By Stuart Hertzog
October 12th, 2009
My experience in Saanich-Gulf Islands was anything but that
“See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello”
Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s passionate lament was directed against the unholy machinations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose lending policies have enslaved the poor of many Third World nations. But his angry lyrics also accurately point to the rottenness of the essentially undemocratic political system that we still call democracy.
As you may know, I’ve just emerged from an intense, three-month campaign in which I challenged Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May for nomination as the party’s candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands. I stood because of my concern with the state of democracy both in Canada and within the Green Party. During the campaign I lodged a formal complaint with Elections Canada based on what I believe to be unfair and possibly illegal tactics used by the Party to suppress my efforts and bias the candidate selection process in favour of Ms May.
I’ve already published some of the correspondence around my complaint on this site, and I could reproduce here the entire 6,500-word, nine-page covering letter together with its 43 supporting documents that I sent to Elections Canada in support of my complaint—but mercifully, I won’t. Instead, I’ll try to give you a taste of what I went through; some of the things I learned; and some political questions that my experience raised. It’s a complex and multi-faceted tale.
No personal axe to grind
It’s important to understand that I started this campaign with no axe to grind against Ms May. I had only met her once, when she signed a copy of her latest book Losing Confidence, which I then reviewed on this site. I thought her book was a well-written and useful introduction for political innocents to the currently dysfunctional state of Canadian parliamentary politics, but that her political analysis and prescription for corrective action didn’t go far enough.
Like many Greens, at that time I thought that Ms May was an intelligent and articulate person who had done some very useful work on environmental issues. She knew her stuff, especially on the global warming file, and had experience both within government and in the NGO sector as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. Cheerful and very personable, she seemed to be an excellent choice as leader of the Green Party of Canada—or so I thought.
I did wonder about her political instincts, though. I was impressed with her success in the 2006 London North Centre by-election, when she attracted 9,864 votes, almost 26% of the total cast—the highest percentage of votes achieved to that time by a federal Green Party candidate. But instead of building on the support she had received by running again in that riding, against all advice and media punditry she chose to run in Central Nova in the 2008 federal election.
Up against then Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay, Central Nova was so obviously a losing proposition for May. MacKay’s family was a political dynasty. His father Elmer was a PC federal cabinet minister in Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney governments. MacKay himself is a former Nova Scotia Crown attorney and was the last leader of the former Progressive Conservative party. He had been a Nova Scotia MP for a decade—so why was May taking him on?
Perverse political pinball
May claimed at the time that she would prefer to run in a riding where she had some local connection, rather than be parachuted into somewhere in, say, British Columbia, where she’d have a better chance at winning. Perversely prophetic, perhaps? May also chose Central Nova to avoid running against a Liberal or NDP incumbent, possibly in anticipation of her next step, which was to announce an agreement with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion that neither would run candidates against each other. May tried to work a similar deal with the NDP’s Jack Layton, but her offer of inter-party co-operation was turned down.
May attracted over 32% of the vote in Central Nova, but still lost to MacKay by a whopping 5,619 votes, spending $55,482 against MacKay’s $60,795. Big spending on her campaigns seems to be an Elizabeth May trademark: she spent $83,392 in London North Centre compared with only $2,442 spent by Stuart Smith, the previous Green candidate in that riding. Mind you, Smith only received 5.49% of the vote in 2006, compared to May’s 25.84%. But that works out to 74¢/vote, compared to May’s $2.89/vote and still no electoral success.
I’ll return to Elizabeth May’s election spending later. The important point right now is that her political judgement had raised warning flags in my mind. When I heard that she was considering abandoning her professed beloved home of Central Nova to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands, the warning flags turned into alarm bells and started ringing. Bouncing around the country like a perverse political pinball didn’t seem anything like Green politics to me. My interest was piqued.
The Saanich Saga begins
My Saanich Saga began on a sunny Thursday afternoon in early July. Elizabeth May was to speak at the AGM of the Saanich-Gulf Islands Electoral District Association (EDA). I had just read Losing Confidence and was curious to hear what she would say about the state of Canadian parliamentary democracy.
About 40 people filled the small basement of St. John’s Anglican Church in North Saanich. I didn’t know it at the time, but the main order of business was to elect a new EDA Board that had already agreed to having her as their candidate, and adopt a modified constitution that would allow the EDA’s candidate nomination process to be controlled by the Party’s powerful national Campaign Committee.
The Saanich-Gulf Islands EDA had fallen apart after the last federal election, when some prominent local environmentalists very publicly tried to get Andrew Lewis to step down and not to run against popular and well-known local environmental writer Briony Penn, a prominent figure in Dion’s Green Shift whom the Liberals were hoping would take out the Conservative incumbent MP Gary Lunn, who was at that time Harper’s minister of Natural Resources.
May prattled on with her usual shtik about global warming and how she was going to bring decorum to a dysfunctional parliament by being there. She blamed Stephen Harper and the “other” parties for being greedily power-hungry and undemocratic. It was too much for me. I rose to challenge her on the fact that the Green Party was fast proceeding down the same centralisation road.
Her answer didn’t satisfy me in the slightest. We met in the garden after the meeting. I outlined my concerns and talked about restructuring the Party along non-hierarchal and bioregional lines, according to my understanding of Green principles. I promised to email her the links to my posts on this site outlining this. She promised to respond. I did—she didn’t. The seeds had been sown.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Saanich Saga had begun.
Read other parts of this series: