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Elizabeth May’s Green Party

Canadian Politics

She’s everywhere. Less than a week after she was elected leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May was on key political-pundit television programs exuding her trademark charm and energy, and sounding supremely confident. The media honeymoon with May will no doubt continue for some time. Stephen Harper, almost pathologically arrogant, won’t engage the media. The Liberals are leaderless and their leadership campaign is pretty boring. Jack Layton is all tactics and no vision his call for withdrawal from Afghanistan being the exception as he tries to implement a long-term (twenty-year?) strategy of replacing the Liberals. He is therefore all caution and no risk. Elizabeth May looks pretty interesting at the moment.

May could be potent force. Progressive voters are, according to some in-depth surveys, eager for a party with vision and principle. If the NDP pursues the Liberals without attacking Harper and without a clear nation-building platform, they risk becoming like the U.S. Democrats: perceived as opportunist and trying to be everything to everybody. The only bright spot for Stephen Harper as we move towards the fall session of Parliament is that people like his decisiveness and the fact that at least he believes in something. Fortunately, what he believes in is so repugnant to the majority that it trumps any advantage his style provides.

Elizabeth May

The NDP seems to be in a state of denial about the Greens and their prospects under May. In part this is simply because the party has no way to deal with the problem. The culture of the NDP often presents itself as a castle under siege: It sees itself as a victim of a hostile media, a dishonest Liberal Party stealing its ideas and troublesome social movements sniping from the sidelines. At this moment, at least, the NDP is also suffering from a failure of imagination.

But it could suffer from a lot more than that. A Decima poll released September 7 showed the NDP at fourteen per cent the lowest in at least two years and the Greens at ten per cent, double their last election showing. Of course, this could be an anomaly. But any increase in the Green vote could hurt the NDP. In the 2004 election they would have gained an additional seven seats if just half the Green voters had voted NDP. That was with 4.3 per cent of the vote. Bump that to seven or eight per cent, and it could spell real trouble.

Internal Machinations

But May will not have an easy ride. She already looks disingenuous in talking about creating a green caucus of MPs from all parties (no one is buying this anyway) while saying she will run in all 308 ridings regardless of how many Harperites she helps elect. This is exactly what she criticized former Green leader Jim Harris for, but the prospect of $1.75 a vote has changed her mind. The media will eventually catch up to her on her contradictions.

Much more serious for May will be the internal machinations within her own party. While she won handily with two thirds of the vote over Harrisite David Chernushenko she does not control the newly elected executive. Her “New Start” slate elected nine members, the Harrisites’ “Green Team” elected eleven, and three more are considered neutral. And for all the talk of “unity” coming out of the convention, it is mostly wishful thinking. Harris did not want to quit, and he is not going away. He stated post-convention that he was staying on as a “strategist” something at which, as leader, he was disastrously inept. His authoritarian style, open disdain for women members and reputation for constant behind-the-scenes manipulation will cause May serious problems consuming time she can’t afford if she is to build and maintain her profile.

Other Harris lieutenants are also staying on, including former Conservative/Alliance dirty-tricks man David Scrymgeour. Scrymgeour was the political operative David Orchard insisted be fired as part of his ill-fated deal with Peter MacKay in the Progressive Conservative Party leadership race. Orchard accused Scrymgeour of deliberating sabotaging his efforts to elect delegates to the convention. Another Harris supporter is wealthy B.C. businessman Wayne Crooks, who has lent the party hundreds of thousands of dollars. Money talks in political parties, and Crooks’ money could talk loudly.

Policy Contradictions

It remains to be seen just what the party’s policies will be in the election. Though the party debated 100 resolutions at the convention, May stated the next day with no explanation that the actual election platform would be drawn up on the basis of cross-country consultations and the use of “experts” to make sure the policies were credible an oblique reference to the fact that, under Harris, policy prescriptions were embarrassingly naive and un-costed. How she will do this without violating the Greens’ commitment to a radical democracy is not clear but it could open a Pandora’s box.

The Green party of Canada is separate from the various provincial Green parties, but the politics of Greens in each province are very different. The Ontario and Alberta Greens are predominantly eco-capitalist in their approach, while in Saskatchewan and B.C. the tendency is more akin to the social-democratic European parties. Navigating those tricky waters will not be easy. Ontario and Alberta Greens, for instance, will insist that to keep conservative greens on board the convention resolution declaring that NAFTA should be abrogated must not be allowed to go anywhere. May declared that renegotiating or abrogating NAFTA was one of her main priorities.

Environmental activists are generally pleased about May’s victory because they feel it will help put the environment on the agenda. That’s what May and the Greens should concentrate on, rather than trying to be a full-service party.

One possible approach would be a real deal with the NDP perhaps with the NDP agreeing to make proportional representation a key plank in its next election platform and withdrawing from the race in May’s Cape Breton riding. In return, the Greens would withdraw from ridings where the NDP had a clear chance of winning. But this is not likely to happen.

Better that May revisit her strategy in 1980 when she founded the Small Party, the precursor to the Greens. “Every chance I got I said ‘I don’t want you to vote for me, I want you to put it to the other parties: where do they stand on nuclear energy, where do they stand on the environment, what do they want to do for our kids future in protecting our planet?’” She repeated that sentiment in the last election. “I wouldn’t take the risk of voting Green if I thought I might elect someone who would help destroy Kyoto.” Too bad she’s changed her mind. If she stuck to that conviction she would seriously damage Stephen Harper, wouldn’t hurt the NDP and would end up a Canadian hero.

This article appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada: A New Imperial Power?).

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