Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part I: Growing Beyond the Grassroots

May 2nd has come and gone, and the fortunes of the Green Party are either at an all time-high, with the election of Elizabeth May to parliament, or at a virtual all-time low, with our share of the popular vote having plummeted to less than 4%, its lowest level in 11 years. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, it’s certainly fair to say that the next four years are going to present both opportunities and challenges for the Green Party of Canada, in a context which we’ve never found ourselves before.

In this series of blogposts, I’m going to provide you with my observations about what I believe the Green Party needs to do to prepare ourselves for the next general election, which is tentatively scheduled now for the Spring of 2015 (if the fixed-date election law is respected). I believe that the Green Party finds itself on a very narrow path towards success, and that we have to make sure that we do just about everything right between now and 2015 if we are to experience a successful outcome.

In this first blogpost, I’ll examine how it is that we’ve ended up in the current situation, and how the Green Party’s past history is going to continue to influence future decisions.

In my second post, I hope to explore the work which I believe must be undertaken at the local level if the Green Party is going to experience success. I’ll be looking at building and maintaining healthy Electoral District Associations (EDA’s), and selecting candidates.

In my third post, I’ll take a look at what I believe the Party needs to do politically at the national level, including how best to work with (and against) other parties, and why it’s important for us to exploit each opportunity we are handed. I’ll also look at why some of what I’m suggesting is going to create challenges within our Party.

In my fourth post, I’ll take a look at internal party issues, and what I believe the Green Party should be doing over the next 4 years in order for a healthier, more responsive Party to emerge, ready to take on the other Parties in 2013.

The May 2nd Election: How We Got Here

Sudbury has been a cruel town for Michael Ignatieff. In the recent 2011 campaign, it was in Sudbury that Ignatieff famously implored Canadians to “rise up” against Stephen Harper. That many Canadians followed his advice and did, in fact, rise up against Harper proved to be a pyrrhic victory for Ignatieff, as many more abandoned his Liberal Party for the NDP in the process. Ignatieff should have chosen a different city to implore voters, as Sudbury remains solidly NDP.

Back in September, 2009, though, Ignatieff was here in Sudbury, speaking at an engagement literally just down the road from where I live. It was at the Caruso Club, Sudbury’s famous Italian community centre, that Ignatieff announced that he would be “pulling the plug” on the Liberals support of the Harper government. Many Canadians forget the political tizzy which erupted as a result of Ignatieff’s announcement. I recall these events through the lens of my own perspective as the CEO for the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association.

The Saanich Gambit

It was in early September, 2009, that the Party announced an abbreviated candidate nomination period for the Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI) electoral district. Earlier, the Party had announced that SGI was to be Elizabeth May’s new riding, but they might have jumped the gun a little bit with their announcement, as the Party had no rules in place which would allow an uncontested nomination event.

Enter local environmentalist and (now former, I believe) Green Party member, Stuart Hertzog, who, as a wannabe champion of the grassroots, decided to challenge the Party’s Leader May for the right to represent the Green Party in SGI. By all accounts (that I’ve seen anyway), May trounced Hertzog in the nomination election, but not before several events came to the fore which highlighted the Party’s movement away from the grassroots and towards the mainstream.

Nomination Contests

First off, that abbreviated nomination period I referred to was as a result of changes made to the Party’s own nomination rules. Some may recall that the Party had initially mandated that all EDA’s have nominated candidates in place by mid-June, 2009, in anticipation of a fall election in ’09. The rules were issued by the Party in mid-March, and provided a process whereby, for the first time, there would be a pre-screening of potential candidates by the Party, and only the names of acceptable candidates would be forwarded to the EDA’s for the contest.

