Where does the Green party go from here?

About 250 federal Green party members gathered in Pictou, Nova Scotia over the weekend for a policy convention. I was not there, and have instead been trying to follow along via media reports, including these ones:

Green Party at a political crossroads [The Star]
Practising what they preach [The Chronicle Herald]
Liberals will run in all ridings, including the one where May lost; Ignatieff [CP, via Metro]
Ignatieff will run Liberal candidate against May [CTV]
Go west, young woman [Rick Anderson, The Globe and Mail]
May says Obama’s success among Canadians can help Greens in next election [CP, via Metro]
May: Greens not wilting [The Chronicle Herald]
Elizabeth May’s 2009 Convention Speech [Green Party, YouTube]
They’re working on a Green dream [The Chronicle Herald]
Greens mull Quebec ‘mystery’ [The Star]
Greens more united than ever, standing behind leadership: May [CP, via Metro]
Elizabeth May to tilt at Central Nova windmill again. [Not an Official Green Party Canada Site]

I’m glad to read that the people who attended the convention are, for the most part, feeling energized and motivated. That being said—and I mean this constructively—I do think there are a few key things that the federal Green party must do if is is to have a future beyond the next election.

Of the above links, Rick Anderson’s analysis is probably the most worth reading for anyone trying to understand where the party’s at, and where it needs to be. He points out that on the one hand, the Green party has a great set of policies that should appeal to a wide group of Canadians:

I had long thought, and still mostly do, that the Greens have a winning formula in their unique combination of practical environmentalism, fiscal responsibility and democratic reform. Those are three potent appeals, each worthy in itself, and rarely found in combination.

Arguably, all the other parties are less credible on all three of those topics than ever before.

On the other hand, he notes that what the party stands for is pretty much a mystery to most Canadians:

[The Greens have] welcome changes you could come to believe in… if you knew they were available. I don’t know about you, but I had to visit the Green website to read about [their economic stimulus plan].

Anderson is generous to blame this mostly on “the media’s preoccupation with political games and manoeuvring and tactics and day-to-day process stories” at the expense of “substantive issues of relevance to voters.” However, while that criticism of the news media is well placed, it would be foolish for Greens to get distracted by it. The Green party must earn attention and support in spite of the obstacles facing it, not use those obstacles as excuses.

The three biggest challenges as I see them are as follows (and are discussed prominently in the above articles).

First is the need for elected Green MPs. The Toronto Star reports that Elizabeth May “[admitted] that she did not view winning her riding as a priority in the last election.” She wasn’t the only one. Those of us who were advocating for a focus on electing MPs in the last general election sometimes felt like we were banging our heads against the wall. The party must realize and act on the importance of electing members under the current voting system (even while we work for change to that system). Otherwise the party’s credibility will be increasingly questioned.

Second is the widely held belief that Elizabeth advocated that Canadians vote for other parties in the last election. (I say “belief,” because Elizabeth denies that she did this. Either way, the perception is what’s important.) This needs to be repudiated in the strongest terms. There is a time and a role for partisanship, and it is the primary role of all party leaders and candidates to advocate for their party’s platform and for their own election, especially during election campaign periods. To send mixed signals to the contrary distorts election results even more than they already are distorted by our antiquated voting system.

Finally, the party must get serious about messaging and marketing. Too many Canadians still don’t know or believe that the Green party has policies on all major issues, and that those policies are often consistent not only with what various experts think (on environment, economy, crime, etc), but are also consistent with what most Canadians think and value. Ultimately only the party itself is accountable for how they’re perceived, which means that a lot of work needs to be done to communicate Green policies in compelling, inspiring, and easy to grasp ways.

In all three of these areas the party is now playing catchup. I’m not yet prepared to say it’s a lost cause as some others have, but no one should underestimate the enormity of the challenge. Before the last general election I had said privately to a few people how critical I thought an electoral breakthrough was in order for the party to maintain credibility and momentum. Since that breakthrough didn’t happen federal Greens now have to hope for a rare second chance, but it will require addressing the above three issues (among others) quickly and aggressively.

23 thoughts on “Where does the Green party go from here?

  1. Chris – nice essay. I attended the GPC meeting and overall thought it was a great success. I am writing up my report for my own nat’l party, which I will share with you all.

