Monday, May 30, 2011

A Culture of Cycling: Building Healthy Communities, or Partisan Political Hot Potato?

After a long weekend spent driving around our fair province, it was a pleasure to return home and bike into the office this morning. Even a mild spattering of rain couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm on “Take Your Bike To Work Day”. I have been cycling to work now, periodically, for the past three years, after a long sabbatical away from bikes, which lasted from about my early 20s to my mid-30s. After purchasing a hybrid a few years back, at the urging of my wife, I was quickly left wondering why I hadn’t resumed biking a long while ago.

When I left the house this morning, the West End bus passed in front of my driveway. On many days, I would have been standing at the bus stop across the street, and boarding that bus. Today, I turned right and headed up my street towards my office, located downtown (very near the bus depot). Following my regular route (which isn’t the most direct), I still managed to beat the bus in by a good 5 minutes.

Had I taken a more direct route, along Douglas and Brady streets, rather than up along Lorne Street, I might have beat the bus in by another couple of minutes. However, I still feel the need to defer to safety – the lane widths on Lorne are slightly larger than those on Brady, and although traffic moves just as fast on both streets, there is more of it on Brady. Fast moving traffic, smaller lane widths, and an almost non-existent culture of cycling in this City have led me to choose a less direct route to and from the office.

The Need to Create a Culture of Cycling in our Communities

The Sudbury Cyclists Union issued a press release last week about Take the Bike to Work day. It was picked up by one of our local papers, the Northern Life (“Ditch the emissions, take the bike on May 30th”). For me, ditching the emissions is one of the reasons that I try to walk, bike and take transit to the office as much as I possibly can.

However, Sudbury still has a long way to go when it comes to creating a safe environment for cyclists. Note some of the comments on the websites running the story (including the SCU’s press release appearing on the Sudbury Star’s UR Sudbury site – “Bike to Work Day”). While some of the more vicious, anti-cycling comments have been removed by the Star’s administrators, the fact is that there is a clear and marked lack of respect for cycling in our community.

I like to think that it’s just a small, but perhaps overly vocal minority of individuals who have a problem with cyclists on our roads. Or I sometimes believe that the problems are generally isolated to cyclists who don’t (or won’t) follow the rules of the road. But lately, I’ve become less certain that this is actually the case, and that perhaps the anger expressed by motorists might be part of a larger backlash against those seen as taking part in “green” initiatives.

On the Road to Cycling Success in Greater Sudbury

Before I go on, though, first let me say that I sincerely think that things are getting a lot better for cyclists in Sudbury. That might seem like an unsupportable statement, given that we’ve just seen the resurfacing of several major streets (Paris, Notre Dame, Lasalle, MR80) and even some minor arterials (Kathleen) without the benefit of any additional cycling infrastructure. No new bike lanes have been created on Sudbury’s streets since the few kilometres were painted on Howey and Bancroft about 6 or 7 years ago now. Nary a sharrow has been added either.

Clearly, the resurfacing of our major routes as part of the economic stimulus was an opportunity lost for our community. And we may never have the benefit of experiencing this kind of comprehensive initiative again.

But the lost opportunity has spurred action. Rainbow Routes was asked by our Council to lead an exercise to produce a Sustainable Mobility Plan, which identified the need for pedestrian, cycling and transit improvements for our community. When presented to the Priorities Committee back in 2010, one of the astounding bits of information reported were that one in three Sudburians don’t have access to a motorized vehicle for transport. For a City built for the benefit of cars, this little bit of information really seemed to resonate.

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has been a strong advocate in our community for sustainable transportation choices. Complete streets lead to complete communities, and reducing urban sprawl isn’t just good for the health of residents, it’s really the only serious way that we’re going to be able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. Replacing sprawl with a culture of conservation is a necessary and fundamental step towards improving the health of our families, our economy, and our nation.

The Sudbury Cyclists Union began to take shape last year as well. With hundreds of members, the Union took a big step towards incorporating yesterday, with its second annual general meeting. The SCU has become a strong and respected voice of the cycling community in Greater Sudbury. In part through the SCU’s sustained efforts, it’s recently been announced that the upgrading of Regent Street between Bouchard and Telstar will now include painted sharrows on the widened inside lane, a small but important first step towards improving cycling infrastructure on our major thoroughfares at the time of road construction. Creating cycling infrastructure in this way is the most economically feasible model available, and makes sense from all perspectives.

The City has been working on a Master Plan for the downtown, and through innovative public engagement processes, Sudburians are being kept apprised of where the Plan is heading. Clearly, promoting cycling in the downtown, and providing linkages for cyclists to the downtown, is going to be a priority recommendation of the Plan.