Our Constitution indicates that only Members who have been in the Party for more than 30 days have the right to vote. We here in Sudbury found ourselves in the position where we wanted to provide as much time as possible for candidates to sign up new members to support their candidacies, but felt that the process didn’t provide as much opportunity as we might have liked. By the time candidates were selected by the Party for our contested nomination, we were already a fair ways into April. Still, our candidates did have a couple of weeks to sign up new members in advance of the contest, although admittedly most of the time between the announcement of the candidates and the contest itself fell within the 30 day period where new members, if they were signed up, could not legally vote.

Nevertheless, our EDA complied with the Central Party’s requirement to hold a nomination contest as per the Party’s rules, because we were constitutionally required to do so. You see, our EDA, having been founded only in 2007, had adopted a “template” Constitution, provided to us by the Central Party, with a fill-in-your-name blank space for the EDA’s name. One of the provisions of this template constitution was that our EDA would follow the nomination rules as developed by the Party. I understand that many other EDA’s also found themselves in this circumstance. Interestingly, not all EDA’s complied with the requirement of having a candidate in place by mid-June, 2009.

I’m revisiting these seemingly esoteric inner workings of the Party as they have some bearing on how we have come to find ourselves in the circumstance that we did on May 2nd, 2011. Please continue to bear with me.

Back to SGI in September, 2009. In what Green Party insider Mark Kersten described as the “worst kept political secret of the summer”, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May announced that she would be seeking the nomination in SGI in early September. With new rules in place for the timing of the contest, the contest was held a couple of weeks later, and by the end of September, around about the time that Parliament returned, May received the nod from Greens in SGI to be their candidate. The timing was important because it really did look as if parliament was going to reconvene and Harper brought down. Of course, no one had counted on the wily NDP to prop up Harper in exchange for some added benefits for Employment Insurance users, thus leaving Ignatieff and his promise to “pull the plug” out in the cold. A commensurate drop in the Liberals polling numbers over the next couple of months was the result.

Stuart Hertzog, May’s challenger for the SGI nomination, really didn’t stand a chance to carry the Green banner for that riding. Not so much because he was going up against the Leader of the Party (although undoubtedly that had a little something to do with his circumstances), but because the nomination period as per the new rules didn’t provide Hertzog with any opportunity to sign up new members which could cast a ballot for him. Of course, May was equally impacted by the short nomination period, although again, the fact that May was going to run in SGI had been largely known throughout most of the summer, even if the announcement itself didn’t happen until September.

So here we have a few examples of how the Green Party of Canada has been moving away from it’s grassroots nature, and has been instead turning into more of a mainstream political party. The grassroots quality of the Party, which was endearing to many, created situations which became real headaches for a Central Party wishing to occupy a more mature position in Canada’s political spectrum. The directive to have candidates in place by mid-June of 2009 in anticipation of a fall election that year made sense from the Central Party’s perspective: the Central Party didn’t want EDA’s to be scrambling at the last moment to find candidates in the same way that we were when Harper pulled the plug on parliament unexpectedly in 2008. Further, with candidates in place throughout the summer in a lead-up to the election, pre-writ campaigning could take place.

That the ridings being considered by the Leader for a possible run (SGI; Guelph; Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound) ignored these rules is interesting, but not telling. That other EDA’s across Canada chose to ignore the rules by not nominating candidates has had a continuing impact on EDA/Central Party relationships to this day. And I’m not here simply referring to the scramble which occurred when the writ was dropped in March of this year, which in part led to Greens not running in 4 of Canada’s 308 ridings. There has been much more going on behind the scenes at the Party level, as a struggle between the EDA’s and the Central Party, which some have characterized as a struggle between the grassroots and the mainstream.

Some of the EDA’s were vocal in their defiance of the Party’s nomination rules back in 2009. It was suggested by some that if Central Party wanted to make a big deal out of not having a candidate nominated, that it was no big deal. Others pointed to the fact that their EDA’s had older Constitutions, which clearly allowed the EDA to set its own timetable. Both of these issues would be addressed to the advantage of Central Party within the next year.

