Friday, May 13, 2011

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part IV: Internal Structure & Processes

For those of my regular readers whom may have thought that in my last few blogposts that I have been venturing a little too deeply into the waters reserved specifically for Green Party swimmers, I offer both an apology and a warning: in this specific post, I’m going to put on a snorkel and dive head-first into the shark-infested pool of internal party politics. So, unless you’re specifically interested in my observations on the inner workings of the Party, and how those workings can be changed, you might find a better use of your time.

Consider yourself so warned. And now…down to business.

The Green Party Constitution

The Constitution of any organization is not something which is written in stone, but it does command a significant degree of success (unless you’re the Liberal Party, in which case, it’s just something to be ignored whenever its convenient to do so). Some have compared the Green Party’s Constitution as a promise to Green Party members.

Indeed, I have some very strong opinions on our Party’s Constitution, and the level of respect shown to it by the Party. Quickly, it’s my observation that the Party treats its Constitution fairly seriously, and where actions might take place outside of the Constitutional realm, there has at least been an attempt made after the fact to reconcile. And frankly, those sorts of things don’t happen all that often.

The Green Party’s Constitution, however, is a flawed document. And it’s no longer truly representative of the Party which we seemingly are becoming. That doesn’t give anyone license to ignore it, however, but I believe that without changes to the Constitution, we may end up tying ourselves in knots over the next four years, leading to inaction. And we just can’t have that.

Currently in our Party, all Constitutional and By-law changes (and I’ll lump by-laws in with the Constitution from hereon) can only occur through a general meeting of the members. We’ve come to understand a “general meeting” to refer to the Biennial General Meeting, held every two years, but there are provisions for Special General Meetings to be held. As the Liberal Party is wrestling now with the concept of a “virtual meeting” of the members, so too within the Green Party’s Constitution there appears to be an opportunity for “general meetings” to be held without actually meeting in person. But that’s just my opinion, and certainly the concept of a virtual meeting has never been tested.

“Living Policy”

There are now two ways of creating / amending policies in the Green Party of Canada, however. The first is similar to the process for Constitutional changes: through a general meeting. The second process, which is still in development now more than 9 months after being approved by the membership at the August 2010 BGM, will create an online process for policy approval. Through this process, a small number of members will be able to propose, discuss, amend, and ultimately approve policies for the Green Party of Canada, subject to the ratification of Federal Council. It’s called the “living policy” process.

The intention behind “living policy” is two-fold. The process is there to engage members, and to make sure that policies can be developed outside of the two year General Meeting process which Greens have become accustomed to.

It’s always been difficult for me to reconcile this online living policy development process with the provisions of the Constitution, but in our wisdom, that’s the process that we the members created in 2010. That it’s yet to be implemented by the Party tells me that either it’s not a priority, or that the Party is having some difficulty reconciling this process too. Whatever the reason, taking the approval of policy out of the hands of the membership in its entirety, and placing it in the hands of a (what is bound to be) small online community and Federal Council is bad approach.

Where this can conceivably go is towards creating approved policies which the general membership might not find out about until after the fact. And here I include those members who have made a commitment of time and energy to stand as nominated candidates for our Party. If our policies are subject to shifting and changing with only small, internal discussions and notice after the fact, we’re really placing ourselves in an awkward position.

Vague Language

Between now and the next BGM, I believe that our Federal Council should strike a committee to look at modernizing our Constitution (and no, I’m not volunteering myself for this committee!). Clearly, there are a number of vague provisions contained within our Constitution which have led to a significant amount of infighting amongst Greens (such as, what does “4 years” really mean anyway?).

Vague language is very problematic in a document which is intended to be kept as a promise.

Practicing Internally what we Preach Externally: General Meetings and Democracy

We also need to assess whether our internal processes are doing all that they should be. In particular, the way in which we hold General Meeting is problematic, and frankly not very democratic. Without a delegate or proxy system in place, or without the ability of all members to have the opportunity to cast their votes on Constitutional and policy proposals, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice in my opinion, and certainly we’re not practicing the democratic values which we preach.