With the recent presentation of the former Bicycle Advisory Panel’s bike plan to Council, it’s becoming clear to me that our municipal leaders are taking cycling in our community very seriously – more seriously than ever before. The voices of cyclists, urbanists, environmentalists, social justice advocates – all are joining together in an effort to transform our City into a community prepared to meet the challenges of a low-carbon future. Yes, it’s going to take time, but we’re making a start.

Which is why the upcoming 5-year review of the City’s Official Plan is so important for the cycling community. Currently, the City’s Official Plan does not identify any city streets where cycling infrastructure should be prioritized. Indeed, cycling appears to be treated more as a recreational activity than a transportation option in the City’s Plan. That has to change. And it will change if sustained pressure and common sense are used. Certainly, including proposed locations for bike lanes on Transportation Schedules of the OP are going to be a significant departure from what has come before, but it’s the only way to ensure that the opportunities which were lost just recently through the economic stimulus are not repeated in the future. And now the Official Plan can be informed by the Sustainable Mobility Plan and the BAP’s Bike Plan.

Respect for Cyclists and a "green" Backlash

Cycling must be treated with respect as a viable form of transportation in our community. Indeed, I believe that cycling, along with transit and walking, need to be treated as priority forms of transportation in our community, given that they are far more healthy and sustainable options than personal vehicle use.

However, as I wrote earlier, what I think we’re seeing throughout Canada lately is a bit of a backlash against healthy and sustainable “green” initiatives In Toronto, for example, Council has started to discuss removing recently installed bike lanes from Jarvis Street, and getting rid of the 5-cent fee on plastic bags. At the provincial level, some of the political parties have been openly discussing the need to curtail green energy initiatives, and the need to remove the HST from home heating. Nationally, it’s just been reported this past weekend that Environment Canada has been withholding data from the United Nations regarding Canada’s greenhouse gas contributions from the tar sands. And there’s been a lot of grousing lately about the high price of gasoline.

Taken each on their own, these individual issues are troubling enough. But when you look at them together (along with other, similar issues), you might begin to notice a troubling trend which can only be interpreted as a backlash. And it’s the kind of backlash which appears to have political motivation behind it.

Why Cycling is a Political Statement

Now, you might not think that riding a bike is a political statement. For you, riding your bike to work might be more about saving money, reducing your carbon foot print, or just saving a few minutes a day by beating the bus into the office. Perhaps it’s just something you enjoy doing, because it makes you feel good and healthy or you enjoy the wind on your face. That’s great, but guess what? Whether you know it or not, you are making a political statement which is upsetting a number of your neighbours and pundits across Canada (and the world, for that matter).

At Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration back in December, hockey analyst Don Cherry was on hand to discuss how Ford was going to take on those “bike riding pinkos”, even though many of those “pinkos” were no doubt Ford supporters. That’s just one example of how cyclists, whether they know it or not, are participating in a politicized activity. Right-wing neo-conservatives have defined you as being on the “left”, and whether you are or not isn’t important. What you stand for, while riding your bike on our streets, is a threat to neo-conservative values.

As many of my regular readers know, I’m very involved with local and national efforts to help reduce the economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change. I’ve stated in the past that climate change isn’t a partisan issue, and I’ve made these statements based on the science of climate change which has been produced in the past several decades, and overwhelmingly concludes that the planet is warming, and that human industrial processes are responsible for it. That’s a fact, and facts don’t belong to any specific group or political organization. So the planet’s changing climate can’t be a partisan issue. Right?

Well, what we’ve been seeing on the climate change front in the past several years are significant efforts by right-wing partisans to deny the “facts” themselves. By questioning our factual reality (with a fair degree of success, I might add, given their access to mainstream media, and the significant economic resources which they can bring to bear), the very scientific fact of climate change has become a partisan issue. If you don’t “believe” in climate change (as if a warming globe is some kind of tooth fairy-story), chances are you will be supporting a neo-conservative right-wing political party, as the feeling is that they’re not going to waste money doing something about a “non-existent” threat (and they’ve largely got the track-record to prove it, too).

So, if you believe that climate change either isn’t happening, or that it might be happening but there’s nothing that we can do about it, so why worry, chances are you’re going to be more attracted to a right-wing political party which shares your views (perhaps with a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink”, but nonetheless). If you believe that climate change isn’t a problem, why would you want any government to spend money to do something about it? Indeed, you’re more likely to look with contempt at those individuals and organizations that maintain that climate change is a reality, and that we’re heading for some pretty big pain if we don’t do something about it. Contempt, of course, is a pretty strong emotion.