And of course, the struggle between May and Hertzog in Saanich-Gulf Islands exemplified the struggle between the mainstreaming of the Party and its grassroots proponents in miniature. That May would be victorious was no surprise; that the grassroots embodied by Hertzog would be ruthlessly out-manoeuvred by the Central Party may have come as a bit of surprise, because frankly, it just wasn’t necessary.

The Winds of Change: August 2010 Biennial General Meeting

Fast forward to the August Biennial General Meeting, where the biggest issue proved to be a non-event. The Constitutionally-required 4 Year Leadership contest didn’t happen, scuttling the expectations of many members, including those who most identify on the side of the grassroots. I’ll come back to the Leadership contest matter in soon, but first I’d like to continue along and provide the story of the outcome of the candidate nomination contest thread I’ve been writing about.

Recall those EDA’s who were wilfully defiant of the Party’s nomination contest edict in the spring of 2009? Well, with a couple of constitutional amendments proposed by Green Members deeply involved with the Central Party, the grassroots got what was coming to them. Those EDA’s who asked what the Party could do if they flouted the rules will find themselves in the following circumstances in the future: facing revenue being withheld for issues of non-compliance, or outright deregistration by the Central Party. Where there were no teeth to force its hand in 2009, the Central Party grew some very strong teeth in 2010 to take a bite out of grassroots independence.

And for those EDA’s with older, locally developed constitutions which give the EDA the authority and ability to set their own timetables for things like candidate nomination and general meetings? Those are all gone now. In one fell swoop, all EDA constitutions, including template constitutions such as the one we have here in Sudbury (and which we had amended significantly in 2009) have been thrown out by the Central Party, replaced with a new template which can only be amended by the approval of the Central Party. While EDA’s have yet to see this new template over 9 months later, it’s release now that the election has ended is inevitable. I suspect many local organizations will be very surprised to discover that the constitution they wrote, adopted, and amended to better suit their evolving local circumstance, has been tossed out the window by the Central Party in favour of a standardized format. Which can only be altered through Central Party’s approval, and not exclusively by the local EDA’s members, as in the past.

The arguments regarding the need for this approach had a lot to do with the fact that a few bad-egg EDA’s were wilfully not following their own Constitution. While this might have been happening (and the ultimate de-registration of a Vancouver-area EDA which hadn’t held an AGM in years was a difficult and long struggle for the Party), the fact is that the Central Party feels that it must exert more control over what’s happening at the grassroots. Standardizing EDA constitutions will prove to be an excellent tool in the continuing mainstreaming of the Green Party, like it or not.


When Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner was here in Sudbury earlier this year, he told a few of us a story about how, in the past, he had attended an event where another local Green Party candidate appeared dressed as a clown or some kind of Silly Party candidate out of the Monty Python “Election Night Special” skit. Mike, no doubt dressed in his customary suit, did everything that he could to avoid getting into shot with this other candidate, no matter how much the press tried to capture the two of them together.

The old adage goes that you dress for success. And there is certainly some merit that if you want to be treated as a serious political party, you’ve got to start acting like one. With the election of Elizabeth May to parliament, gone must be the days where candidates could expound about policy in any way they saw fit, contradicting one another in neighbouring ridings. Gone too are the days of the clown-suited candidates, who use their political exposure during an election to draw attention to pet issues. These are some of the obvious “gones” now from our Party, which are sure to be lamented by some, but not by most.

Gone, too, must be the days where the Party’s decentralization acted as an impediment to decision-making. With the abolishment of creating new Provincial divisions, the structure of the Party at the 2010 BGM was streamlined, allowing more revenue to stay with the Central Party for flexible responses, while continuing to maintain the flow of revenue to local EDA’s, which is remains a rather unique feature of our Party.