That may come as a surprise to some of our members who aren’t familiar with our current processes, or who have never attended a BGM, and I think this issue deserves a little more analysis. Currently, General Meetings are scheduled to occur every two years. The last one, in 2010, was in Toronto. The one before it was held in Nova Scotia.

Constitutional and policy proposals are circulated to all members via email and regular mail prior to the BGM. Each member is afforded the opportunity to cast their vote for each proposal. Usually, there are upwards of 50 different items on the ballot for voting.

Members can cast three different types of votes through the “Bonser ballot” process: Green for outright approval; red for outright rejection; and, yellow for a tentative approval where additional work is required by workshops at the BGM. A majority of votes cast for one colour seals the fate of each proposal. The yellow “workshopped” votes are the most problematic for the Party. Here’s why:

When the BGM convenes, the yellow “workshopped” proposals are treated very differently by the members in attendance. It seemed to me in 2010 that the members in attendance forgot that the membership at large had voted for the Party to move forward with the workshopped resolutions, after putting a little more effort into making them workable. The membership of the Party didn’t reject any of the yellow resolutions; they actually told BGM attendees to make them better and make them work.

Overwhelmingly, though, those yellow workshopped resolutions were not made to work, and were defeated by attendees at the BGM. Now, we all had our reasons for wanting to defeat some of these Constitutional and Policy proposals, but none of our reasons really had to do with respecting the will of the membership.

As it is, less than 18% of Green Party members bothered to vote in the pre-BGM Bonsor Ballot process anyway, so determining the actual “will of the membership” couldn’t really have happened. “The will of the voting membership” would have been a better term. Anyway, I point this out because I think that our internal voter turn out speaks volumes about the level of disengagement our membership has with what’s going on internally with our Party. And I would suggest that this level of engagement, coupled with the ridiculous Bonser Ballot process (which has hardly ever seen a policy or constitutional amendment voters wouldn’t send to a yellow workshop) are reasons why we need to do something serious about the way in which we hold our General Meetings.

And finally, about those General Meetings…it must be nice to be one of the richer members of the Party who can afford to make their way to Toronto or wherever the meeting is held, paying “delegate” fees and maybe hotel fees along the way too. Sure, I know that some who attend the BGM scrimp and save and suffer economic sacrifices because they want to be a part of events, and yes, we have discounted “delegate” fees for students and others who have cause. My point, however, is that it’s not exactly easy for the average member to make the commitment to attend any BGM, and often the reasons are financial in nature.

And since it’s at these BGM’s where our Constitutional issues and, until recently, all of our policy issues are discussed and voted on (for even those “green lighted” matters in the pre-BGM Bonser Ballot have to be “approved” on the floor of the BGM by those in attendance), we’ve created for ourselves a two-tier system which is inherently anti-democratic. In the first tier, we have those members who can attend the BGM, and thus actively participate in shaping our Party’s future. In the second tier, we have everybody else, who must rely on trying to influence outcomes by casting a Bonser ballot which seems to only be partly respected by the first tier members.

If for no other reason than an economic reason, we have to make our BGM’s open and accessible for everyone to attend, or else we need to make them truly representative by providing for a delegate system. Open and accessible General Meetings will likely mean that we move our BGM’s into a virtual world. If we wish to maintain the face-to-face element of General Meetings, we must either institute a delegate system, or implement the provisions for proxy voting currently found in our Constitution, but requiring a by-law for their implementation.

At the August 2010 BGM, an effort to implement proxy voting was shot down on the floor of the meeting, despite having received a yellow “workshop” vote in the Bonser Ballot. So the situation was that a majority of voting members of the Green Party (those in the second tier) wanted to be able to have an opportunity for real participation in General Meetings through a proxy voting process, but a majority of members in attendance at the General Meeting (the privileged first tier) told the second tier to forget about it.