If climate change isn’t happening, why bother prepare for it? Why the need to prioritize cycling infrastructure, or funding public transit for that matter? Or putting a five-cent fee on plastic bags? If you live in a reality where climate change isn’t happening, where oil prices are only high now because of speculation or lack of investment in exploration, if you inhabit a world where resource depletion is something which your grandchildren won’t need to worry about because humanity always finds a way forward (or where “mother nature cleans up a lot of her own mess; and she cleans up a lot of ours, too”, as stated by failed federal Nickel Belt Conservative Party candidate Lynne Reynolds), why on whatever mythical earth you live on would you ever want to change your lifestyle?

Cyclists come face to face with this attitude every day. And it’s not just in the online comments section of local newspapers. Every time a car passes us with only inches to spare, or worse, every time we are smacked by a monstrous side-mounted rear-view mirror on a pick-up truck, or every time a horn blares at us in an attempt to move us over further into the dust and debris on the curb lane, we must wonder what is motivating these motorists. Is it just an issue of safety, or perhaps a driver who lacks experience dealing with slow-moving cyclists? Is it maybe just impatience with being inconvenienced by a cyclist on the road?

Perhaps it’s just one of those things. Or perhaps it’s a lot more. Maybe it’s the contempt for changing the status-quo that is fuelling the rage of the driver behind the wheel who believes that cyclists have no place on the road, or at least that cars need to be given preference on our City streets. Perhaps there’s something going on at a more fundamental level, where you the cyclist is regarded as the embodiment of cash-and-spend pinkos who are out to create a nanny-state where freedom of choice is jeopardized by rules and regulations which penalize the individual.

Addressing the Backlash

It’s one thing for contempt to manifest itself in political debate. It’s completely different to experience that contempt while trying to ride a bike along a city street with narrow lane widths.

Like it or not, cyclists, you are making a political statement every time you mount up and venture into traffic.

The right-wing neo-conservative backlash at all things green has meant that those who oppose change toward a low-carbon future have already labelled you a political enemy. Along with being an obstacle on their streets, you represent an obstacle to their ability to continue to live their life as they have done in the past.

Never underestimate the power of change to motivate people to want to keep things the same. Neo-conservative populists understand this, and that’s in part why they have begun to harness the power of the anti-green backlash, and successfully equate a greener lifestyle with having to make unpopular changes. It’s a false argument of course; but it’s a politically popular one.

Again, let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that every close encounter between a cyclist and a motorist is caused by right-wing anti-green anger. That would be utter nonsense. What I am suggesting, however, is that the anti-green backlash we’re witnessing in Canada and throughout the world means that it’s going to continue to be a difficult task for cyclists to find room on local roads, as investments in infrastructure are only going to be incremental, at best. And that’s way organizations like Rainbow Routes, the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, and the Sudbury Cyclists Union are going to have to continue to be strong advocates for the creation of a culture of cycling in this community.

Cyclists need to understand the politics behind their choice to leave their cars at home when they head into the office every morning. Creating a culture of conservation includes creating a culture of cycling. And that’s a threat to many Canadians who just don’t (or won’t) see the need for change.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part IV: Internal Structure & Processes

For those of my regular readers whom may have thought that in my last few blogposts that I have been venturing a little too deeply into the waters reserved specifically for Green Party swimmers, I offer both an apology and a warning: in this specific post, I’m going to put on a snorkel and dive head-first into the shark-infested pool of internal party politics. So, unless you’re specifically interested in my observations on the inner workings of the Party, and how those workings can be changed, you might find a better use of your time.

Consider yourself so warned. And now…down to business.

The Green Party Constitution

The Constitution of any organization is not something which is written in stone, but it does command a significant degree of success (unless you’re the Liberal Party, in which case, it’s just something to be ignored whenever its convenient to do so). Some have compared the Green Party’s Constitution as a promise to Green Party members.

Indeed, I have some very strong opinions on our Party’s Constitution, and the level of respect shown to it by the Party. Quickly, it’s my observation that the Party treats its Constitution fairly seriously, and where actions might take place outside of the Constitutional realm, there has at least been an attempt made after the fact to reconcile. And frankly, those sorts of things don’t happen all that often.

The Green Party’s Constitution, however, is a flawed document. And it’s no longer truly representative of the Party which we seemingly are becoming. That doesn’t give anyone license to ignore it, however, but I believe that without changes to the Constitution, we may end up tying ourselves in knots over the next four years, leading to inaction. And we just can’t have that.

