Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Losing the Initiative: A Deflationary Tale of the Green Party of Canada, 2019-20

"We just lost the initiative."
"It is said that the attacking force, going into a fight, generally has the initiative...But once it becomes a defensive action, then you’re literally giving...over to the enemy and allowing them to determine the tempo of the fight." 

-Mark Bergman, F-16 Crew Chief, "What does Major General Garrison mean by “we just lost the initiative” in Black Hawk Down?"

"If you're explaining, you're losing." 

-U.S. President Ronald Reagan

I know, I know - I really hate it when others use battlefield lingo in the context of a democratic process.  I seriously try to avoid it whenever I can.  But explaining "the initiative" and how the Green Party lost it over the summer of 2019 - and how we might be able to regain it through a leadership contest - and is just so much easier when one views election campaigns as a...well, as a military campaign.

Seizing the Initiative

The initiative is important in an election campaign.  Arguably, for the first time ever, the Green Party of Canada held the initiative throughout April and into May, 2019.  A historic breakthrough in Prince Edward Island, followed by a stunning by-election upset in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, punctuated by Elizabeth May's wedding and speculation that former Liberals Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott might join the Party - all of this made the Green Party the talk of the town for a few weeks.  And the polls were showing it - in fact, the polls, as they always are, were part of the story.

And all of this was happening against a backdrop of the two large federal parties tied in a polling dead-heat, despite the SNC Lavalin scandal which had appeared to take a bit of a bite out of the Liberal Party.  More importantly for Greens, though, the polls showed the NDP languishing in third place, with support bottoming out.  In some regions of the country (the Maritimes), the Green Party had replaced the NDP as the third party.

Heading into the summer, the Green Party appeared to have momentum.  Some polls showed us with support as high as 13% in May.  If we had been able to keep building that momentum throughout the summer, and entered September with 18% or 19% support, October 2019 would have been a completely different election for the Green Party.  

Losing Momentum

Was a support level of 18% ever realistic?  Maybe, maybe not.  There were no elections/by-elections to win over the course of the summer, but there were still MP's that could have been recruited to the cause who might have led the continued building of momentum.  Think about how much more of a splash landing Pierre Nantel might have been for the Party if it had followed on the heels of recruiting Wilson-Raybould and/or Philpott.  

But it wasn't to be.  The Green Party of Canada lost momentum and was put onto the defensive throughout the summer and into the fall.  When you're explaining yourself, you're losing - and that's exactly what the Green Party was doing.

First off, the launch of our pivotal climate action plan, "Mission: Possible" was completely marred by the inclusion of Point 13 in the plan - a call for building refineries in Alberta as part of some quasi-patriotic initiative to wean Canada off of foreign oil.  I get that this has actually been a policy of the Green Party of Canada for some time - but it probably came as a bit of a surprise to many supporters and a few candidates that the Green Party was in fact calling for building new fossil fuel infrastructure.  Whether or not there was any logic to it (and there was) didn't matter - we opened the door to criticism and created doubt among voters.  We didn't have to go there - but we chose to.  It was a bad choice.

NDP MP Pierre Nantel joined the Green Party over the summer, and almost immediately there was cries that the Green Party was welcoming of 'racism' and 'bigotry'.  The Party appears to have been caught off-guard by these assertions - most of which were coming from Nantel's former Party, who appeared not to be too concerned with Nantel's bigotry when he occupied one of their seats.  But the Party ought to have known that picking up Nantel was not exactly a 'win', given comments that Nantel had previously made with regards to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and how Quebecers might not accept Singh.

Hot on the heels of Nantel and his bigoted statements came concerns that Nantel was really a separatist.  Not so, claimed May - at just about the same moment that Nantel publicly declared himself to be a sovereigntist.  For most Greens, there's not really much of a difference - but apparently there was enough nuance there for the Party to hold on to Nantel.  

All in all, Nantel's floor crossing proved to be more of a disaster for the Party than a help.

Elizabeth May came under attack by New Democrats like Charlie Angus over off-hand comments she made where she speculated that companies like SNC Lavalin could be made to pay for new water systems on First Nations reserves.  May's musings on this subject were not in keeping with member-approved policy.  And they were completely distorted by the NDP and an unfriendly media.  But May seemed intent on doubling down on this idea when she brought it up again in the Mclean's debate.  Feeding a discredited idea oxygen was a bad move, and it did not help us in the first week of the election.

A mangled CBC interview that turned a conversation about vote whipping into a criticism that the Green Party was soft on a woman's right to choose was yet another self-inflicted wound.  The interview had apparently been in the can for a few days before it was released, and yet the Party seemed ill-prepared to respond.  

And what should have been a coup for the Green Party - where a number of New Brunswick New Democrats openly declared for our Party - turned into an absolute fiasco that led to more calls that the Green Party was soft on racists.  I'm not going to recount all that happened there - but suffice it to say that the Green Party was busy explaining, and explaining, and explaining that week.

