Friday, July 29, 2011

Shaken Faith, Part I: Elizabeth May’s Recent Mis-steps on Green Party Democratic Processes and WiFi

Elizabeth May experienced a wonderfully inspirational month as Canada’s first elected Green Member of Parliament. She showed Canadians that one dedicated opposition MP in the House can have an impact far beyond expectations. In one episode, May stood alone to oppose the continuation of Canada’s bombing mission in Libya, to the shame of New Democrats and their supporters. Characterizing the Libyan situation as a “civil war in which Canada has taken sides”, her articulate position to parliament was well-thought out and nuanced, and ultimately right. I wrote about this episode in an previous post, "May Right on Libya; NDP Fails Canadians Concerned About Civilian Casualities", dated June 20, 2011.

Fast forward to late July, 2011. May has made a number of mis-steps this month, although since it is the height of summer, she’s lucky that fewer Canadians are likely paying attention. Nevertheless, a number of us are, and I know that I am not alone when I express serious concern with two of May’s actions in particular.

The first of these if largely an internal Green Party matter, and likely of much less interest to anyone not involved with the Party. It does, however, deserve some small consideration.

The second pertains to a growing firestorm which has erupted in the mainstream media, largely over comments May made regarding the use of WiFi. But there's more to this story than the mainstream media has latched onto at this time, for beneath the concerns expressed by May about WiFi is the bigger issue of whether the Green Party of Canada has come out in opposition to residential smart meters being installed in homes. Smart meters, of course, are a key element of creating a smart energy grid, which hopefully would lead to a per capita reduction in energy use, and greatly assist in creating a culture of energy conservation. Those concerned about climate change have generally perceived efforts against smart meter installation as wrong-headed. Yet the B.C. Green Party, in its wisdom, has recently attacked BC Hydro's smart meter program. I'll write more about this situation in Part II.

Green Party of Canada - Federal Council Elections

Internal national elections for the Green Party’s executive, known as the Federal Council, are upon the Party again. Why the Green Party seems to want to hold its elections over the summer time I’ll never figure out. I suspect that timing contributes to the abysmal participation rate of Party members in the electoral process (usually below 20%, which is a little embarrassing for a “grassroots” party which advocates for more democracy. In defence of the Party, however, Elections Canada rules pertaining to membership list access don’t exactly make it easy for us).

This year, Green Party members will be voting on several new positions for a Federal Council Executive, as created by changes made to the Constitution at last year’s General Meeting. For the first time, the Party is to have a President, two Vice-Presidents (one English, one French) and a treasurer. Previously, duties of these positions were shared amongst Federal Council, led by an internally elected Chair.

Elizabeth May, who is the Leader of the Party, is one of the members of Federal Council. The Constitution of the Party is the document that provides for the responsibilities and duties of the Party Leader. Suffice it to say that the Leader, as per the Constitution, does not have any stated powers (aside from being the Party "spokesperson") beyond that of any Federal Council member, although the Leader is elected for a longer term, and can continue to occupy the position of Leader without directly having to run for the position (now that the Constitution was changed to require a “leadership review” instead of a “leadership contest”).

Despite the lack of Constitutional power afforded to the Leader, the fact of the matter is that the Leader of the Party is able to exercise real power through influence and access. Some have even criticized May as having influenced the Party significantly, by bootstrapping the Party to herself; some even refer to the Green Party perjoratively as the “Elizabeth May Party”. I don’t think things have gone that far, as there have clearly been some battles at the Federal Council level which May did not win, such as the one pertaining to election financing.

It can not be doubted, however, that May’s voice is by far the strongest voice within the Green Party, and her access to a national podium as Party Leader has allowed her to speak directly to Canadians, and not just members of the Party. No other Green has the ability to project their voice in the same sort of way. And as the Leader of the Party, no other Green’s opinion could hope to carry anything in comparison to the weight of May’s opinions.

With that in mind, let’s return to the Party’s internal elections. A number of positions on Federal Council and the new Executive will need to be filled. Perhaps it says something about the Party’s internal democratic health that only two of the 11 positions are being contested; 7 others will be filled by acclamation (well, technically the Party always runs “None of the Above” as an option for voters, so there will still be a vote; although I’ve never heard of NOTA winning); for 2 more provincial rep positions, no one has put their name forward.