Currently in our Party, all Constitutional and By-law changes (and I’ll lump by-laws in with the Constitution from hereon) can only occur through a general meeting of the members. We’ve come to understand a “general meeting” to refer to the Biennial General Meeting, held every two years, but there are provisions for Special General Meetings to be held. As the Liberal Party is wrestling now with the concept of a “virtual meeting” of the members, so too within the Green Party’s Constitution there appears to be an opportunity for “general meetings” to be held without actually meeting in person. But that’s just my opinion, and certainly the concept of a virtual meeting has never been tested.

“Living Policy”

There are now two ways of creating / amending policies in the Green Party of Canada, however. The first is similar to the process for Constitutional changes: through a general meeting. The second process, which is still in development now more than 9 months after being approved by the membership at the August 2010 BGM, will create an online process for policy approval. Through this process, a small number of members will be able to propose, discuss, amend, and ultimately approve policies for the Green Party of Canada, subject to the ratification of Federal Council. It’s called the “living policy” process.

The intention behind “living policy” is two-fold. The process is there to engage members, and to make sure that policies can be developed outside of the two year General Meeting process which Greens have become accustomed to.

It’s always been difficult for me to reconcile this online living policy development process with the provisions of the Constitution, but in our wisdom, that’s the process that we the members created in 2010. That it’s yet to be implemented by the Party tells me that either it’s not a priority, or that the Party is having some difficulty reconciling this process too. Whatever the reason, taking the approval of policy out of the hands of the membership in its entirety, and placing it in the hands of a (what is bound to be) small online community and Federal Council is bad approach.

Where this can conceivably go is towards creating approved policies which the general membership might not find out about until after the fact. And here I include those members who have made a commitment of time and energy to stand as nominated candidates for our Party. If our policies are subject to shifting and changing with only small, internal discussions and notice after the fact, we’re really placing ourselves in an awkward position.

Vague Language

Between now and the next BGM, I believe that our Federal Council should strike a committee to look at modernizing our Constitution (and no, I’m not volunteering myself for this committee!). Clearly, there are a number of vague provisions contained within our Constitution which have led to a significant amount of infighting amongst Greens (such as, what does “4 years” really mean anyway?).

Vague language is very problematic in a document which is intended to be kept as a promise.

Practicing Internally what we Preach Externally: General Meetings and Democracy

We also need to assess whether our internal processes are doing all that they should be. In particular, the way in which we hold General Meeting is problematic, and frankly not very democratic. Without a delegate or proxy system in place, or without the ability of all members to have the opportunity to cast their votes on Constitutional and policy proposals, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice in my opinion, and certainly we’re not practicing the democratic values which we preach.

That may come as a surprise to some of our members who aren’t familiar with our current processes, or who have never attended a BGM, and I think this issue deserves a little more analysis. Currently, General Meetings are scheduled to occur every two years. The last one, in 2010, was in Toronto. The one before it was held in Nova Scotia.

Constitutional and policy proposals are circulated to all members via email and regular mail prior to the BGM. Each member is afforded the opportunity to cast their vote for each proposal. Usually, there are upwards of 50 different items on the ballot for voting.

Members can cast three different types of votes through the “Bonser ballot” process: Green for outright approval; red for outright rejection; and, yellow for a tentative approval where additional work is required by workshops at the BGM. A majority of votes cast for one colour seals the fate of each proposal. The yellow “workshopped” votes are the most problematic for the Party. Here’s why:

When the BGM convenes, the yellow “workshopped” proposals are treated very differently by the members in attendance. It seemed to me in 2010 that the members in attendance forgot that the membership at large had voted for the Party to move forward with the workshopped resolutions, after putting a little more effort into making them workable. The membership of the Party didn’t reject any of the yellow resolutions; they actually told BGM attendees to make them better and make them work.

Overwhelmingly, though, those yellow workshopped resolutions were not made to work, and were defeated by attendees at the BGM. Now, we all had our reasons for wanting to defeat some of these Constitutional and Policy proposals, but none of our reasons really had to do with respecting the will of the membership.

As it is, less than 18% of Green Party members bothered to vote in the pre-BGM Bonsor Ballot process anyway, so determining the actual “will of the membership” couldn’t really have happened. “The will of the voting membership” would have been a better term. Anyway, I point this out because I think that our internal voter turn out speaks volumes about the level of disengagement our membership has with what’s going on internally with our Party. And I would suggest that this level of engagement, coupled with the ridiculous Bonser Ballot process (which has hardly ever seen a policy or constitutional amendment voters wouldn’t send to a yellow workshop) are reasons why we need to do something serious about the way in which we hold our General Meetings.