  2. Well said Chris,
    I could have wished I said it first. The only thing I disagree with much is that I think that even if these things fail to be addressed, there are many different roads to long term relevance. It’s not like we are Reformers that can be branded as being totally unlike the mainstream. Our ideals will probably become more and more mainstream with the passage of time. Many a spark could ignite success along the road. Remember when EMay was first elected? That was pretty exciting, although it kind of tanked. Similar highs can happen again. Still, your suggestions are preferable to a ‘struck by lightning’ success.

  3. Chris, it’s surprising how many veteran Greens didn’t attend the Pictou event.

    As a former federal councillor, I was present when we were doing election planning. It is incorrect to say that winning Central Nova wasn’t a major priority for the party. (It wasn’t MY priority, but that’s another story.)

    Two fulltime staff in the riding a year before the vote. The convention located in the riding to build visibility (recall our convention was supposed to be BEFORE the election.) The party donating $80,000 to the campaign. The leader spending 20 of the 35 campaign days in the riding, instead of on the road supporting other candidates.

    When you fail to acheive something, it is immature and dishonest to say “I didn’t really want it that bad anyway :-)”

  4. Hi John,

    I hear you, but there are several other examples I could point to that also illustrate Central Nova wasn’t being taken as seriously as it could. One publicly available example is that, according to the financial return available on the Elections Canada website, the campaign only spent $61,269, even though they had $117,809 in the bank. Peter MacKay’s campaign spent $92,093. (Strangely, the NDP results are not yet available.) There are other examples as well.

    Whether or not taking the riding more seriously would have meant the difference between victory and defeat is another question, but we should have given it our all. That was the ball game.

  5. Ken is on to something. I have no inside knowledge, having been off council for more than a year. But I am certain the GPC spent a great deal of money in Central Nova. The entire province of Ontario – 40% of the country, 107 ridings – had one full-time paid organizer. And Central Nova had a full-time paid organizer. For one riding.

    The resources were there,but competence/experience, not so much. The intersection of the sets “competent campaign organizers” and “people who can work with EM” is very tiny indeed.

  6. You guys are arguing over accounting entries.

    If anyone can reasonably argue that the 2008 GPC campaign was not entirely focused on Elizabeth May, and her election, then the whole $3 or $4 million, or a good portion of it, should be realistically charged against Central Nova.

    It is not surprising to me that 200 or 250 attendees (I bet 75% within driving distance) attended this convention “love in”. Why bother, otherwise? Yes, she is loved amongst her supporters. That is self evident.

  7. John’s comments set my mind to thinking in a more straightforward way about how much is spent in Central Nova.

    I’ve always had a strong suspicion that the subsidy money of the cash rich but still invisible Nova Scotia Green Party is ending up in Central Nova / May organizing. “Gaps” is the May campaign Elections Canada filing brought that back, and the first part of the thread is me pointing out the coincidences in what we know about the NSGP and the spending of the Central Nova machine.

    In my series of 4 posts yesterday [March 2], I set that aside, and addressed the systematic and I think quite deliberate non-transparency of the filings to Elections Canada. [Leave aside the question of whether there are Elections Canada infractions, and just look at transparency or not.]

    Despite all that obfuscation you can piece together fairly reliable estimates of total spending in Central Nova [what is actually spent, forget about whether it is being properly attributed in filings].

    For example, there are now 3 staff positions domiciled in Central Nova. That is out in the open. The May campaign filing says zero salary expenses: leave aside legitimacy questions of not claiming them as riding campaign questions, the Green Party paid some people to work there. The Maritimes Regional Organizer [who has nothing to organize anywhere else], and AT LEAST one more person. More or less the same for the Central Nova HQ before the election [but probably not the whole 18 month time span].

    Add those things left out to the Elections Canada filings and you get $60K to $90K pre-election Central Nova, $80K for the May campaign, and $15,000 per month since then [3 salaries plus the HQ ‘physical’ costs].

    $160,000 and $15,000 per month ongoing before there is even an election.

    Which does circle back to my 4 posts yesterday on transparency. I didn’t speculate on the motive for what I think is a deliberate obfuscation. But as much as the party seems to have been willing to grant May and the Central Nova machine its every expressed financial need… the brain trust may be worried whether that would be true if the totals were presented in a straighforward manner.