And don't even get me started about that damn photo-shopped cup!

Deflation and Defeat

With the very limited amount of media time that the Green Party receives, it's important that we use this time wisely to build momentum.  But instead, our Party found itself back on its heels, pretty much from June onwards, and especially during the first couple of weeks of the election.  And most of the wounds were self-inflicted.  By the time of the televised leader's debates, the only path forward for a good showing by the Green Party was for Elizabeth May to pull a rabbit out of her hat, knocking out Scheer, Trudeau and Singh with a single blow.

It didn't happen.

Instead, Singh had a couple of good soundbites, which was more than enough to put him over the top in what was arguably the very worst English-language leadership debate in Canadian history.  For the Greens, the NDP finding that it had the initiative heading into the last couple of weeks of the election meant that we were done.

And we were done.  That we held on to what we had on Vancouver Island and picked up Fredericton was probably the best we could have done at that point.

Back to Square One

Now, the Green Party of Canada is heading into a leadership contest that few Greens want and all are ill-prepared for.  While it is true that leadership contests can build momentum for a political party, it is not a universal truth - especially when the leader being replaces is at outsized as the one that the Green Party is losing.

Let me be clear here: no one from within our Party is going to be able to step up and fill Elizabeth May's shoes.  And that is seriously going to hurt our party going forward, as there is no way that the media won't be comparing (at every opportunity) our new leader to our former leader.

But that's not the only hurdle that a new leader is going to have to figure out a way to overcome, to seize the initiative from the other parties, and build momentum heading into an election that could be held at any time.  Let's look at a few of the other factors that are going to tamp down momentum and turn this election cycle into another "building" year (to use a sports analogy).

A Brief Contest

The Party has set October 4, 2020 as the date of the leadership contest.  That's....not a lot of time for potential contestants to put themselves out there.  Especially since just about everyone who might run for the Party suffers from a serious lack of profile.  

Couple that with the fact that the Party hasn't yet identified what mechanisms (beyond earned media) contestants will have to communicate with and influence Party members/voters, and it's likely that only those contestants that can emerge from large voting blocks will really have a chance of winning.  Think Vancouver Island or southwest Ontario here.  If a single candidate emerges from B.C., it's almost inevitable that candidate is going to have a serious advantage over, say, a candidate from Manitoba or Nova Scotia.

A longer contest would allow for our mostly-unknown contestants to become a little more identifiable by the members.  But that's not in the cards.

We've left ourselves a little vulnerable to a popular outsider swooping in to lay claim to the leadership.  And maybe that's not a bad thing (I'll certainly be making that case in a later blog where I take a look at what might be best for the Party going forward).  But it is something that could leave the party faithful a little disillusioned.  

A Constrained Leader

Unlike in other political parties, the leader of the Green Party does not get to decide policy.  Our Constitution is very clear - policy decisions are made by the membership, and our leader is to be a spokesperson only.  Elizabeth May did a very good job of acting in the capacity of constrained leader.  Sure, trying to explain how all of this works to a media that is so used to leader-driven politics was not always as successful as May or Greens like me would have liked it - but without question, for the most part, May understood her role and acted the part.  Sure, there were times where there might have been a little pushback - but over 13 years as leader of the Party, I think May did an admirable job of representing the decisions made by grassroots Greens.

Sometimes, in other parties, leadership candidates might propose a new direction for their party that may really resonate with enough members that they'll get a bit of an edge.  Recall that NDP leadership contestant Guy Caron was proposing a Basic Income at a time when his party had not endorsed the concept.  But had Caron become leader, you can bet that the NDP would have been campaigning on a full Basic Income in 2019 - rather than on a pilot project which they ultimately did campaign on.

But in the Green Party, leaders don't get to make up new policies.  If a leadership contestant wants to campaign on something new, they're going to have to go through a simultaneous process of submitting new policy proposals to the membership for consideration at the same General Meeting which will see them elected.  In other words, there is zero guarantee that a leadership contestant campaigning on a bold, new initiative, will ever be able to implement said initiative.  And that's going to be a consideration for a lot of voters.  If a contestant can't move the Party, what's the point?

And any leadership contestant that tries to spread their wings to take the party in a different direction is sure to be cut down by the other contestants - as well as by our engaged membership.

Which means that leadership contestants are largely going to have to campaign on party policy that's already been approved by the membership.  And where's the fun in that?  

Ultimately, by constraining our leader to the role of spokesperson, we members are going to have to look for who can best fill that role.  And the criteria to be a good PR person is not exactly what I think many Greens want their leader to be (but it is exactly the basis that I'll argue we should be electing our leader on, in a future post).

Ranked Ballot

The way that we will elect our leader in 2020 will also have an impact on momentum.  What I mean here is that if we set out to design a leadership contest decision-day that will produce the least drama and interest possible, we couldn't have done a better job than with our current process.  