And finally, about those General Meetings…it must be nice to be one of the richer members of the Party who can afford to make their way to Toronto or wherever the meeting is held, paying “delegate” fees and maybe hotel fees along the way too. Sure, I know that some who attend the BGM scrimp and save and suffer economic sacrifices because they want to be a part of events, and yes, we have discounted “delegate” fees for students and others who have cause. My point, however, is that it’s not exactly easy for the average member to make the commitment to attend any BGM, and often the reasons are financial in nature.

And since it’s at these BGM’s where our Constitutional issues and, until recently, all of our policy issues are discussed and voted on (for even those “green lighted” matters in the pre-BGM Bonser Ballot have to be “approved” on the floor of the BGM by those in attendance), we’ve created for ourselves a two-tier system which is inherently anti-democratic. In the first tier, we have those members who can attend the BGM, and thus actively participate in shaping our Party’s future. In the second tier, we have everybody else, who must rely on trying to influence outcomes by casting a Bonser ballot which seems to only be partly respected by the first tier members.

If for no other reason than an economic reason, we have to make our BGM’s open and accessible for everyone to attend, or else we need to make them truly representative by providing for a delegate system. Open and accessible General Meetings will likely mean that we move our BGM’s into a virtual world. If we wish to maintain the face-to-face element of General Meetings, we must either institute a delegate system, or implement the provisions for proxy voting currently found in our Constitution, but requiring a by-law for their implementation.

At the August 2010 BGM, an effort to implement proxy voting was shot down on the floor of the meeting, despite having received a yellow “workshop” vote in the Bonser Ballot. So the situation was that a majority of voting members of the Green Party (those in the second tier) wanted to be able to have an opportunity for real participation in General Meetings through a proxy voting process, but a majority of members in attendance at the General Meeting (the privileged first tier) told the second tier to forget about it.

So much for respecting the will of the membership.

And that’s a big problem for this Party. If we truly value democratic discourse, we must get things right with our own internal processes.

And don’t even get me started on a Federal Council which has room for the same number of reps from Newfoundland and Labrador (representing 7 ridings and likely less than 100 members) and Ontario (with 103 ridings, and about 40% of our total membership of the Party).

It’s time we got serious about our internal processes, because the friction it creates is truly problematic.

Replacing the Constitution

The committee struck by Fed Council should look into creating a more streamlined, user-friendly version of our Constitution and by-laws, which could then be presented to the membership in its entirety with the hopes of achieving a green light on the Bonser Ballot (so that it’s not torn apart through workshops at the BGM). The idea of virtual meetings should be part of a new Constitution, and votes conducted by the membership at large should automatically be treated as an expression of the will of the Party. Where an item is passed through an online vote, it should not then be required to be voted on again by those tier 1 members who attend a General Meeting.

We need to get rid of the Bonser Ballot, and instead provide a greater opportunity to “workshop” resolutions prior to a General Meeting, and through an online process. When a resolution goes out to the membership at large for a vote, it will either pass or fail based on the response of all of the membership. If the members perceive a problem, no matter how small, and vote the resolution down, so be it. Hopefully such small problems could be avoided in the first place by a more robust online workshop process (indeed, such a process should replace our “living policy” process).

Through a more democratic online voting process, we can probably do away with the need of face to face General Meetings altogether. Which is not to say that they won’t ever happen; just that when they do, they’ll be for other purposes.

Other political parties have done away with things like leadership conventions, and have replaced them with a more democratic preferential ballot. It’s time for the Green Party to head in a similar direction.

The Funding Agreement

The “Funding Agreement” is a big issue in our Party. I’m not going to explain exactly how it works, because frankly, I don’t completely understand it. I understand it less now that changes were made to it in August, 2010. Suffice it to say that the Funding Agreement is a codified agreement made between various units of the Party. For the most part, there are only two different units: there is what I’ve been referring to as the “Central Party”, and then there are all of the Electoral District Associations, which together total several hundred throughout Canada. There’s also a “Provincial Division” or something like that, established in British Columbia, which may or may not occupy an intermediate spot between the Central Party and the EDA’s. All that I know for sure about this provincial division is that it’s unique to B.C., and the Party voted in 2010 not to establish such divisions ever again.