One of the contested positions is that of Party President, for which 3 candidates have put their names forward. In a blogpost made by May, titled “Message to Our Members”, May urges the Party’s membership to vote for one of these contestants, after a brief discussion about why it is important for her to share her opinion on her electoral preference.

Now, I understand that it’s probably best for internal harmony to have a President and Party Leader who get along with one another. And I’m not even particularly troubled by the notion that May has a preference as to who the President should be, given that as a Federal Councillor, she’s going to have to work very closely with the President and other Executive members.

But I’ve seen all of this before. Last year, prior to the General Meeting, May sought to influence the vote on a number of resolutions by having the Party send an email directly to Members, in which she stated her opinions about the resolutions. I wrote about this email at the time, as I was extremely dismayed with what I perceived to be a form of interference in the Party's electoral processes("Green Party Voting: Much More Than Just Going Through the Motions, Part 1: How to Influence People and Game the Vote", July 25 2010).

The authors of the resolutions which May sought to discredit did not have the ability to communicate in the same manner as did May, as the email addresses of our membership are safely guarded by the Party. There was no opportunity for a rebuttal. And even if there had been, it’s clear that May’s voice carries a significant amount of weight in any debate.

This time, so far, May has expressed her opinion on a preferred electoral outcome only through her blogsite. The Green Party, unlike any other Party, allows all of its members, including the Leader, access to blog their thoughts and points of view without any direct interference from the Party (unless the usual lines of good taste and defamation are crossed, of course). In years past, there used to be a direct link to these “Members Blogs” appearing on the GPC’s website. After that link was removed, the blogs became more difficult to find (although they could still be accessed from a drop-down menu). At that time, many bloggers, including myself, moved away from the Party website’s blogs and started our own independent blogs.

In the past couple of months, even the drop-down menu for access to the Member’s Blogs has been removed from the GPC site. There has always been criticism related to these blogs, as more often than not, opinions expressed by members therein haven’t exactly been in keeping with Green Party policy. The concern has been that a casual reader of Member Blogs might conclude that the Green Party stands for thing which it actually doesn’t. It was likely due to these concerns that public access to the Member Blogs has become restricted over time.

It certainly would be an unfortunate situation if a Member spoke out about an issue which was either in contradiction to member-approved policy, or for which the Party does not have a policy, and those statements be misconstrued by the media to be representative of the Party. More on that later.

Unlike the Members Blogs, however, the Party promotes the latest Leader’s blog entries directly on the front page of the Party’s website, through the use of a link. A further link to all blog entries is provided through a drop-down menu. This means that the Leader’s blog is treated quite differently than any other blog on the Party’s site, and as such the Leader is afforded a significantly greater ability to have her opinions accessed by Members and non-Members alike. That’s probably appropriate for a political party in which the Leader is the spokesperson of the Party.

But in terms of an internal democratic election, in which May has chosen to use her blog as a means of endorsing one candidate above the others, clearly the outcome has been to allow May a podium for endorsement which no other candidate or supporter could ever rival. And that’s fundamentally unfair and a bias to the electoral process.

And while at least May hasn’t emailed the Membership her thoughts on the election directly this time, it seems very clear to me that May hasn’t learned that her involvement in the electoral process will inherently taint the outcome, given her position as Leader, and her ability to access the membership to share her opinions.

Keep in mind, no one running as a candidate in the Party is able to send an email directly to the membership, as membership lists are not available to candidates. They may be able to cobble together their own email contacts lists (I know that they try, because I’m on a few of them), but there will always be many members who are overlooked through this process. Nor do candidates have the ability to access members indirectly through links on the GPC website’s frontpage in the same manner as May has.

I believe that May should have remained silent on her preference for Presidential candidate, even though it would have been hard to do. Alternatively, the Party could have explored options to make communication with the membership equal for all candidates who aren’t being endorsed by a publication of the Leader. The fact that my Party’s internal electoral processes have been interfered with by the Leader for two years in a row now is very difficult for me, as a Member concerned about democratic renewal, to swallow.

Continued in Part II...

(opinions expressed in this post are my own, and should not be considered consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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