The state of the Green Party of Canada

On the occasion of the best electoral result in the history of the Green Party of Canada, it’s important to take a few minutes to examine where the party has been and where it goes from here. It’s also critical, I believe, to acknowledge there were some real weaknesses in last night’s results and in the national campaign as well. This discussion is just beginning; here’s my opening contribution.

Early history

The beginnings of the Green Party of Canada were inauspicious to say the least. Very little about its founding convention in 1983 at Carleton University is publicly documented. Instead, we have an oral history that describes a mishmash of variously interested activists who couldn’t even agree on what kind of organization they were creating. A member who attended that first meeting, Dan Murray, describes “some guy…walking around handing out mimeographed sheets” saying he should be elected leader. Murray says “the dude was shunned and laughed at. I remember asking him why we would want one of those when every other party already has one?”

After officially registering on August 8, 1984, the federal party (much weaker than its provincial counterparts in British Columbia and Ontario) didn’t hold another federal conference or have a constitution until 1988, and until 1996 officially prohibited the leader of the party from acting as the party’s spokesperson.

Joan Russow, elected leader the following year, made some gains for the party in terms of media attention and electoral success, and, during the 2000 election, embarked on the party’s first national leader’s tour. Yet it wasn’t until the 2004 election under Jim Harris (who had lost the leadership to Russow in 1997) that the party made its great leap forward.


Harris (now somewhat famously) recognized a huge opportunity in the newly implemented $1.75 per vote funding for any party that broke 2% in a federal election. In 2000 the Greens had garnered 0.81% of the vote with only 111 candidates, so Harris figured that even if all they did was run a candidate in all 308 ridings they’d pass the threshold.

He was right, and with 582,247 votes (4.3%) in the 2004 election the Green Party of Canada became a million dollar political organization overnight. This was both an exciting breakthrough, and the result of a “fake it ’til you make it” trick. I joined the party shortly after the 2004 election to discover it only had approximately 800 members. In order to pull-off the full slate, a third of the party’s membership had stood as candidates, sometimes in ridings on the other side of the country from where they actually lived.

Later that year at a general meeting and leadership convention in Bragg Creek, Alberta, there were signs the party wasn’t ready for this sudden success. Members (myself included) spent the first full morning simply arguing over the agenda. When someone proposed it should include a singing of the national anthem they were blocked by a member (who was also, not surprisingly, a former and future candidate) who explained that they “don’t believe in nations.” By the end of the weekend and after substantial amounts of rye whiskey consumption (I leave it up to you to decide if that fact is pertinent) the meeting had improved enough, and I had met enough good people, to become tentatively reassured I was in the right place.

Still, major internal growing pains were never allowed an opportunity to settle down or heal. Minority governments necessitated perpetual election readiness, straining the reborn party’s finances and volunteers, and taking the focus away from important—and, in some cases, still unresolved—questions about internal procedures, governance, and purpose.


The 2006 policy and leadership convention in Ottawa that elected Elizabeth May leader was another huge step for the party. Thanks largely to her pre-established national profile and the influx of new members her leadership campaign generated, for the first time not only did CPAC broadcast the whole convention, but as the leadership results were announced Don Newman himself reported live for CBC Newsworld from the floor of the convention centre. Pundits credited May’s strong showing in the London North Centre by-election later that year, as well as strong results in four simultaneous 2008 by-elections (including my own), with helping to secure further credibility with the national media and, in another first for the party, an invitation to the 2008 election leaders’ debates.


That highpoint was followed by a pronounced denouement. While the party did slightly increase its share of the popular vote in 2008, after much hype it failed to come close to electing a single MP. In addition, comments May made about strategic voting had demoralized and angered a number of candidates and key volunteers who felt like their leader had advised people not to vote Green. As the election night “victory party” wound down at the Supermarket in Toronto, some key party members put on a brave face, but privately had a hard time seeing a way forward.

