Thursday, July 15, 2010

Greens grassroot roots can be very tangled

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

The most interesting thing times in political parties are leadership contests. Leaders represent the ultimate expression of the party’s “personality”, and in our personality-obsessed culture, that means a lot. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is famous for his tight personal grip on the party message and the government he leads, while Stephane Dion’s poor communication skills hamstrung his entire Liberal Party’s image during the last election. The only Green Party member that most Canadians can name (if they can name any) is leader Elizabeth May.

All major Canadian political parties choose their leaders the same way: wait until the previous leader retires from old age or leaves in disgrace, then have a race. Leadership reviews typically follow elections, especially if they don’t win or increase seat count. Anything under 75% is a sign that the leader needs to move on. But as long as the leader is winning elections or otherwise keeping the members happy, the term has no set limit.

Did I say all parties? There is one notable exception: the Green Party of Canada, which has fixed terms: 2 years until 2006, when it doubled to 4. This set term reflected the general feeling of the leader as the party’s first spokesperson, but at most first among equals, not in charge of anything. Of course, the party had no seats, few members, even fewer candidates, and no assets, so there wasn’t much to lead. Greens come from a grassroots tradition which resists “leaders”, or any top-down structure. Previously 99% of Canadians – even party members! – would be hard-pressed to name the Green Party leader. The position was filled mainly to satisfy Canadian electoral law.

Not a problem until recent years when the party grew exponentially, receiving significant votes, hiring full-time staff, and a paid, full-time (rather than volunteer, part-time) leader. Now leadership actually matters to party success, and a serious stable of contenders vie for the position.

By the rules, there was to be a leadership race this summer, May’s 4-year term expiring in August. But she has not lost a leadership review (as we have no review process), and led the party to more votes in the last election than ever before. In other parties, there would be no race. A fall election looming, it’s awkward timing for a leadership contest; there are good reasons to change the rules.

But rules don’t change easily in the Green Party. It’s the grassroots thing again. Our constitution can only be changed by a vote of the whole membership, which only happens at our general meetings every other year. Motions are pending to change the rules, delaying a leadership race, but will require 60% support at August’s national convention in Toronto. And some members believe a contest now would promote the party and grow membership, so support the status quo and want a race.

Barrie party members will discuss these motions at a public information session at 1 pm this Sunday at the Barrie Public Library. If you’re interested in how parties make their own rules, you are welcome to attend to listen or speak. If nothing else, it’s a chance to see the kind of debate which usually takes place deep in the back rooms.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.


  1. A few things to note depending on what your term of reference is to "recent years":
    1. We've had a paid FT leader since 2005
    2. Our exponential growth came at the hands of a leadership race. Not from anything before or since. General elections in 2006 or 2008 didn't generate the sheer volume of memberships compared to the 2006 leadership race.
    3. We had hired staff in the national office back in 2005 equal to (if not more) than we have today.

  2. 1. I'm highly constrained by the word count, so there are lots of little details that I have to include under generalizations. Mainly I'm contrasting the first 20 years of the GPC with the past 8 years, since 2004, when we started running a full slate and getting per-vote funding.
    2. I don't agree that the leadership race itself generated all the exponential growth. Our highest growth rate was actually between 2000 and 2004, going from <1% to >4%; from 2004 to 2008 we didn't even double our vote share.
    3. I don't have staff numbers, so you may be right on that. But I'm not speaking only of central office staff, but total staff on the payroll. Again, I'm comparing first two decades with post-full-slate years.

  3. Totally understand the limits of a word count for an article. Why not use that as an opportunity to encourage more traffic to your blog. Let readers get the word count limit from the paper but more detail from your blog (assuming you haven't limited yourself here too!). Anyway, onto the comments...

    There are two very distinct eras in Green Party history... before the 2004 vote subsidy and afterwards. It's really hard to compare the numbers from each of those eras as the vote subsidy played a major role in mainstreaming the Green Party in Canada. The more relevent discussion is comparing 2004 with 2010.

    When talking growth, percentages are deceiving. In 1984, we had 60 candidates and almost 27,000 votes. In 2004, we had 308 candidates and 582,000 votes. That's 513% increase in candidates and 2156% increase in votes. Yet, in absolute voting terms, it took 20 years to generate 555,000 votes and only another 4 years to add 359,000 more votes.

    As a side note, I did clarify that the growth I was referring to was membership growth. While I'm sure the percentage growth from 1984 to 2004 was astronomical as well, we more than doubled from 2004 to 2006 (which seems to have been our watermark). Having seen the numbers back in 2006, I know we pretty much doubled from the leadership race alone.

    Really wish Barrie wasn't such a long commute, would be an interesting event to attend on Sunday. Well done on putting it on!

  4. I find it takes enough time to write the print columns, then hyperlink them for the blog and fix any minor errors, omissions, or updates. Too much on the go to re-write myself on a regular basis, plus I believe the discipline of the word limit keeps my blogs at a readable size. (I've seen comparable on-line-only blogs which regularly run to 2000 words that could easily have been 1/2 or 1/4 that).

    As to growth, the 2004 leadership race came after the per-vote subsidy and didn't cause a significant membership boost, despite being contested by 3 candidates. Our main 2004 membership boost was the election boost.

    The 2006 membership boost came (from what I can tell) mostly from Elizabeth May's recruitment efforts. And that was in a race with no incumbent.

    Compare to a race now - there is an incumbent, and among all the challengers I've heard of so far (at least 5), all are already in the party and none have (in my estimation) the new membership draw May had. So I'm rather skeptical that a membership race now would suddenly draw new members. The 2009 GPO leadership race (no incumbent, 3 insider candidates of whom 2 dropped out) failed to boost membership at all.

    So far I'm not convinced that the only major membership boost we ever had was due to any factor other than May joining and campaigning for leader. Attributing that to the leadership race rather than to May's own popularity and organization is an unproven assumption. I think it's rather risky to bet a lot on the assumption that a leadership race will lead to a significant membership boost.