By Stuart Hertzog
October 13th, 2009
The Green Politburo
Devious backroom politics subvert grassroots decison-making
It took quite a while to make the decision to stand against the leader of the Green Party. I knew that running against Elizabeth May would be difficult. She had a national public profile and enjoyed a high level of support as leader. She could actually have a chance at becoming Canada’s first elected Green MP. Opposing her would make me unpopular with both the die-hard Elizabeth May supporters—the May Mavens—as well as with many active party members.
But the more I looked into what was happening, the more I realised that I had to make a stand. I’ve been complaining on this site about the movement towards conventional, centralised party politics in the BC Green Party—indeed, that’s what propelled me to set up this site in the first place. With the Party hierarchy now unilaterally deciding to dump the leader into yet another riding, it was obvious that the same tendency was operating within the federal party.
“So what?” you may wonder. “Isn’t this how politics works? Don’t we need a strong and articulate leader to steer the Green party through the shoals of public opinion to the effectiveness of democratic representation in parliament?” Well—no. I don’t buy the argument that the Green Party will only be effective if it has a voice in parliament. Just by being in existence and offering a Green choice to Canadians at election time, Green parties here and in many other countries have forced mainstream parties to promote themselves as Green.
Green politics is supposed to be different. It was intended to replace the old, ‘top-down’ hierarchical authoritarianism of conventional politics with an egalitarian, non-hierarchical, grassroots approach that empowers people instead of treating us like mushrooms once a political party had won power. Green ‘leaders’ are supposed to be only spokespersons, not petty dictators.
The federal Council’s strategy of getting the leader elected at any cost in this next election by parachuting her into the highest-polling area of potential Green support, to me represented everything I believe is wrong with our democracy. Opposing her candidacy in Saanich-Gulf Islands brought together everything in one understandable package. I had to take a stand. If not now—when?
Power to the Campaign Commisar
When I started to research the hoops I would have to jump through to become a nomination candidate, it quickly became clear that a carefully-orchestrated power play had been taking place behind the scenes. The Party’s federal Council was not going to be in control of the candidate selection process. This would be ‘managed’ entirely by a renamed and reconstituted Campaign Committee—in essence, an Elizabeth May-controlled Green Party Politburo.
In June, 2008 Party organizing director Sharon Labchuk introduced a bylaw to formalise the Federal Campaign Committee, which to that time was “composed of mainly whoever showed up for an initial phone call,” she wrote. Sponsored among others by Adrian Carr and Paul George, the bylaw allowed it to make rules to regulate the procedures to be followed to select a candidate.
At its September, 2008 meeting Council moved into election mode and delegated all its authority to a Campaign Manager, to whom staff and even the Executive Director would report. Worse, Council delegated all its powers to this person, who would set up an advisory team and select its members.
At its November, 2008 meeting Elizabeth May suggested that she as party leader needed support to win her riding. A council member later raised the concern about the need to balance the competing priorities of the leader winning her seat and supporting other candidates. She responded that the balance was ambiguous, and that winning the leader’s seat should be a priority.
At its December, 2008 meeting Council gave the Campaign Committee full power to act as the strategic arm of the Party, managing day-to-day decision making in any campaign, defining ‘campaign’ to include a general election, a by-election, and any ad-hoc political campaign to build support for issues that further the strategic interests of the Party. That’s a pretty broad mandate.
Council delegated authority to the Political Director/Campaign Manager, and gave the Campaign Committee full power to negotiate any agreements with other political parties. The Committee only had to report back to Council for ratification of whatever deal had been made. Was Council totally asleep, or was it already stacked with happily acquiescent Elizabeth May supporters?
A Hiring Committee that included Ms May was set up to “finalize the job description, initiate the search, conduct interviews, and recommend a candidate and salary.” In April, 2009 the Committee recommended Catharine Johannson, a former member of Council. It officially appointed her in June.
Template EDA constitutions
The structure was in place. The next step was to bring the EDAs into line. Originally, Green EDAs had written and adopted their own constitutions. Except to state that it had to happen, the Green Party constitution left the candidate selection and nomination process up to them. As a result, processes were fairly loose and idiosyncratic. Where there wasn’t an EDA, the Party could appoint a candidate, and the Elections Act, based on the idea of kingly power, anyway gave the leader the power to reject any candidate for whatever reason.
But this wasn’t good enough for the Campaign Commissars who were bent on full militaristic control of the next election campaign. Heck, back in November, 2008 former leader Jim Harris suggested that the Party set up a War Room. For a peace-loving party, isn’t that like getting caught in the opponent’s frame?
The trick was to get the the EDAs to accept a new, unified template constitution that transferred the power to control the Party’s nomination processes to the Campaign Committee via a 27-page procedures booklet that included an 11-page form for potential candidates. EDAs were to be persuaded to conform.
Some EDAs, including Saanich-Gulf Islands, accepted the new constitution like the dutiful foot-soldiers that they are. Others did so under protest, pointing out that some parts of the new EDA constitution seem to be at variance with the Green Party’s own constitution. This discrepancy upset some EDAs.
The problem is that the Green Party constitution gives all members the right to vote in party elections after being a member for 30 days. Members are ‘in good standing’ if they have paid their membership fee, and are not ‘in good standing’ if they haven’t. After 12 delinquent months, they cease to be a member.
But the Campaign Committee’s 2009 Rules of Procedure calls a member-not-in-good standing a lapsed member, stating that he or she can vote only after paying the membership fee. It might seem a small point, but it could impact close nomination election races where some members may not be allowed to vote. It also points not only to sloppy rule-writing by the Committee but a disregard for the Green Party constitution. This issue has yet to be resolved.
Closing the nomination window
Not only did the Campaign Committee pull the wool over most EDAs’ eyes, it also kept changing its rules, reducing the nomination window in which Party members could apply to be nomination candidates from 75 to 90 days in March 2009, to seven days in June 2009, and then to a mere four days at the end of August 2009—just days before the SGI nomination widow opened. The closing date for candidates to be selected was similarly pushed back several times.
If you thought that a Green government would prune away any bothersome bureaucracy and introduce grassroots participatory democracy, think again. This bunch of cabinet-ministers-in-waiting could turn out to be even worse.
This was all too much for me. What I had found out confirmed my original analysis and the opinion of other Greens: that the Green Party of Canada had been taken over by an ambitious leader who was stealthily converting it into an election machine designed to get herself elected to the House of Commons.
Isn’t that the purpose of a political party, to get someone elected? True—but not this way. As far as I am concerned, the leaders of the Green Party have been ignoring its basic principle of participatory democracy. I believe that this leadership is acting unconstitutionally, and that electing Elizabeth May to Canada’s parliament won’t change Canadian democracy by one iota.
I made up my mind—I was going to stand as a nomination candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands against Elizabeth May, on the issue of democracy both in Canada and within the Green party. I pulled out that eleven-page form….
Next: Part 3—Follow the money
Read other parts of this series: