Monday, October 21, 2019

May 27 2019: The Day the Green Party of Canada Lost the Election

Dateline - May 27, 2019.  The seeds for the Green Party's eventual poor showing in tonight's election were sown on the day that the Green Party of Canada found itself at  the height of their power and influence.  On that day, Paul Manly was sworn in as the newly-elected Member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Ladysmith - only the second Green MP ever be elected by Canadians.  Manly had invested time energy into a campaign, which (for many) led to a surprising upset win on May 6 2019.

Greens had been racking up victories: just before Manly, the PEI Greens had returned 9 MLA's to Charlottetown, and formed the first-ever Green Official Opposition.  In New Brunswick, a provincial election saw three Greens elected.  And in Ontario in 2018, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner was sent to Queens Park by the good people of Guelph. 

Expectations for a serious breakthrough in the October federal election were high, as the NDP sagged in the polls and even the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were looking more than a little run-down.  With, what at the time appeared to be a growing threat to the Conservative Party on the political right in the form of Maxime Bernier's People's Party, Greens were buying in to the Green Surge big-time.  Including me! (see: "Greens to be Ignored No More," Sudbury Steve May, May 7 2019).

Elizabeth May
But things started to go off the rails - and much of it was, in my opinion, completely avoidable.  We Greens like to brag that 'we do politics differently' but after more than 10 years in the Green Party, I'm far too often left shaking my head in exasperation and lamenting that Greens don't really "do" politics at all.  

Mission: Possible Problems

"Mission: Possible" - the Green Party's climate change action plan, was released on May 16th (see: "Elizabeth May unveils Mission: Possible – the Green Climate Action Plan," Green Party of Canada, May 16 2019).  Although concerns about Point 13 had been percolating on social media for days, the story about the Green's wanting to ban foreign oil imports and build refineries in Alberta broke on the 27th (see: "Green party calls for ban on foreign oil imports, using Alberta bitumen instead," the Calgary Herald, May 27 2019, and "Elizabeth May's 'Canadian oil' idea would be the end of Canadian oil," Don Braid, the Calgary Herald, May 27 2019 and "Greens call for ban on foreign oil imports, using Alberta oil instead," CBC News, May 27 2019).  

Once the cat was out of the bag, it didn't take much public head-scratching for environmentalists to wonder just where the Green Party was coming from on Point 13 - especially since Greens had gone to some lengths to tell others that we were the party who would unequivocally say 'No' to new fossil fuel infrastructure like bitumen pipelines and LNG.  But apparently new refineries didn't quite make the cut.
Alex Tyrrell

Quebec's eco-socialist Green Party leader, Alex Tyrrell - no friend to Elizabeth May and the Green Party of Canada (see: "Elizabeth May ordered deputies not to associate with leader of Quebec Greens," Ethan Cox, Riccochet, September 15 2016) couldn't quite wrap his head around the Greens new-found love of building refining capacity in Alberta as part of an exercise to end foreign oil imports - and more importantly, decided to be very public with his condemnation (see: "Elizabeth May wants to only use Canadian oil — a plan Quebec's Green Party leader can't support," CBC As It Happens, May 30 2019).  The media loves a good fight between partisans of the same colour, and this was no exception.  The pitched battles continue to take place throughout the summer (see: "Green rift opens over federal party’s stance on Alberta’s oilsands," Alex Ballingall, the Toronto Star, July 17 2019) leading to a moderation of the Green Party's position that included something like using oil from Newfoundland's Hibernia oil for Quebec (see: "Mission: Possible - Clarification of Green Party's Energy Transition Plan," Green Party of Canada, May 30 2019) to the point that no one could really figure out where the Green Party was at on this issue.  Including many Greens and Green Party candidates.

Of course, Greens have no one to blame but themselves for this.  Back in 2014, grassroots Greens at the General Meeting in Sidney, B.C., adopted a policy that was promoted by the Party during the 2015 election (see: "May says Green Party would support refineries, not pipelines," the Globe and Mail, October 10 2015).  That the party hasn't taken the time to modify this policy - or eliminate it altogether - says either something about the merits of the policy (and there are some) or the reality dysfunction of the party's policy process (props to one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Peter F. Hamilton - I've been trying to work that term into a blog now for years...).

Critics (both inside and outside of the Party) were, in my opinion, right to point out that the difference between now and 2014/15 is that the world's scientific community have given us just 12 years (are we down to 11 yet?) to get our collective acts together on seriously reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the point that any mention of new fossil fuel infrastructure is going to come under scrutiny.  The fact of the matter is - grassroots approved policy or not - the refinery/upgrader initiative didn't need to end up in the Green Party's platform (and it point of fact, it didn't) or occupying the position of one of just 20 points in Mission: Possible - the Party's climate plan (whereas something like funding municipal transit systems was given a pass in that plan).
Jody Wilson-Raybould


But perhaps the biggest problem for Greens on May 27th was about something that didn't happen: when Independent MP's Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott announced that they would continue to sit as Independents in the House.  For the better part of the month of May, Elizabeth May appeared to be dropping hints that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott might be getting ready to join the Green Party (see: "Door open for Wilson-Raybould, Philpott to join the Greens: May," News 1130, April 4 2019, and "Wilson-Raybould and Philpott will soon decide whether to join the Greens, May says," CBC News, May 8 2019).  Riccochet reporter Ethan Cox even cited 'inside sources' in the Green Party suggesting that the two Independent MP's were ready to sign on with the Greens - just two days before they didn't (see: "Are Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott going Green?" Ethan Cox, Riccochet, May 25 2019).  

