(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.