And gone are the days of a mandatory Leadership Contest. Federal Council, our Party’s governing body, proposed an amendment to the Constitution which replaced the mandatory 4 year Contest (which itself had replaced a mandatory 2-year Leadership Contest in 2006) with a Leadership Review process, to be held within 6 months of a federal general election. The Leadership Review process was supported by a majority of voting members (still less than 20% of the Party), and it’s the process that we have in place today. Clearly, a review process is more in keeping with processes used by other Parties, and allows the Green Party to be more flexible in electing a Leader, rather than being beholden to an arbitrary, if expected, date. Recall that going into the fall of 2010, there was a very real possibility that an election might have been held, and there was considerable concern that our Party might have to explain to the Canadian public why it had just tried to oust Elizabeth May as Leader. The perception in the media would have triumphed over fact.

The Budget

Aside from the struggles between the Central Party and the grassroots, let us not forget the circumstance which the Party found itself it in throughout 2010 as a result of the budget. Having borrowed to finance the 2008 campaign, by 2010 the financial situation of the Party was looking pretty grim. To keep the Party afloat, cuts were made. Amongst the first to go were Organizing staff. Throughout 2010, numerous organizers were lost; we here in Sudbury had 5 different Organizers assigned to our EDA throughout a 12-month period. This was hardly a good approach for building and maintaining healthy relationships between volunteers in the field and professional organizers.

And so the EDA’s suffered. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 EDA’s ended up being deregistered by Elections Canada throughout 2010. I understand that no new EDA’s were created. There was a move on to create an EDA in the neighbouring riding of Nickel Belt, but without committed staff to help get things off of the ground, the EDA still has not materialized.

The Campaign Strategy Pays Off

Back in 2009, our Federal Council endorsed a Campaign Strategy which squarely put the election of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May as priority #1. A draft of this strategy was circulated to EDA CEO’s and nominated candidates in the summer of that year. While some of the other priorities seem to have been sidelined (including the wonderful concept of a “Campaign University”), the election of May appears to have morphed over time into the only priority of the Party.

Now, to be fair, there were a number of things stacked against our Party in the 2011 election campaign, starting with a mainstream media which had already made the decision to ignore us. With the Broadcast Consortium’s exclusion of Elizabeth May from the televised Leaders Debates, the die was cast. This lack of media attention was probably the biggest factor which contributed to the loss of vote share throughout the nation. But, coming as it did after two years of struggle between the EDA’s and the Central Party, there was little opportunity for most EDA’s to absorb the hit that a loss of national media exposure delivered.

From Where We Have Come, and Where We are Going

In short, the damaging struggle within the Party over the past couple of years, along with declining membership and the loss of numerous former candidates, who represented the Party in 2008, the loss of organizers, and the loss of committed volunteers at the local level, coupled with the loss of media coverage in 2011, created the perfect storm for the Green Party. Only in SGI did we experience success. We poured thousands of volunteers into that riding, and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars since the fall of 2010, which proved to be a Herculean task which we simply won’t be able to repeat elsewhere.

But…it could be a game-changer for the Green Party of Canada, and it was certainly what the Central Party and many of us out here in the EDA’s were banking on. With a new-found respect for a Party which has proven that it can elect MP’s, the future of our Party remains bright, despite the loss of vote-share. I believe that the votes might come back, but our Party is going to have to maintain a kind of discipline which might prove to be problematic for some of the old-guard. I believe, however, that the Central Party has shown that it has been on the path toward respectability for some time now, and if we can collectively decide to continue to walk along this path, without pushing each other down into the ditches, this may be the way to further future success.

However, we need to acknowledge that these continuing changes to the Party are not going to be universally embraced. Those who identify as deep greens in particular may be saddened to discover that their Party is turning away from the grassroots and embracing some mainstream initiatives. To those Greens who are concerned about our transformation into a more mainstream party, I ask that you give the Party a chance. Because whatever kind of Party we ultimately become, we will still be a Party based on a set of strong, shared values. The values aren’t going to change: they can not and will not be compromised. It’s how those values are implemented in terms of local and central structure, and organizing, that the change is going to occur. Please, give the Party’s evolution a chance, because your presence continues to educate us, and to enrich us all.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

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