The Funding Agreement sets out just how much of the per-vote subsidy that the Party receives flows to each of the EDA’s. It works like this: in the last election, Candidate Smith received 1,000 votes in the riding of Jones-South Island-Maritimia (JSIM). The government of Canada then flows $2 per vote received to the coffers of the Central Party. Thus, the 1,000 votes cast for candidate Smith mean $2,000 for the Party.

Through the Funding Agreement, the Central Party agrees to send 1/3 of the $2,000 to the Electoral District Association (EDA) in JSIM. So, throughout the course of a year, the Central Party will transfer $660 to the JSIM EDA, through the course of several payments (quarterly, I believe).

Seems like a pretty good idea, no? I’ll tell you this as the CEO for one of those EDA’s receiving this kind of payment: it’s very helpful. Our counterparts in the EDA’s of the other parties can be a little jealous. You see, in the other parties, their Central offices hold onto all of the per-vote money received. Only in the Green Party does some of this money flow to the EDA’s.

But…it may be time to revisit the Funding Agreement. It might be rendered meaningless anyway should the per-vote subsidy be cancelled. But, if the subsidy is merely going to be phased out over time, it might be worth taking a look at the Funding Agreement. You see, as a result of our loss of vote share, all party units are about to take a big hit financially.

I’ve been advocating that it makes sense for the Party to utilize its scarce resources to try to win in priortized ridings in 2015. To do so, however, the Central Party is going to need to be able to target financial resources to those select ridings. If a riding isn’t going to be a priority, it shouldn’t be receiving the same level of funding as the priority ridings.

In SGI, it’s true that the Central Party poured a lot of extra money into that riding. It was a priority. In 2015, though, the Party isn’t likely going to find itself in the position of having as much money for priority ridings, because 1) there is likely going to be more than one identified; and 2) we’re just going to have less money available.

This suggestion is going to draw a lot of criticism, because it has to do with money, but I think it might be time to terminate the Funding Agreement. Ridings which aren’t priorities don’t need the cash in the same way that ridings which are priorities do. Non-priority ridings may need to raise more of their own revenues through fundraising. I think that fundraising is something that we’re all going to have to get a lot better at. But as long as the per-vote money is coming in, it’s incumbent on the Party to use it for priority purposes. That means in ridings where we have decided to focus our efforts.

Jettisoning Policies

If I thought being critical of the Funding Agreement was going to be problematic, I’m almost sure to stir up a hornet’s nest with this idea.

The Green Party of Canada has too many policies. We have so many, in fact, that no one is really sure which policies are still current, or which have been replaced or partially superceded by other policies. You see, when we pass a new policy which might be in contradiction to a previous policy, we never seem to repeal the old policy. Therefore, it might be entirely unclear to party members, nominated candidates, the media and everyone just where our Party stands on a particular issue.

Sure, we have Vision Green, which is an amazing document, but it’s actually not representative of the true extent of our Party’s policies. What Vision Green represents is a monumental undertaking on the part of a small group of dedicated Greens (who mustn’t have any sort of life outside of the Party) to reconcile and present our current policies in a cohesive, comprehensive and easily understood way. I’ll tell you this: that’s not an easy task.

Vision Green, though, is itself too long, and too ambitious for a Party whose ambitions need to be a little more limited. That’s not the same thing as saying that Vision Green isn’t a great document, because it is. But the scope of it all can be a little overwhelming.

Other parties have experienced considerable success with a smaller buffet of ideas and policies, targeted towards specific groups of people. The Green Party probably shouldn’t do that, because it’s the holistic nature of our policies, and how they all fit together in a complimentary fashion that can be appealing to more studious voters. But, by providing voters with the “big picture”, we may be overlooking opportunities to sell them on the little pictures.

In 2006, when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, his Party ran on 5 specific promises, of which no one remembers any except one: he promised to cut the GST to 5%. Michael Ignatieff tried to run on a foggier notion of the 5 promises with his “family pack” in the previous election, of which most people now don’t even recall anything. Something about tuition maybe and health care?

The point is that Harper was successful because he stuck to his easily repeatable message about a small, easily-digestible number of items. Ignatieff tried too, but he kept on getting caught up in stories about red doors and blue doors and coalitions and asking voters to rise up. The “family pack”, which might have otherwise been a good political move for the Liberals, went out the window.

In the last election, the Green Party’s platform tried to be a little bit like Harper’s 5 promises, but still came across as too broad on the one hand, and too light and fluffy on the other. Voters who wanted more meat were directed to Vision Green 2011. Those who were happy with the watered-down version still had too much to digest. But at least the platform had a spreadsheet at the back for costing.