There was no good reason for Elizabeth May to be engaging in public speculation about the future of the two Independent MP's unless the game was fixed.  Keeping this story in front of the media for over a month only made sense in the context of the story ending with the positive decisions of Raybould-Wilson and Philpott (or maybe even just Raybould-Wilson) joining the Green Party of Canada.  

Although CBC broke the story late on Sunday, May 26th (see: "Wilson-Raybould, Philpott won't run as Greens in fall election," CBC News, May 26 2019), Wilson-Raybould and Philpott both announced on Monday, May 27th their intention to remain independents.  What ought to have been a massive coup for the Green Party turned into yet another missed opportunity.  

And then it turned into something worse.

Fire in the Belly

Completely mishandling the situation, it was reported that Elizabeth May was prepared to step down as leader of the Green Party should newly-Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould want to wear that mantle for herself (see: "Elizabeth May offered to quit Green leadership if Wilson-Raybould wanted it," Canadian Press, May 27, 2019).  Voters - and Greens - were left to wonder just whether May's heart was in the upcoming campaign, and whether she was secretly hoping that she could sit this one out as leader.  That May had apparently approached Wilson-Raybould during 'her very first conversation' - presumably back in April - was a bit of a slap in the face to Greens (see: "'A mistake': Elizabeth May disappointed Wilson-Raybould, Philpott rejected Greens," CTV News, May 27 2019) - who have a pretty vigorous, grassroots process in place for electing new leaders.  May's phrasing also left her open to criticism from the left that the Green Party really was the "Elizabeth May Party" complete with transferable leadership powers, kind of like North Korea.

The damage, though, was serious.  The Green Party would go on to fight the 2019 election without the benefit of two highly-regarded former cabinet Ministers.  There would be more mis-steps, mistakes and misunderstandings that would lead to the Party's polling high of 13% dissipate in the final days of the October campaign, back to their more 'normal' 6% pre-Election night count (and I predict it will likely fall even further once all of the ballots are added up this evening).

Momentum Lost

Imagine the election campaign that might have been - with left-wing environmental groups lining up behind a surging Green Party as the 'best option' to advance their interests.  The summer surge could have continued to build with the mounting excitement brought to the Party with Wilson-Raybould and Philpott.  Perhaps additional star candidates could have been recruited - especially in key ridings.  And rather than heading into the campaign polling around 10%, the Party might have had instead been capturing between 15% and 20% - firmly above the NDP.

But instead, our momentum shifted - and we lost the initiative.  Rather than being in a place where our leader and candidates were calling the shots, we quickly found ourselves on the defensive - and we'd pretty much spend the summer and the campaign trying to explain ourselves to voters - rather than talking about the good things we wanted to do.  There's only so much media oxygen set aside for a fourth party - and most of that is focused on the sort of game-playing that politicians like May hate - but that media consumers seem to love.  

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell
Policy - as I've said many times before - and as noted by others - just does not matter during an election.  Image, sound-bites, and most importantly - the perception of momentum conferred upon parties by the polls - that's the stuff that really matters.  Greens, do you hear me?  

Things would have been completely different for the Green Party had we understood that there were no votes to be gained in Alberta or elsewhere by promoting refineries - and had JWR and Philpott convinced themselves that they could actually have been re-elected under our Party's banner. 

May 27, 2019 appears to have been the zenith for the Party. We might not have known it at the time, but it was all down hill from there.  I'll explore this a little bit more in my next blog post - reminding readers about First Nations water systems, Warren Kinsella, conscious-voting, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory in New Brunswick, lacklustre debate performances, and the Party's inability to get our message out - or its act together.

And I'll ask whether maybe it's time we Greens think about packing it in.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)


Saul Bottcher said...

Good analysis. For context and fairness, it should be noted that Alex Tyrrell pursued changes to Mission Possible in private, and only went public after those efforts were unsuccessful. With the GPC, it's not so much the errors as the refusal to correct them that does the damage. Doubling down on the SNC-Lavalin water infrastructure idea, after getting a clear "no" from activists across the country, was another example.

Brian said...

In fairness, I don't think the GPC can be faulted for attacks from Alex Tyrell. That we suffer public attacks from somebody who is supposed to be on our side is just one of the difficulties in being Green in Canada.