Thursday, August 2, 2012

Motion Sickness: Green Party Members Greenlight Problematic Motions Ahead of 2012 BGM

Please note that this particular blogpost may only be of interest to Members of the Green Party of Canada, supporters, and other political insiders.  Also, please be advised that some of the links to specific party motions will not work unless one is first logged into the Green Party of Canada's website.  To log in, or to become a member of the Party, please visit .


Earlier this evening, I visited the Green Party of Canada’s website to find out if results had been posted for the membership “Bonser Ballot” voting on policy, directive and constitutional motions. Before every Biennial General Meeting, Green Party members are invited by the Party to vote on numerous motions. The Party uses a Bonser Ballot (explained in detail at this link), but essentially members can vote “Green”, “Yellow” or “Red”. Where 60% of the vote received is Green or Red, the motion is either passed or defeated. All other vote counts mean that the motion will be “workshopped” by members attending the BGM.

This year’s BGM is taking place in Sidney, British Columbia, later this month (August 17 through 19). Earlier this evening, I discovered that the results of earlier voting have now been posted at this location: . Information regarding the number of votes is not currently available, only vote percentages.

To my complete horror, I have discovered that the membership, in its wisdom, are about to initiate substantial changes to the policies of the Green Party of Canada. I feel the need to call out the membership for some of these changes, as I can’t believe that the membership wishes to fundamentally change the Party’s policy positions related to so many issues important to the membership and our supporters. It is also my hope that the results of the Bonser Ballot might yet be overturned on the floor of the General Meeting by those in attendance at the meeting, which is specific power granted to the General Meeting through the Party’s Constitution and by-laws.

The Commercial Seal Hunt

Currently, the Green Party of Canada supports phasing out the industrial-scale commercial seal hunt for numerous reasons (although the Party does support sustainable subsistence harvest of seals by aboriginal peoples). While this position has been controversial within the Party, it appears that a version of this policy has been on the Party’s books at least since 2002. Many have suggested that our support for this policy is the biggest reason why the Party has failed to make inroads in the Province of Newfoundland & Labrador. However, the membership of the Party, for varied reasons, has continued to be of the view that phasing out the seal hunt is simply the right thing to do. At least up until now.

Greens were asked to vote on two policy motions which would have the effect of rescinding our existing policies on the seal hunt: Motions G12-P09, which rescinds numerous policies, and G12-P18, which specifically rescinds policies related to the commercial seal hunt. These motions were “greenlighted” by the voting membership with a level of support of 79.3% (G12-P09) and 60.7% (G12-P18).

A related motion, G12-P19, regarding new policies which would see Greens support a call for expanding the commercial seal hunt and the development of new markets for seal products received a majority greenlight votes (52.7%) but did not meet the Bonser Ballot approval threshold of 60%, so it will be workshopped at the BGM. Through the workshop process, the policy motion can be changed by the General Meeting and approved, or it can be defeated outright.

The Green Party of Canada is the only national political party which currently supports phasing out the commercial seal hunt. The Party has worn this policy as a badge of honour and has used the policy to attract many supporters who are primarily concerned about animal welfare issues. In short, I believe it has been a winning policy for the Party, particularly outside of Atlantic Canada. Whether one agrees with the ethics of continuing the seal hunt or not, what is clear is that the hunt is no longer an economic venture, and Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing it, year after year.

A change to our policies regarding the seal hunt may not at first appear to be dangerous, given that the other mainstream parties are in favour of continuing to subsidize the hunt. However, let’s be honest here: many Green supporters are very touchy when it comes to animal welfare issues, and when they discover that the Party has rescinded policy on phasing out the commercial hunt, we will likely lose those supporters and their significant financial contributions. Now, it could be argued that a policy change might open the door to the Party in Newfoundland & Labrador, but I’d suggest that closing doors in urban and suburban ridings in B.C. and southwestern Ontario at the expense of possible future gains in Newfoundland is not the direction which the Party should choose to go in.

Let me be blunt here. The Green Party’s electoral success in the next federal general election will be found in a handful of ridings in British Columbia, Alberta, southwestern Ontario, and the Yukon. And maybe one in Montreal if Deputy Leader Georges Laraque decides to run there (although I think Edmonton Centre would be a better choice for former Edmonton Oiler Laraque). Our current policy supporting the phasing out of the seal hunt is a “winner” in those areas, and therefore it should be maintained.

Historic Policies

A number of motions which have received greenlights from the membership will rescind some of the Green Party’s historic policies. Many of these policies may now be considered out-of-date or stale, and likely should be disposed of. However, other policies, although adopted by the membership many years ago, remain relevant to Greens, and indeed, set us apart from other parties.