As part of building our brand, we need to develop a few core messages and stick to them. Not just during an election campaign, but throughout the next 4 years as well. That’s not to say that we should never deviate from these core messages, but instead that we should work those messages into as much as we possibly can, so that in 4 years time voters will be more familiar with our brand.

The core messages must be about environmental responsibility and carbon pricing, the democratic deficit, and how we aren’t the NDP. I’d also suggest ending marijuana prohibition as a potential fourth. And that’s enough.

What then of our other policies? Well, they’ll still be there (although I hope we can jettison a few of them as being no longer needed, or just too controversial), but they won’t be things that we’re going to do a lot of talking about. That might not sit well with members, but I think it’s something that we have to do.

Nimble and Flexible Decision Making

Who speaks for the Green Party of Canada? That’s actually not such an easy question to answer. Yes, we have a Leader of the Party, but the role of Leader within our Party isn’t the same as that of Leaders of other parties. From the perspective of power and decision-making, our Leader is really just one of a handful of members on a board of decision-makers known as Federal Council. The Leader has one vote. Sure, the Leader can exercise a significant amount of influence on Fed Council, but the way in which the rules work, the Leader still has only one vote. It’s probably best to compare our Leader to a municipal Mayor.

The way that our Constitution is structured makes the Leader a spokesperson for the Party, and little else. When our Leader wants to speak, therefore, what the Leader actually says can become a bit of a sticky issue. If the Leader is speaking about membership-approved policy, such as the need for high-speed rail, well that’s usually pretty easy.

But our Leader is often asked to speak about things for which the membership has provided little or no direction. Take the recent situation with the United Nations intervention in Libya. Given that Libya wasn’t on the BGM Agenda back in August of 2010, our membership hasn’t actually endorsed any formal policy on what the Green Party’s response to the unanticipated crisis should be.

Where, then, does that leave our Leader/Spokesperson?

Well, I guess the matter could have been discussed at Federal Council, but they only meet once a month, and the media is knocking at the door, wanting the Green Party’s perspective. Should Canada intervene? If so, how? Bombing? Boots on the Ground? Targetted assassinations? What page of Vision Green is that stuff found on?

Events often overtake our Party’s positions, and when decisions have to be made by the leadership, we Greens are pretty darn quick to rake that leadership over the coals. We’re certainly not a party whose members toe the party line unquestioningly. On the contrary, if you put three Greens together to discuss a policy issue, you’ll end up with at least four different responses.

Greens should be relieved to know, though, that unlike decision-making in other parties, where decisions are often based on political expediency (can you say Pot Ash Corp, anyone?), the Green Party arrives at its decisions by looking through the very helpful lens of shared Green values. Where we may be lacking policy direction, we can at least turn to our values for guidance. And as a result, we almost always get it right (sorry, Elizabeth; an appointment by Stephane Dion to the Senate didn’t hit a high note with me).

Nonetheless, there needs to be a greater recognition that the Party Leader sometimes needs to speak on behalf of the Party without as much guidance and direction as some Greens would be comfortable with. Our Party Leader needs to be more than one vote on Federal Council, and more than a simple spokesperson.

And one day, we’ll have a caucus in parliament (if all goes well). Caucus, too, will need some special consideration. Will caucus be whipped when it comes to voting on issues for which the Party has policy? Or doesn’t have policy? If it’s not to be whipped, why not (especially on matters where the Party has policy)?

We need to start thinking ahead about the evolving role of our Party’s Leader and caucus. Hopefully, by the time 2015 roles around, Elizabeth May won’t be the only Green in parliament.

Well, that pretty much concludes the extent of my thinking on where the Green Party might want to think about heading over the next four years. I hope that you’ve enjoyed my concisely expressed observations over the course of the last 4 blogposts (which appear to constitute about 35 pages of text). For those of you who wish that you had those hours of your lives back to do something better with, I sincerely apologize.

I’m almost tempted to leave things off like that, except, well, you know me: saying good bye is never easy. Yesterday, I read a post from another party member which included an excellent idea which I think that the Party needs to explore: the creation of an ecocentric, ecologically considerate Think Tank, which could do some of the heavy lifting for the Party in terms of policy acceptance, especially with the media. Thanks go to Vere Scott for that idea, and I absolutely think that a small group of Greens should start trying to lay the foundations for such a think tank, perhaps in conjunction with one of our more progressive Universities. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s worth doing, because our own resources are going to be stretched over the next few years.