Following that disappointing result, the party’s Federal Council and Federal Campaign Committee (of which I have intermittently been a member) established several key objectives for the next campaign, but there was an understanding that the number one objective, to elect Elizabeth May, was the only one that really mattered. It was a strategy that explicitly placed all of the party’s eggs in one basket, and which former staffer Mark Kersten described as a Hail Mary pass. As the polls closed on May 2 2011, there was little doubt that the Green Party was heading for either its best federal result ever and a real breakthrough, or a politically devastating result that would threaten its future existence.

Last night

The best result yet

The list of people who believed last night’s result to be impossible is too long (and includes too many people within the party itself). But Greens are in the business of accomplishing the impossible, and last night the voters of Saanich—Gulf Islands made history. There are thousands of people who worked hard for years to make this happen, both directly and indirectly, but there isn’t a single member of the Green Party of Canada who could have brought it home other than Elizabeth May.

Nor is there a single measure of success that’s as important or as significant as establishing a beachhead in the House of Commons. Before, May wasn’t even allowed to answer media questions in the Centre Block foyer. Leaders’ salary and core office staff, paid for through public funds if you’re in the House, had to be carried completely by the political operation.

On actual issues, on votes and debates in the House of Commons, one voice will make a difference. Even in the minority Parliaments of the last few years, a strange unanimity has often dominated what should have been controversial debates. In 2007 for example, not a single MP opposed restarting the Chalk River nuclear reactor even though the regulator said it was missing a “key upgrade” that is “key to nuclear safety” and is required to make sure that “the core doesn’t melt down.” Similarly, not a single party in the 40th Parliament opposed the federal subsidy of the commercial seal hunt, even though many Canadians—and, increasingly, foreign governments and trading blocks—do. Further, critical issues like the climate crisis frequently get shoved out of the way by short-term political concerns. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, many Canadians who were previously unrepresented now finally have a voice.

As witnessed by the many Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and independents publicly celebrating the results in Saanich-Gulf Islands last night, Elizabeth May’s election isn’t just a victory for Greens, but for all Canadians who value a diversity of voices and want to see an elevation in our nation’s level of political discourse.

The worst result in a long time

And yet, while electing an MP was the only thing the Green Party needed to do last night to credibly claim victory, there’s also some bad news in the results and threats in the future. At less than 4% nationally, the party’s popular vote is the worst result since 2000, falling even lower than in 2004 when many candidates had principled objections to things like ordering lawn signs, asking for votes, combing their hair, etc. The cost of focusing resources on one riding was worth it, but there was a cost.

For example, local campaigns that receive at least 10% of the vote get 60% of their expenses reimbursed. In other words, a campaign that spends $80,000 is guaranteed to start the next election with at least $48,000. That’s a huge advantage in terms of riding strength and stability, and many Green riding associations (EDAs) were just starting to tap into that opportunity and build a fiscal foundation to carry them from election to election. Almost all of that evaporated last night, even in ridings that ran their strongest local campaigns ever only to see their vote reduced by more than half.

Serious challenges

The financial sustainability of the national party is also not guaranteed. The per-vote subsidy that gave birth to the modern Green Party of Canada is almost certainly doomed. For the first time since it gained national prominence, the party has to figure out how to fundraise on its own.

One of the biggest stories today is the soul searching and rebuilding the Liberal Party will have to do in the next few years. In the long run that could be positive, but Liberals are only in this position because they were forced. The Green Party isn’t so lucky: it needs to force itself to ask some hard questions and evaluate its own performance.

In addition to fundraising, the biggest challenges (and the biggest disappointments of the campaign) are in organizing and communications. For the second election in a row, the party failed to field a candidate in every riding despite promising to do so. (I don’t buy for a second the excuse that that’s due to a more vigorous vetting process. Frankly, if you’re not even finding rape jokes in the “favourite quotes” section of a candidate’s Facebook profile, I’m not sure I buy you’re vetting them at all.)