In particular, the membership in its wisdom has voted to remove our policies related to our support for same-sex marriages. Again, the Party has worn these policies as a badge of honour in the LGBT2SQA community ever since our membership first adopted a policy supporting gay marriage and common-law partnerships in 1996 (the first national political party to do so). Given that social conservatives, some of whom are currently occupying seats in Parliament, continue to threaten to overturn existing marriage laws, it makes no sense for the Green Party of Canada to be seen to be taking steps backwards from our historic position of support.

Our historic policy with regards to the legalization of cannabis is also on the chopping block. The Green Party has held this policy position since 1998, and is in the only national political party which outright supports and end to prohibition through legalization. Given that polls continue to show that a majority of Canadians support ending prohibition, for many reasons, it just doesn’t make sense that the Green Party would now discard our pot policy.

Some Greens may think that the absence of policy alone doesn’t mean that we’re against gay marriage or ending prohibition, but the truth is that we will be handing ammunition to our political opponents, as well as confusing our existing and potentially new supporters. By rescinding these policies, our political opponents will quite rightly be able to state that we no longer support gay marriage rights and ending prohibition, and that voters should not cast their ballots for Green candidates if these issues are important to them. “Didn’t the Green Party afterall just rescind their policies on these issues? Clearly, Greens want to become social conservatives, instead of progressives.”

Stephen LaFrenie, a very active party partisan, has written about some of the effects of these motions which will eliminate historic policies. He offers a very clear analysis with regards to the policy holes which won’t be filled should the Party ultimately discard some of these policies. See LaFrenie’s excellent analysis: “Green Party Proudly Marches in Pride Parade While Being Asked to Rescind its Historic Policy on Same-Sex Marriages” and “Green Party Being Asked to Rescind its Policy on Cannabis”.

What Does it Mean to be “Green”?

Last, but certainly not least, I need to bring to your attention what is potentially the most dangerous policy which our membership in its wisdom has decided to endorse, that being motion G12-P16, the “Free Vote” policy. Ostensibly, this policy was created to provide guidance to Party members and future MP’s with regards to how votes will be cast, both at General Meetings and by MP’s in Parliament. The Green Party has long prided itself as being a political party which does things differently, and our Leader Elizabeth May is on record saying that she does not support whipping votes. This policy, if approved at the General Meeting, will ensure that MP’s can never be whipped on votes, and that there votes can never lead to the Party taking measures against them.

On the surface, such a motion appears to make sense, especially if there are concerns with regards to whipping MP’s to vote in a certain way. Recall that former NDP MP Bruce Hyer (who will be speaking at the Green Party’s upcoming Biennial General Meeting later this month) cited vote whipping as one of his reasons for leaving the NDP.

Let me be clear: I do not support whipping MP’s to vote a certain way. And if motion G12-P16 limited itself to declaring simply that “there shall be no whipped votes”, I would have supported it.

Instead, however, the motion goes far too far. It indicates that Greens, on matters of conscious (which is not defined in the motion), can choose to vote any way that they want to. The lack of definition with regards to “matters of conscious” is truly problematic, as it can be construed to mean anything anybody wants it to mean. A matter of conscious might be the ethics of implementing a revenue-neutral carbon tax (“it will hurt the poor, I can’t vote for that!”). This despite the fact that the Green Party has member-approved policy which supports the implementation of such a tax through tax shifting.

The approval of this motion will ultimately mean that member-approved policy won’t be worth the paper that its printed on, as MP’s will be free to “vote their conscience” on any and all issues. Again, some might argue that’s not a bad thing, and in fact more MP’s should be doing just that. But recall for a moment that the election of these MP’s will require the expenditure of resources from the Party in the form of a central campaign, along with local campaigns supported financially by Green members and supporters. In short, we could end up financially supporting the election of MP’s who won’t follow our own policies, and who won’t suffer any consequences for not doing so. That’s just an absurd situation.

Party members and supporters, not to mention new future supporters, will be left wondering just what it means to be a “Green” when elected MP’s won’t have to follow Party policy, or even base their votes on our shared Green Values. Simply put, being “Green” won’t any longer mean anything.

And that’s why motion G12-P16 goes too far. In this case, the absence of Party policy with regards to how MP’s should vote will serve the Party well when Elizabeth May is joined by a caucus of Green MP’s.

For more animated discussion, please see the following discussions: Party Members Only discussion on Motion G12-P16, and Paul Maillet’s blog, “2012 Policy Motion Free Votes – Request Support”, in which I have commented extensively (and which is available to the general public for viewing.  We Greens really aren't scared to air our disagreements with one another - it's all a part of how we do politics differently.  While I don't agree with this motion, I'm glad that Greens are discussing it publicly, as the motion has many supporters as well as detractors).