Greens across Canada will be asked to submit ranked ballots, which will be tallied in advance of the Charlottetown General Meeting, and likely announced with as much fanfare as possible on either the last day of the meeting, or on the first night.  That may be efficient for the Party, and equitable for members, but it certainly lacks anything in the way of media appeal.

Consider some of the more entertaining and interesting leadership contests that you might remember.  Think about the drama that led to Stephane Dion being declared leader of the Liberal Party.  Even the recent events that saw Andrew Scheer emerge from second place on the 13th ballot to claim the Conservative Party's leadership - wow, there was drama there to be sure.  

The best we're going to be able to do is announce the results of each round of the ranked ballot periodically throughout the day - which the media will totally see through, knowing full well that we could just skip all of that an announce the outcome.

There are a lot of more interesting ways that we could run a leadership contest - but our Constitution is pretty clear about the format that we will use.  It's about as exciting as watching a Facebook algorithm determine which ads will pop up.

Existential Dilemma

With the era of the Elizabeth May party over - Greens are now left to figure out what it is we want to be, and where we should be going.  When May was in the leader's role - despite her role as constrained leader - it was pretty clear to everybody that the success of the Party was clearly tied to May's own success.  When asked about how the Green Party might fare in the October election, I told whomever would listen that we needed to strap ourselves to Elizabeth May's back and go along for the ride.

But with May gone, we're already seeing some of the old tensions rising to the surface.  Loosely put, there are those in our Party that want our Party to be a successful political party, electing enough MP's so that we may exert some influence in parliament.  And then there are those in our Party who are less concerned about winning elections than about driving a political narrative that includes elements that are cutting edge, if presently politically unpalatable on the one hand, and other elements that can be adopted by other parties on the on the other hand.  

I'll refer to this division as the "Party" vs. "Movement", going forward, while recognizing that most Greens probably don't fit comfortably into just one camp.

This type of tension, though, isn't something that the other political parties generally experience during a leadership contest.  Yes, sometimes party members are confronted with choices about whether a particular contestant might be 'electable' - but are they ever challenged by the notion that electability really just doesn't matter?

This is a hard one for me to discuss in a way that does it justice, as I am so very much on the "Party" side that I have a difficult time comprehending just where Movement-types in my own party might be coming from.  Yes, I get that the bar for 'progressive' policy is always moving, and what might have been an unelectable position yesterday is no longer such today.  Let's use veganism as an example here: I acknowledge that it is good and moral and on the right side of history for the Green Party to support far more aggressive pro-animal/vegan policies than we currently have on the books.  But I'm not personally ready to go there because I don't believe that we will experience any success as a political party with an aggressive pro-animal agenda.  However, for others in my party, whether we experience success in electing MP's just isn't as important as doing what's right from a values-informed perspective.

It's not easy.  And any leadership contestant stepping forward is going to have to wrestle with some of this.  The good news for leadership contestants here might be to simply defer to what the Party's Constitution would have them be: a spokesperson only, committed to whatever policies grassroots Greens deem appropriate.

But that's not showing a lot of 'leadership' now is it?

Going forward, we Greens are going to have to figure this out.  I expect we won't - and that we'll just continue to muddle through, trying to be everything to everyone and not doing a very good job of it.  When we had a leader that was bigger than the Party, we could get away with that.  Going forward, I think this is going to be a problem.

Where Can We Find Momentum?

The Green Party of Canada can look for momentum in two areas, I believe. The first is the success of provincial Green Parties. With B.C. and New Brunswick likely going to the polls before the next federal election, it could very well be that success in either of those provinces could lead to national momentum.  It happened before with PEI - it could certainly happen again.  

But setbacks in either region (and especially in B.C.) will be huge obstacles for the national party to overcome.

A second place we might find momentum is in the new leader themselves.  If we elect someone with a big enough profile, you can bet that the media will be more interested than if we opt for someone with a more regional profile.  Think Jody Wilson-Raybould over, say, Adriane Carr.  Or David Suzuki/Naomi Klein over David Merner.  Or Kathleen Wynne over Alex Tyrrell for that matter (will someone please ask Kathleen for her thoughts on all of this, Jo-Ann Roberts!)

And note that in my examples of "big profile people" I've not identified anyone in our Party who would qualify.   With limited time, and an election coming up somewhere around the corner, if we want to avoid years of building the Party - if we want to seize the initiative - we need a leader with a big profile from outside of the Party to step forward.

And if that doesn't happen, with electoral reform on the back-burner for the next decade or more, maybe it's time we Party people give the whole thing a rethink.  After all, how much influence can a 5th-place national party really exert?  How much time will we have to explain ourselves to voters in the next election?  My bet is that it won't be as much as we were given in 2019.

(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)


Glenn said...

Always thought provoking Steve

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