With regard to communications, ironically the party can be thankful its Director of Communications started this campaign with zero Twitter followers. I don’t think any of his counterparts would have gotten away with saying intervention in Libya was “sexy.” (See Lisa Raitt.) And I’m sorry, but when the person writing the alerts you’re pushing to iPhone users can’t compose a proper sentence, then rightly or wrongly, I lose confidence in your ability to govern. It’s not good enough to blame the media. The party needs to take responsibility for its own failure to communicate its message.

What’s next

This isn’t the first time I’ve openly mused about the Green Party’s future, and despite what I’ve said above, I’m more optimistic than ever. Still, these weaknesses give Greens reason to be thankful for a majority government, if only from a political strategy perspective. This is the first time in the history of the modern Green Party that we know when the next election is going to be. It’s the first time since 2004 that we can stand down from “election readiness mode” and take a step back. We have four years to build a fundraising base, reinvigorate and motivate grassroots volunteers, professionalize (though I know we don’t like that word) organizing and communications and plan to make sure that this wasn’t a one-off. We need great candidates in winnable ridings, and we probably need most of them to start campaigning within the next two years. We need to build our (virtual) bench strength so that when Elizabeth May is done being leader there’s someone who can take her place. (That day will come sooner than it feels right now, and right now, there’s no one.)

Today is for celebrating a hard fought, well earned, impossible victory. The party has come a long way since Carleton University in Ottawa, since Bragg Creek, Alberta, even since London North Centre. Tomorrow, as President Bartlet was fond of saying, we need to quickly move to “what’s next.”

10 reasons political candidates shouldn’t use Twitter #elxn41 #CDNpoli #etc

I was reluctant to join Twitter at first, but now I really love it. It turns out that the reasons people think they’re going to hate Twitter don’t reflect the real experience of actual users. That being said, with #elxn41 (that’s Twitter-speak for “this specific federal election we happen to suddenly find ourselves in”) underway, all sorts of politicians are rushing to use the service, usually for the first time. In turn, the mainstream media (or “MSM” as we say in tweets to save characters) is breathlessly analyzing the importance of political microblogging, and claiming that all politicians are “expected” to play the game.

Maybe I’m just in a contrarian mood. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I haven’t blogged in awhile and I figure some link-bait like a top-10 list is what I need to regain some momentum and clout. (Yes, Twitter friends, apparently that’s how that word is supposed to be spelled. I’m surprised too.) Whatever the reason, if you’re a political candidate considering taking the fail whale for a ride, here are some reasons you might want to think twice.

1. You’ve never tweeted before now.

You’re heading into a very short election, and while Twitter isn’t hugely complicated or difficult to use, it does involve a bit of a learning curve. Better you focus on the tools you already know how to use well then start trying to learn a new one at this late hour. Also, a big part of using Twitter successfully involves building up a following overtime, and unless you’re already a very high-profile person it’s probably too late for you to start that now.

2. You’re not going to do it yourself.

So, given point number one, you might choose to hire a social media expert (or, more likely, take advantage of the most pimple-faced volunteer in your campaign office) to run Twitter for you. But this isn’t like outsourcing your flyer text (which presumably you direct and approve) or hiring a speech writer (to create a product you will ultimately deliver with your own voice). Twitter is real-time and interactive. Done well, it should be spontaneous and (with apologies to Andrew Potter) authentic, and unless you’ve staffed your tweets out to someone who knows you so well they can speak for you and finish your sentences, it’s not going to work. Even then, if someone else is doing your tweeting for you that probably means you’re not actually reading anyone else’s tweets, which brings us to…

3. You’re not interested in real conversations.

Twitter is not a broadcast medium. It’s not just another channel for you to get your message out there. One of the amazing things about Twitter is that previously inaccessible people from famous movie stars to local columnists will actually respond to strangers and even enter into conversations. If you’re not going to do that, and do it quickly (people often expect Twitter replies within a few hours, if not immediately) the only message you’ll be sending is that you’re not going to be a responsive representative.