    While I didn’t speculate in those posts, when it came to the absolutely unecessary $80,000 transfer to the campaign… the ENTIRE amount of which will end up intact in Central Nova coffers. When it came to that, I didn’t even have a private guess of a reason for doing that.

    Now I do see a plausible possibility: Central Nova finances are not overseen by or presented to Council. Maybe a couple of those staff positions are actually paid by the EDA, and it was planned that way before the campaign. I believe those positions were announced immediately after. Hence the otherwise gratuitous $80,000 transfer.

    If it isn’t that, there is some reason for the transfer. And it isn’t so the money is in place for another election. As I explained, the next May campaign won’t need it, and it could come anytime later if they did need it.

  8. @Chris Tindal
    Chris,
    Don’t mistake “not taking the campaign seriously” with “can’t properly plan and manage a campaign”.

    It was clear as far back as November 2007 that the full spending limit would be used in Central Nova and that the central party would be putting $80,000 into the riding coffers. At that point, a plan to spend that money should have been developed.

    If the campaign manager and campaign team weren’t taking the election seriously, then someone needs to question why they were in the roles they were…. and that question could have been asked long before October 2008.

  9. I want to clarify some things. Keeping it short will probably help.

    I’m arguing that the limit was spent. The salaries just are not declared. Whether that is legit or not, the party paid them.

    They did not need that $80,000 transfer. Not a bit of it. The resources were all in place, and I’m CERTAIN that was obvious to planners. Before the election the Central Nova machine already had the proven capable to autonomously produce all the finances needed for an election campaign. A lot- maybe even most- of the fundraising would be national. But its still done from CN. And they do enough of it not to need ANY transfers from the party for an election campaign.

    Running a full limit spending campaign that produces a surplus is pretty slick. Even with the 60% rebate many campaigns, if not a majority, in all parties do not pull that off.

    But as capable as the Central Nova machine is at raising money, without that elction campaign rebate they cannot sustain an ongoing HQ campaign that costs $15,000 or more per month.

    Which is where that $80,000 transfer comes in. And it was done at the beginning of the election campaign, so this was all planned ahead of time: park $80,000 that everyone supports going to the election campaign, except it doesn’t.

    Related point. I can’t speak to how well the machine does voter contact. There’s no concrete evidence to say either way coming from required filings or what an observor like me can pick up from a distance.

    But I’m telling you they are AT LEAST competent at fundraising… and have been so for going on 2 years now. Consitent delivery at direct ask fundraising takes even more rigorous organizing than does voter contact, and taps many of the same capabilities. The difference is contact work with supporters instead of voters. But its still contact work and lots of it… and unless you organize it well it doesn’t matter how devoted you are or how hard you work.

  10. I’ve been in the position of being one of party dissidents railing at the incompetencies of the leadership. I’ve also been proven wrong in that. Not that i WAS wrong, but things change, and in politics they change quickly.

    Political organizing is not rocket science. Nepotism and empire building may dramtically skew selection of key people away from those most capable- and even towards though with virtually no inherent capabilities.

    But these less than stellar staff choices learn just like anyone else. And even if they are never stellar… as an aggregate they get to be good enough to get the job done reasonably competently.

    So I think a lot of you are too out of date [which happens fast], and too far from the ground you comment on, to be making as sweeping statements about incompetency as you do. The fact there are horror stories does not mean they are a representative indication.

    Not to mention, like I said, the Central Nova machine has proven it is more than competent at fundraising. That is something in itself, and tends to indicate there are capabilities beyond that even if they do not show in vote share results.

    Word to the wise to stick to the ground you know well. Like, “this sucks on grounds of principles and organizational morale and health.” Or, “Central Nova is FAR less winnable than a number of other choices, no matter how good a machine you [eventually] build there, so should we be investing all this into it?”

    Making sweepings accusations that some people know not to be firmly based in fact does not help your credibility.

    And speaking from my own experience [and failings] is a good segway into full disclosure of who I am and what I’m doing here.

    Plenty of people, including most posters in this blogpost, know that I am NDP. Those familiar with me know that I do not wish the Green Party to succeed. But a bunch of things temper that and/or ‘lay over’ it even if it doesn’t all fit together neatly.