So much for respecting the will of the membership.

And that’s a big problem for this Party. If we truly value democratic discourse, we must get things right with our own internal processes.

And don’t even get me started on a Federal Council which has room for the same number of reps from Newfoundland and Labrador (representing 7 ridings and likely less than 100 members) and Ontario (with 103 ridings, and about 40% of our total membership of the Party).

It’s time we got serious about our internal processes, because the friction it creates is truly problematic.

Replacing the Constitution

The committee struck by Fed Council should look into creating a more streamlined, user-friendly version of our Constitution and by-laws, which could then be presented to the membership in its entirety with the hopes of achieving a green light on the Bonser Ballot (so that it’s not torn apart through workshops at the BGM). The idea of virtual meetings should be part of a new Constitution, and votes conducted by the membership at large should automatically be treated as an expression of the will of the Party. Where an item is passed through an online vote, it should not then be required to be voted on again by those tier 1 members who attend a General Meeting.

We need to get rid of the Bonser Ballot, and instead provide a greater opportunity to “workshop” resolutions prior to a General Meeting, and through an online process. When a resolution goes out to the membership at large for a vote, it will either pass or fail based on the response of all of the membership. If the members perceive a problem, no matter how small, and vote the resolution down, so be it. Hopefully such small problems could be avoided in the first place by a more robust online workshop process (indeed, such a process should replace our “living policy” process).

Through a more democratic online voting process, we can probably do away with the need of face to face General Meetings altogether. Which is not to say that they won’t ever happen; just that when they do, they’ll be for other purposes.

Other political parties have done away with things like leadership conventions, and have replaced them with a more democratic preferential ballot. It’s time for the Green Party to head in a similar direction.

The Funding Agreement

The “Funding Agreement” is a big issue in our Party. I’m not going to explain exactly how it works, because frankly, I don’t completely understand it. I understand it less now that changes were made to it in August, 2010. Suffice it to say that the Funding Agreement is a codified agreement made between various units of the Party. For the most part, there are only two different units: there is what I’ve been referring to as the “Central Party”, and then there are all of the Electoral District Associations, which together total several hundred throughout Canada. There’s also a “Provincial Division” or something like that, established in British Columbia, which may or may not occupy an intermediate spot between the Central Party and the EDA’s. All that I know for sure about this provincial division is that it’s unique to B.C., and the Party voted in 2010 not to establish such divisions ever again.

The Funding Agreement sets out just how much of the per-vote subsidy that the Party receives flows to each of the EDA’s. It works like this: in the last election, Candidate Smith received 1,000 votes in the riding of Jones-South Island-Maritimia (JSIM). The government of Canada then flows $2 per vote received to the coffers of the Central Party. Thus, the 1,000 votes cast for candidate Smith mean $2,000 for the Party.

Through the Funding Agreement, the Central Party agrees to send 1/3 of the $2,000 to the Electoral District Association (EDA) in JSIM. So, throughout the course of a year, the Central Party will transfer $660 to the JSIM EDA, through the course of several payments (quarterly, I believe).

Seems like a pretty good idea, no? I’ll tell you this as the CEO for one of those EDA’s receiving this kind of payment: it’s very helpful. Our counterparts in the EDA’s of the other parties can be a little jealous. You see, in the other parties, their Central offices hold onto all of the per-vote money received. Only in the Green Party does some of this money flow to the EDA’s.

But…it may be time to revisit the Funding Agreement. It might be rendered meaningless anyway should the per-vote subsidy be cancelled. But, if the subsidy is merely going to be phased out over time, it might be worth taking a look at the Funding Agreement. You see, as a result of our loss of vote share, all party units are about to take a big hit financially.