4. Your tweets will be boring as sin.

This is the hardest point for me to admit because, as a recovering politician myself, I’ve been guilty of this multiple times. It’s almost impossible to avoid: when you’re in a campaign, your life suddenly becomes A) more hectic and full than it’s ever been, and B) extremely lame to any sensible outside observer. Since most people use Twitter to comment on their day or share what they come across, it’s hard to blame candidates from publishing an endless string of “great meeting with a residents’ group this morning,” or “getting a positive response at the door” or “watch this video of me saying all the boring stuff I’ve been tweeting,” but NOBODY CARES EXCEPT YOU AND YOUR IRRATIONALLY SUPPORTIVE PARTNER. (And they’re probably just pretending.)

5. You’re just going to spam people with your party’s talking points.

The major parties have already started sending out suggested talking points as tweets. They even come complete with hash tags like #elxn41, #lpc and #gpc so that you’re not just spamming your own followers, you’re also spamming all of the other people trying to follow those hash tags. You’re not adding any value, and everyone will just tune you out.

6. I don’t want to have to explain to you how hash tags work.

I just…don’t.

7. You might say something stupid.

This is my least favourite reason, and I don’t fully buy into it, but regardless of what I think it’s hard to imagine this list not containing this point. Frankly though, if you or your campaign team is worried you’ll say something on Twitter that could get you into trouble, you’re just as likely to say that same thing to a reporter or at a debate. The difference with saying it on Twitter is that it’s more likely to be reported as part of an eye-rolling “dangers of social media” narrative, or mischaracterized by political opponents or reporters who are Twitter-illiterate themselves. (I’m not saying all politicians or journalists are Twitter illiterate. I’m saying that with your luck, the journalist assigned to cover your tweet screw-up will be.)

8. You’ll mostly be tweeting to the choir.

Who do you think is really going to follow you? The average voter does their research by watching the news and visiting a few websites, they don’t want to be bombarded by your talking points and boring itinerary all day. The two groups of followers you’re most likely to pick up during an election campaign are the faithful and trolls. Even if you manage to pick up some real undecided voters as followers, how many do you think that will be? 50? 100? Is that going to decide the election?

9. It won’t help you get elected.

Go knock on doors. ID your voters. Make phone calls and send email before you compress your bumf into 140 characters. Get your name in the local paper and your voice on the radio. Unless you can clearly explain how your tweeting is going to lead to votes, why are you devoting so much of your limited time and energy towards it?

10. You’re going to stop after the election.

Twitter is a community (or, rather, a collection of communities). If you’re just crashing for your own selfish interests, it’s obvious to everyone else. Imagine if the election campaign was the first time you showed up at the local rate payers meeting or worship service or whatever, and then you never went again. (Wait, you’re not doing that too, are you?)

All that being said, if you can avoid all or most of these pitfalls then go for it! Done properly Twitter can be a great way to communicate with new people and keep up with breaking developments. I just don’t think it’s worth doing badly.

I wish I could give you some examples of great political tweeters to model yourself off of, but for my own sanity I follow very few. I think my local MP and MPP Bob Rae and Glen Murray do a pretty good job (Rae clearly writes his own tweets — his voice is unmistakable, and Murray engages with his constituents, especially those who disagree with him, perhaps more than any other elected official I’ve ever seen). I’m told that federal ministers Tony Clement and Jason Kenney were both pretty good before the election, but that now they’ve succumb to the above traps. Who am I missing?

Dear politicians: You’ve made yourselves fungible commodities

On Monday The Current broadcast what they called a “voters roundtable,” a discussion with three voters focused on the question “do government scandals matter?” For anyone who considers themselves an informed and engaged voter, and especially for those who are actively involved in electoral politics, it is both painful and necessary listening.