    One is that I am a firm beleiver in pluralism. At least generally speaking, the more tendencies and the freer they speak, the better. Another is that I am quite readily able to put myself in the shoes of Green activists. And some have seen me speak that way rather than words that are to the advantage of the NDP.

    Plus, I just plain have a lot in common with a lot of you. And I have no problem seeing that and being competitive, and sometimes even backing off from the competitiveness as much as humanly possible.

    And this has a practical effect as well. If you look in the Babble thread I linked to you’ll see that I saw the $80,000 transfer as really weird from the moment I saw it. Some of that comes because I have considerable party finance committee experience as well as [riding] campaign experience. I have business and accounting depth from way back, but party financial statements are as a species an off beat animal, and I found them impenetrable until I had the context of a lot of budget and planning experience for a whole party rather than a riding only.

    So that $80,000 transfer totally stuck out to me. No matter how many allowances I made for whatever, it made no sense. But I also knew it was not a ‘mistake’ or accident. But if you read back you’ll see I had not a clue what it might be for… just that it is not what it is presented as.

    And so it remained until I more forcefully put myself in your shoes. Instead of focusing on what I think is illegal, I focused on amounts of resources being devoted, how very opaque that is, and how deliberate this seems to be.

    Different view, different picture.

    But that does not address WHY I go to these lengths. In part, the answer is personal weirdness.

    It sure as hell isn’t just for the partisan shots. For that alone I would consider what I am doing to be way over the line. Full disclosure is that it is a measure of how much I dilike the politics of Elizabeth May. I think she’s a con artist. I definitely do not expect people to share that with me- even if some individuals might. And lets not go there- but if you want to know why, there it is. So I’m happy to expose anything I think she has done or is responsible for setting in motion. If she falls for stuff done on her watch, she deserves it.

    The truth will make us free. Maybe. But including if I seem to end up having just barked up a bunch of wrong trees. So be it.

    But I’m just freely admitting I’d be happy to see May take a big tumble. I still would not do this for that alone. In fact, I tend to put huge limits on even thinking like that. Its the wrong way to go through life.

    Honestly: I have pursued this to the degree I have as a direct consequence of putting myself in your shoes. I think there is a major betrayal of trust going on here. And I know how I would react and deal with it. Not only “would”…. I HAVE, within the NDP. Mind you, I’ve never had to deal with anything with remotely the scope of what I see going on in your party. And while I know how I would think and behave in a general way…. on a practical level its much more daunting than anything I have ever had to deal with.

    But at bottom, what do my motives matter? Judge the message on its practical merits. And bear in mind I bring no small experience to this.

  11. This is getting more interesting Ken,now that you’ve apparently stopped looking for a smoking gun of electoral skulduggery, and started looking at the flows of cash from a different angle. If you look at the flows over time, it looks like the GPC might actually be doing some local organizing somewhere after all. ( I won’t get into value for money)
    Let us assume that you are correct, and a significant, and ongoing siphon has been primed into Central Nova coffers. In this event, the campaign spending limits were considerably higher than the funds actually expended. Salaries are a legitimate elections expense. legitimate expenses are rebated at 60%. It doesn’t matter from what distance I look at this, it still loks bad, but not crooked. IF the salaries are part of a shell game, why the blazes didn’t they show up under the refundable elections expenses shell during the election? I mean, it’s a free lunch of $12k plus.

  12. The rebate on the campaign salaries wouldn’t be lost. It would just go to the national party as payeeinstead of the May campaign.

    The brain trust preference would be that the riding get the rebate. But not reporting the salaries as a riding expense would give greater advantages in the longer term goal of obscuring how much this never ending Central Nova campaign costs.

    First of all, the only thing I am quite sure of is that based on the evidence the only thing that makes sense is that there is a pattern of deliberate non-transparency and obfuscation in the financial reporting.

    What the reason/motive is for any particular element in the reporting ‘regime’, I’m less sure of.

    When it comes to not reporting any staff salaries for nearly two years of the Cental Nova and May campaigns, I know that is very anomalous, that it risks Elections Canada scrutiny that has significant consequences even if it does not result in penalties, and that these risks were known to the ‘hand’ behind the reporting.

