawn. May and Council appear to be determined to head into the BGM with confrontation on their minds, instead of contrition for their actions which, in my opinion, have undermined our internal democratic processes. And even if the desired outcome of our leadership is one which I endorse, I can't at all be happy with the way in which that outcome will be achieved.
Until lately, the group of dissenters in the Party have been marginalized and trivialized as folks unhappy with the outcome of May's leadership bid in 2006. Indeed, many that remain in the Party who are critical of our current leadership (May and/or Fed Council) might have supported another candidate back in 2006; I don't know, because I wasn't there. I've only been here since late 2007, but in my time I've picked up a few things, and I can't help but have noticed the departure of many of the “old guard” from the Party, both before the 2008 election, and especially afterwards. Some of our best performing candidates, such as Mike Nagy and Dick Hibma, are not returning as candidates (nor is Shane Jolley, one of the most successful Greens). Others have left positions of leadership, including former Party Leader Jim Harris, and Hugette Allen, who just recently resigned from Federal Council and who indicated she would not be standing as a candidate in Okanagan-Shuswap (This bracketed comment added August 10/10: please take a look at the Comments section, for I fear I may have not clearly stated my point here -SM)
Besides telling the current story of the leadership contest situation from her own perspective, and lending her support to Federal Council's recent actions, May makes reference to her accomplishments as Leader, using about a third of her post to enumerate her many achievements. This, to me, more than anything else, shows that May is positioning herself to take on all challenges, and not just to a future leadership contest. Specifically, she's throwing down the gauntlet to the dissenters. Instead of building a bridge, May is beating the war drum in a further attempt to rally Members to her cause.
This latest blogpost is sure to fuel the increasingly vocal group of dissenters, who now have a champion in Sylvie Lemiuex whom they are able to rally themselves around. I expect to hear more from Lemiuex's camp before this week is through, as they have no choice now but to respond to May. May's decision that conflict is the better path for her to take at this time will simply continue to polarize our Party.
Two questions remain to be answered, though. First, is the Membership paying any attention to what's going on inside of our Party? And secondly, has the entire leadership contest mess been largely resolved already through online voting? Let's look at the second question first of all.
If the Membership voted to green light Federal Council's resolution, while there still may be an opportunity to tear into the motion on the floor of the BGM, Lemiuex and the dissenters will have a very difficult time making a case that their resolution should be favoured over the expressed wishes of the Membership. Their only recourse will be to point to the inherent bias of the online voting process. And while I, and others, may agree that the inherent bias reached an unacceptable level, it will be a very difficult argument for Lemiuex to make to ignore the wishes of the Membership. Therefore, this whole issue might yet be put on hold. It would be best, however, that our leadership not equate “on hold” with “having resolved”.
The first question, regarding whether the Membership at large is paying much attention to this conflict is a much more difficult one to answer. Let's wait and see how many Greens actually cast ballots through the online voting process, and that might give us an idea of actual numbers. If the number of engaged Greens remains low, say at less than 20% of the Membership, I think it would be fair to say that the issue of upholding the Constitution hasn't found much resonance with the Membership. Others, of course, will arrive at the opposite conclusion, and say that the Membership expects that the Constitution of the Party should be upheld, and therefore a leadership contest should be called. I would disagree with that interpretation; instead, I would suggest that most of our Members are likely unaware with the Constitutional requirements for holding a leadership contest, and instead are likely largely happy with the status quo: Elizabeth May as leader of the Party. I strongly suspect that if most of our Members were told that May might have to run again for her current job, they would find that circumstance to be a bizarre one.
With or without answers to those two remaining questions, however, it seems clear heading into the BGM in two weeks time that May and Federal Council have decided to fight it out, rather than attempt to find some common ground with the other side. Not that finding common ground would be all that easy to do at this point anyway, but offering apologies for past transgressions would go some way to heal the growing rift in our Party.
It doesn't look like our leadership feels that anything in the way of an apology might be in order. Had May decided that a little conciliation might have gone a ways towards healing, she would have made an attempt to acknowledge and address some of the criticism being levelled at her. Instead, she used her blog as an opportunity to rally the troops and beat the war drum.
Looks to me as the growing rift in our Party will continue to widen. Where this might go now is anyone's guess, but likely it's going to spell trouble for the Party. My best hope now remains with the Membership having voted online to pass Fed Council's motion to change the way in which a leader is elected, and in strong numbers which show a high level of engagement.