First of all, it turns out these three people (Peter So, Blake Batson and Teresa Charlebois) have very little understanding of the controversies currently surrounding the federal government. Usually they simply admit that fact, though Baston begins by confidently referencing “the Bev Oda issue with the contract,” which Charlebois picks up later to refer to “the contracting and the swaying.”

That’s hopefully not a big surprise to any of us though, right? I think most of us already assume that the majority of Canadians don’t know the difference between Bev Oda and Len Blork, let alone the difference between an altered CIDA memo and a contracting.

What stuck out to me in this conversation, rather, was the repeated assertion that these voters don’t care about almost anything this government does, because all governments are pretty much the same anyway. Scandals like the Oda ado (our first palindromic scandal) “plague every single government” said Batson by way of explaining why they don’t affect his vote.

“Every government has their scandals,” added Charlebois. “Think back just to our last government before the Conservatives, they had their fair share of scandals too so it’s kinda hard to just say ‘ok, well the scandals now are going to necessarily sway how I would vote personally’ because correctly or not I feel like scandals happen with every party and every government.”

Anna Maria Tremonti’s questions did not move beyond the topic of scandals specifically, but over and over again I’ve heard the same complaint at the door about issues as well. “You’re all the same,” people tell me. “It doesn’t make a difference who I vote for.” And who can blame voters for having this kind of reaction? The level of political rhetoric in this country pretty much amounts to “Health care? Economy? Transparency? I’m in favour of them all!”

The result, my politician friends, is that you have turned yourselves into fungible commodities. In the eyes of too many voters, you are completely interchangeable with each other. According to the people over at Wikipedia, this “occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation … goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities, such as generic pharmaceuticals and silicon chips.” And members of parliament.

So, find a point of difference. A real one of both style (to grab attention) and substance (to hold it). Be bold. Be a little crazy, even. Iceland’s Besti Flokkurinn or “Best Party” took control of Reykjavík’s City Council last year partly by promising not to keep any of their promises. “All other parties are secretly corrupt,” the argument went, “but if you vote for us we’ll be openly corrupt.” They won more council seats than any other party.

When the best poll numbers our governing party can muster are in the high thirties, and the party that’s formed government for most of our country’s existence is stuck in the twenties, there are very few ideas not worth trying, especially if you can figure out a way to actually look, sound and act differently than any other talking suit. And if you fail, at least the stakes are low, because you can’t do much worse than the status quo.

The results

Chris Tindal for Ward 27 CookieThe results are in, and while they’re not what we hoped for, we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished. Last night I spoke with five other Ward 27 candidates to congratulate them on strong campaigns, including Kristyn Wong-Tam who undeniably had the strongest campaign and earned a hard-fought victory. (I hope to speak with many of my other opponents soon as well.) Our incoming councillor was very generous in her comments, and said she looks forward to working together to build Ward 27.

I’m particularly proud of and happy about three things today. First, friendships that have been made and strengthened. A campaign is a community, and ours was a great one to be part of.

Second, and related, that we had such a strong showing without a big political machine behind us. This was a grassroots multi-partisan campaign that grew as we went along. Some of our most dedicated volunteers were people that joined us after we knocked on their doors, like a snowball rolling down a hill. I’m so humbled that so many great people gave so much of themselves.

Ward 27 campaign flyers in a doorThird, the strength of the other candidates. What an amazing thing we accomplished here. Over and over again people told me that there were multiple council candidates they wanted to vote for, who they thought would make great contributions to council. How often does that happen? When was the last time you voted in an election and thought, “gosh, there are just too many good choices?” It’s remarkable.

This week, we’ve got work to do closing up the campaign office, returning rented furniture, collecting and recycling lawn signs. Claire and I will then spend the weekend at a bed and breakfast in Prince Edward County before I return to work from my three-month leave of absence on Monday.

I’ve learned a lot during this campaign, and hope to share some of that in this space over the coming month.

More to come.