    As to why they would take that known risk, this is what makes sense and is consistent with everything else. The brain trust knew at least a year back that this permanent campaigning business is very expensive, and expensive enough that they did not want to have the full amounts see the light of day.

    They also know that the needs of the May campaign during the election period are not controversial. So the idea is to use the campaign period to park as much money as possible in Central Nova, to be able to draw on it AFTER the election.

    First and most obvious step: taking the I’m sure completely unprecedented step of NOT transferring the accumulated surplus of the Central Nova EDA to the May campaign. Who knows how much that is, and it is in no small part the product of ongoing transfers from the party to the Central Nova EDA [which one can see in the 2008 quarterly party filings with EC], plus the major expense of salaries paid for by the party [which among other things made possible all that successful fundraising by the Central Nova EDA].

    Anyway, so they don’t touch the EDA surplus that anywhere else is accumulated for the election campaign. And they don’t stop there. They transfer $80,000 to the May campaign. Looks perfectly normal- supported by all. Except the May campaign didn’t need ANY of it.

    Now, the normal thing when parties are going to cover some or all of the salaries of a riding campaign, in part because those salaries are required to be declared as riding campaign expense anyway… the straightforward thing is that the riding campaign pays the salaries, and the party transfers in the funds to pay them [and usually at or after the end of the campaign works fine for the cash flow].

    But doing the staraightforward thing would eat up some of that $80,000 transfer that they want parked until AFTER the election to use in the never ending and hungry Central Nova May campaign. So they leave the $80K intact, and the party quietly pays the salaries. Since even counting the unreported salaries they are presumably within the spending limit, penalties and humiliation for the deliberate non-compliance are not going to happen… so they take the risk of the lesser consequences [wrist slap, some publicity, EC staff monitoring them far more closely in the future and giving them no slack].

  13. I commented on Bluegreen’s own blog that May is building an empire in Central Nova that is concretely independent of the organization of the national party.

    “Not just to throw her weight in the national party, but increasingly to not need it. For example, to render irrelevant whether the national party likes that even without an election, $15,000 or more per month is poured into a riding where she will never win.”

    The 2008 filing of the Central Nova EDA will be interesting material. Not sure what the deadline is [and if a Council meeting is coming up shortly after, I predict the filing will be late].

    Of obvious interest will be the total spent. Which will not tell you anything by itself. Because what the national party is paying has to be added, information you are dependent on asking for and for which I don’t think there is much chance to inferr from public filings.

    You will be able to see all transfers from the federal party- and distinguish which of them are ‘flow through’ individual contributions made to the EDA through the party. [Since Central Nova has their own fundraising machine, and do their own national fundraising directly, the proportion of those flow through transfers will be FAR smaller than for any other EDA.]

    And you’ll be able to see that big transfer from the May campaign to the EDA. The still intact $80,0000 plus the surplus generated by the campaign [looks to be about $8,000]. That is, unless talk about the $80,000 makes the brain trust decide its better to transfer it back to the party. Possible, but my hunch would be not, since that would not stop the talk anyway…. and they still need the $80K to feed that hungry machine.

    You will also be able to compare names of contributors to the EDA with the party’s contributor lists. Easily done. I was looking for something different when I took a quick look at the lists for the May campaign and the party [which are in quarterly filings]… and I still noticed a lot of matches.

    My hunch is you will see even more matches with the national party contributor list when comparing from the 2008 EDA contributor list.

    A few such matches will occur randomly. But a high proportion of matching does not occur randomly- especially when the EDA is doing so much of its fundraising nationally.

    It would be a very simple matter for Central Nova and the May campaign to hit the national party’s contributors. “Would you like to also donate to Elizabeth’s campaign in Central Nova?” If the EDA filings show each individual contribution the way the national party quarterly filings do, you’d even be able to see how many monthly PACs Central Nova has coming from across Canada.

    It isn’t that time consuming to look. The Elections Canada website is VERY counter-intuitive and “unique”, so if you are not already familiar with it send me an email and I’ll guide you through it.

    kenpat@ns.sympatico.ca

  14. With the Green Party having sunk $160,000 or more into Central Nova through the 2008 election, at 12,620 votes that works out to a whopping $12.70 per vote.