I’ve been advocating that it makes sense for the Party to utilize its scarce resources to try to win in priortized ridings in 2015. To do so, however, the Central Party is going to need to be able to target financial resources to those select ridings. If a riding isn’t going to be a priority, it shouldn’t be receiving the same level of funding as the priority ridings.

In SGI, it’s true that the Central Party poured a lot of extra money into that riding. It was a priority. In 2015, though, the Party isn’t likely going to find itself in the position of having as much money for priority ridings, because 1) there is likely going to be more than one identified; and 2) we’re just going to have less money available.

This suggestion is going to draw a lot of criticism, because it has to do with money, but I think it might be time to terminate the Funding Agreement. Ridings which aren’t priorities don’t need the cash in the same way that ridings which are priorities do. Non-priority ridings may need to raise more of their own revenues through fundraising. I think that fundraising is something that we’re all going to have to get a lot better at. But as long as the per-vote money is coming in, it’s incumbent on the Party to use it for priority purposes. That means in ridings where we have decided to focus our efforts.

Jettisoning Policies

If I thought being critical of the Funding Agreement was going to be problematic, I’m almost sure to stir up a hornet’s nest with this idea.

The Green Party of Canada has too many policies. We have so many, in fact, that no one is really sure which policies are still current, or which have been replaced or partially superceded by other policies. You see, when we pass a new policy which might be in contradiction to a previous policy, we never seem to repeal the old policy. Therefore, it might be entirely unclear to party members, nominated candidates, the media and everyone just where our Party stands on a particular issue.

Sure, we have Vision Green, which is an amazing document, but it’s actually not representative of the true extent of our Party’s policies. What Vision Green represents is a monumental undertaking on the part of a small group of dedicated Greens (who mustn’t have any sort of life outside of the Party) to reconcile and present our current policies in a cohesive, comprehensive and easily understood way. I’ll tell you this: that’s not an easy task.

Vision Green, though, is itself too long, and too ambitious for a Party whose ambitions need to be a little more limited. That’s not the same thing as saying that Vision Green isn’t a great document, because it is. But the scope of it all can be a little overwhelming.

Other parties have experienced considerable success with a smaller buffet of ideas and policies, targeted towards specific groups of people. The Green Party probably shouldn’t do that, because it’s the holistic nature of our policies, and how they all fit together in a complimentary fashion that can be appealing to more studious voters. But, by providing voters with the “big picture”, we may be overlooking opportunities to sell them on the little pictures.

In 2006, when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, his Party ran on 5 specific promises, of which no one remembers any except one: he promised to cut the GST to 5%. Michael Ignatieff tried to run on a foggier notion of the 5 promises with his “family pack” in the previous election, of which most people now don’t even recall anything. Something about tuition maybe and health care?

The point is that Harper was successful because he stuck to his easily repeatable message about a small, easily-digestible number of items. Ignatieff tried too, but he kept on getting caught up in stories about red doors and blue doors and coalitions and asking voters to rise up. The “family pack”, which might have otherwise been a good political move for the Liberals, went out the window.

In the last election, the Green Party’s platform tried to be a little bit like Harper’s 5 promises, but still came across as too broad on the one hand, and too light and fluffy on the other. Voters who wanted more meat were directed to Vision Green 2011. Those who were happy with the watered-down version still had too much to digest. But at least the platform had a spreadsheet at the back for costing.

As part of building our brand, we need to develop a few core messages and stick to them. Not just during an election campaign, but throughout the next 4 years as well. That’s not to say that we should never deviate from these core messages, but instead that we should work those messages into as much as we possibly can, so that in 4 years time voters will be more familiar with our brand.

The core messages must be about environmental responsibility and carbon pricing, the democratic deficit, and how we aren’t the NDP. I’d also suggest ending marijuana prohibition as a potential fourth. And that’s enough.

What then of our other policies? Well, they’ll still be there (although I hope we can jettison a few of them as being no longer needed, or just too controversial), but they won’t be things that we’re going to do a lot of talking about. That might not sit well with members, but I think it’s something that we have to do.