The Absurdity of Bonser

Now, given that the voting membership in its wisdom have spoken on these proposed motions, many Greens might argue that the Party should follow the will of its voting members. Normally, I’d be in agreement with that approach, but what is not known to me is what percentage of the membership actually cast ballots to authorize these significant and fundamental changes to Party policy?

Further, I have never been a supporter of the foolish “Bonser Ballot” approach used by the Party in an effort to obtain a higher level of consensus on matters coming forward for voting at BGM’s. I see the wisdom of the Bonser process with respect to the fact that the Green Party of Canada does not use a delegate selection process for attending its General Meetings, and nor does it currently permit proxy voting, despite having this provision within the Constitution. Essentially, allowing the membership to express its will through the Bonser process before the General Meeting does, to a degree, offset the fact that only those members who are financially better-off or who can find financial support, or through happenstance live in close proximity to the General Meeting location, can attend the General Meeting.

In practice, however, the Bonser Ballot is a confusing voting process for members, who often have little to rely on when casting ballots other than the extremely biased “WHEREAS” clauses written by the motion movers, and maybe some commentary by the Party which (this time at least) tends to be pretty neutral in tone. Yes, it’s true that voters can read comments written by other members, but only if they click on a link to do so. And even then, many of the motions voted on lacked much in the way of online comments from the membership.

With over 40 constitutional, directive and policy motions to vote on (a lower number than usual, actually), most members decide to opt out of voting altogether. In 2010, the percentage of members in good standing who cast ballots through the Bonser process was the highest ever for the Party, but was still less than 20%.

And, as per usual, the vast majority of motions received a “greenlight” from the membership. This trend to me speaks to the biggest flaw with the Bonser process, at least as it is applied to the Green Party. We Greens, generally speaking, are united by our positivity and general trust in the wisdom of other like-minded people. I really do believe that our shared values create a reluctance to be outright critical of others when it comes to voting, and therefore I think that Greens are far less likely to vote against something than they are to vote for it (if they think others believe it’s a good idea), or at least, in the case of the Bonser Ballot, to vote “yellowlight”.

This time around, out of more than 40 motions considered by the membership, only 6 did not receive 60% or more “greenlight” votes. Not one motion was “redlighted”. I know that I myself voted Red on 20 motions. Clearly, I’m just a contrarian, at least amongst the voting membership!

It’s well past time that the Party abandon the Bonser Ballot process, as it does not serve our Party well. It offers the voting membership too many opportunities to opt out of critical decision making. The decisions which the Party makes with regards to our Constitution and policies really are critical, because they shape our Party from the ground up. With so few members actively engaged in the process, and with the ability to cast a vote neither for or against a particular motion ultimately affecting the outcome of the vote, it’s clear that this process does not serve the Party well. There are too many opportunities to opt out of making critical decisions.

Fixing the Dilemma

Luckily, there does remain an opportunity for the Party to deal with some of these issues which I’ve highlighted (as well as with other issues which I’ve not highlighted. For example, I’ll be frank: I haven’t bothered to go through the list of several dozen policies which the membership has voted to rescind through the adoption of a few motions. I don’t really know what other scorpions might be lurking amongst the weeds of these recent decisions). Ultimately, the General Meeting is tasked with ratifying the Bonser Ballot votes. But the General Meeting also has the power to refuse approval of the Bonser Ballot voting, or refuse the approval of specific motions.

I believe that the Party will be best served by the General Meeting “pulling out” certain motions approved through the Bonser Ballot, and revisiting those motions (or, in the case of the motions I’ve highlighted here, simply discarding them). At first, this may appear to be going against the will of the membership, and while I think that there’s an argument which can be made to that effect, given what is likely to be a low membership vote turn-out, I’m not certain that the argument has a lot of legs.

And given the implications to the Party that these significant changes in policy are likely to have, I believe that the General Meeting must take the action to deny approval to the motions I’ve written about here.

As I wrote earlier, I voted Red on 20 separate motions, but the fact is, as a Green, I guess I can live with about 16 or so of these motions going forward, so I’m not putting my effort into trying to convince the General Meeting of addressing all of my grievances. But with regards to killing our commercial seal hunt policies, along with other important historic policies, and allowing future MP’s to vote against member-approved policies, well, the General Meeting must take action.

A failure to act will almost certainly transform the Green Party into a very pale imitation of itself: one which ultimately has no history, and no clear future destination. A failure to act may mean that we end up becoming a pale green parody of ourselves.

(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)