    At a minimum, this shows a lot of resistance to Central Nova residents warming to Elizabeth May. And despite being all over the media, she has had NO spillover effect in the rest of Nova Scotia… which is an indication of what a hard row she has chosen for all Greens to be plowing.

    Not only was this predictable, it was predicted. I didn’t join the chorus of Dippers saying May is going to finish behind Louise Lorifice. And I said then that IF they had a very good ground campaign, she could do pretty well, but she’d still end up far behind MacKay. Which is exactly what happened. As well as saying then that because NS is such difficult ground for the Greens, May is not going to have any spillover effect on surrounding ridings, when she could have expected to have a substantial amount of that had she run in Ontario or BC.

    May saying she will still run in Central Nova is a statement that the Green Party will be doing whatever it takes to win the seat.

    Lord Farquar in Shrek, turning solemn:

    “Some of you will die in this quest…

    [hand moves to heart. voice turning yet more solemn]…

    …but I am prepared for you to make this sacrifice.”

    And before the election the Elizabeth May brain trust already had in place for after the election the cash for “keep spending whatever it takes.”

    Growing the Central Nova vote share further is going to cost even more than that $12.70 per voter. The May machine has a very long way to go, with no assurance whatsoever they will get there. And that is stating it the positive way: comparable to me trying to help Louise Lorifice win, despite the odds. The outside observer view is that no matter how much is thrown into it, the Elizabeth May Central Nova windmill tilt is doomed.

    At the rate of what the Green Party is putting into Central Nova now, they will have put another $180,000 into it by next Fall. And barring an unexpected catastrophe befalling the government, that is the soonest the Liberals might bring down the government.

    So that is $180,000 plus $80,000 for another election…. $260,000 on top of the approximately $160,000 spent by October 2008 [with a further $15,000 per month if we are still waiting for an election in October].

    Substantially over $400,00 if we have an election in the Fall, headed for half a million and beyond if the election is later, that the Green Party will have invested in Elizabeth May’s choice of where she runs to get a seat.

    Hell of a way to grow a party.

  15. Ottawa reporter for Halifax Herald Steve Maher asks 5 good questions of Elizabeth May.

    http://thechronicleherald.ca/NovaScotia/1110369.html

    Mark Taylor picked it up before I did, and makes some good comments:

    http://reportongreens.blogspot.com/2009/03/countering-spin.html

    Also on his blog, comments on whether she will run in a by-election in Dawn Blacks riding… including my comments on how entrenched May is in Central Nova, no matter what she says otherwise:

    http://reportongreens.blogspot.com/2009/03/go-west-ms-may.html

  16. Elizabeth May in that Herald sory linked above, 2 days ago:

    “I have experienced a change of heart about how critical it is that I personally get into Parliament. I felt before the election that Greens, being a grassroots party, we had strong campaigns across the country. And my campaign did not receive any particular priority over others. It will surprise people to hear that, but I’ve now put it to the party that I want to know if electing me is a top priority.”

    Certiainly will surprise people- in her own party no less.

    Which leads to todays story by the same reporter:

    Some Greens see red

    http://thechronicleherald.ca/Canada/1110681.html

    EXCERPT:

    “Her statement that her campaign was not unduly favoured is an insult to many hard-working campaigns across the country that did not get any resources,” the Ottawa software engineer said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

    Ms. May said Mr. Taylor and Mr. Ogilvie are longtime critics and their facts are wrong. The party didn’t give her campaign $80,000, she said.

    “That’s false,” she said. “You can check the Elections Canada website.”

    The site does show $80,000 in transfers from the central party but Ms. May said that’s deceptive, as $40,000 was “repayment from London North Centre,” where she ran in a byelection in 2006, and the other $40,000 was a loan that will be paid back.

    ———-

    For my comments on Mays convoluted attempt to explain away the $80,000 transfered into her campaign:

    http://rabble.ca/babble/canadian-politics/elizabeth-may-campaign-files-expenses-central-nova-interesting

  17. Chris,

    I was wondering how this post might be updated in light of Elizabeth’s “landslide” – who writes this stuff? – in her SGI nomination meeting?

    Like many unpolled Canadians I haven’t been all that interested in the parties’ politics lately when the only issue seemed to be who might trigger an election and when.

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