Nimble and Flexible Decision Making

Who speaks for the Green Party of Canada? That’s actually not such an easy question to answer. Yes, we have a Leader of the Party, but the role of Leader within our Party isn’t the same as that of Leaders of other parties. From the perspective of power and decision-making, our Leader is really just one of a handful of members on a board of decision-makers known as Federal Council. The Leader has one vote. Sure, the Leader can exercise a significant amount of influence on Fed Council, but the way in which the rules work, the Leader still has only one vote. It’s probably best to compare our Leader to a municipal Mayor.

The way that our Constitution is structured makes the Leader a spokesperson for the Party, and little else. When our Leader wants to speak, therefore, what the Leader actually says can become a bit of a sticky issue. If the Leader is speaking about membership-approved policy, such as the need for high-speed rail, well that’s usually pretty easy.

But our Leader is often asked to speak about things for which the membership has provided little or no direction. Take the recent situation with the United Nations intervention in Libya. Given that Libya wasn’t on the BGM Agenda back in August of 2010, our membership hasn’t actually endorsed any formal policy on what the Green Party’s response to the unanticipated crisis should be.

Where, then, does that leave our Leader/Spokesperson?

Well, I guess the matter could have been discussed at Federal Council, but they only meet once a month, and the media is knocking at the door, wanting the Green Party’s perspective. Should Canada intervene? If so, how? Bombing? Boots on the Ground? Targetted assassinations? What page of Vision Green is that stuff found on?

Events often overtake our Party’s positions, and when decisions have to be made by the leadership, we Greens are pretty darn quick to rake that leadership over the coals. We’re certainly not a party whose members toe the party line unquestioningly. On the contrary, if you put three Greens together to discuss a policy issue, you’ll end up with at least four different responses.

Greens should be relieved to know, though, that unlike decision-making in other parties, where decisions are often based on political expediency (can you say Pot Ash Corp, anyone?), the Green Party arrives at its decisions by looking through the very helpful lens of shared Green values. Where we may be lacking policy direction, we can at least turn to our values for guidance. And as a result, we almost always get it right (sorry, Elizabeth; an appointment by Stephane Dion to the Senate didn’t hit a high note with me).

Nonetheless, there needs to be a greater recognition that the Party Leader sometimes needs to speak on behalf of the Party without as much guidance and direction as some Greens would be comfortable with. Our Party Leader needs to be more than one vote on Federal Council, and more than a simple spokesperson.

And one day, we’ll have a caucus in parliament (if all goes well). Caucus, too, will need some special consideration. Will caucus be whipped when it comes to voting on issues for which the Party has policy? Or doesn’t have policy? If it’s not to be whipped, why not (especially on matters where the Party has policy)?

We need to start thinking ahead about the evolving role of our Party’s Leader and caucus. Hopefully, by the time 2015 roles around, Elizabeth May won’t be the only Green in parliament.

Well, that pretty much concludes the extent of my thinking on where the Green Party might want to think about heading over the next four years. I hope that you’ve enjoyed my concisely expressed observations over the course of the last 4 blogposts (which appear to constitute about 35 pages of text). For those of you who wish that you had those hours of your lives back to do something better with, I sincerely apologize.

I’m almost tempted to leave things off like that, except, well, you know me: saying good bye is never easy. Yesterday, I read a post from another party member which included an excellent idea which I think that the Party needs to explore: the creation of an ecocentric, ecologically considerate Think Tank, which could do some of the heavy lifting for the Party in terms of policy acceptance, especially with the media. Thanks go to Vere Scott for that idea, and I absolutely think that a small group of Greens should start trying to lay the foundations for such a think tank, perhaps in conjunction with one of our more progressive Universities. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s worth doing, because our own resources are going to be stretched over the next few years.

You take care, folks. As always, comments are welcome.

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

1 comment:

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