You take care, folks. As always, comments are welcome.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part III: Politics

In my first two blogposts of this series, I took a look at a couple of things. First, I took a look at where the Green Party has come from regarding its recent internal struggles to “mainstream” the Party in order to experience more electoral success. And second, I looked at how this movement to mainstream the Party has meant that the grassroots, ignored for too long, can no longer be ignored if the Party is to experience continuing success. In my last post, I argued that applying our scarce resources to prioritized geographically-grouped ridings in B.C. and southwestern Ontario might be the most sensible approach for our Party to take to achieve electoral success in 2015.

In this post, I’m going to look at what our Party can be doing on the national political scene to better improve our chances for electoral success. I sincerely believe that the Green Party risks being squeezed out by the NDP over the coming years, and that if we are to experience success, we must present our Party as one in opposition to the ideas advanced by the New Democrats.

We must also be ready to seize and exploit any and all opportunities which might come our way. With an increasingly-streamlined decision-making process in place, our Party has been preparing the way for providing more nimble and timely responses, but much work remains to be done. I’ll be looking at the Party’s structure in my fourth blogpost.

By-elections Readiness

As in any parliamentary session, we can expect that there will likely be several by-elections occurring in the upcoming 4 years. The Green Party must be ready to seize the opportunities presented to us by these by-elections. That only makes sense, but what does it really mean?

First off, our spectacular failure in the by-elections of 2010 needs to be noted, especially the by-elections in Vaughan and Winnipeg North, which were two ridings where we should have performed much better than we did. Instead, the results were dreadful and dismal. What happened?

Well, first off, there was no prioritization of these by-elections within the Party. Actually, the impression from here in Sudbury was that the Party simply was not trying, likely as a result of pursuing other initiatives (such as getting Elizabeth May elected in SGI). The Green campaigns in the by-elections were largely left in the hands of local candidates, who performed well under the circumstances. But a lack of Central Party support (whether merited or not) meant that our results were terrible.

In the future, the Party must be prepared to go all-in on key by-elections. Note that I’m not suggesting that we do so for all by-elections, as frankly some by-elections are likely to be in ridings where we just don’t have much of a chance.

Being prepared means having credible candidates nominated in advance of by-elections. Yesterday, I argued that the Green Party should target the end of summer 2012 for having a full slate of candidates nominated for the 2015 election, and I presented my observations as to why I thought that was a good idea (time to build a local profile on the ground, through media and social media; opportunities for fund-raising, etc.). In those ridings where we expect and know by-elections will happen, it’s absolutely imperative that candidates be selected as far in advance of the by-election as possible.

For targeted ridings, our Leader must be available to visit. Often. We must also get the Central Party apparatus on board, and do what we can to flood the riding with volunteers. We’ve done this before, most notably in Guelph (which we might have won back in 2008, ‘cept for Harper’s general election call just days before voters went to the polls there). Other EDA’s must be ready to lend volunteers to by-election efforts (which can be educational experiences for new volunteers wanting to get their feet wet in election campaigns, and thus bringing transferable skills back to the EDA). EDA’s probably should be encouraged to make a financial commitment to volunteers loaned out for by-elections. By that I mean EDA’s should help with room and board of loaned volunteers, and recognize this expense as helping the Party and ultimately the EDA.

By-elections may yet prove to be a good way of growing our caucus. We must be prepared to capitalize on these opportunities when they arise.

Poaching MP's

Although I am predicting that parliament is going to be the most polarized Canada has ever seen, there still may be some opportunities for the Green Party to pick up parliamentarians who have, for whatever reason, decided to leave the Party under which they were elected to Parliament. In all honesty, I can’t identify a single MP at this point who might find themselves in this circumstance. But, with the Liberals and the Bloc both having to go through Leadership contests in the next 4 years, there may be opportunities down the road to pick up disenchanted supporters of failed leadership candidates.

The idea of floor-crossers joining our Party isn’t a popular one. Generally, a floor-crosser is derided in the media, and often not popular within the new Party either, due to ideological uncertainty. Some have succeeded very well, however, such as Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach, who left the Conservatives for the Liberals. Both were red-tories anyway, and didn’t feel at home in the new, ultra-right wing Reform Conservative Party. Both were let off the hook by the media fairly easily for their move (well, Stronach was savaged because she was a woman, that’s for sure).

Our Party has already set the bar pretty low for excepting floor crossers. Blair Wilson, who joined us back in 2008, was hardly star material. But…well, at least he had been elected. I had advocated in the past that the Party try to go after Garth Turner after the Conservatives kicked him out their caucus (and before he decided to retire from politics).

Anyway, there may be some opportunities for the Party to approach disgruntled or ejected MP’s. We need to be on the look out for these opportunities, and we need not be too discriminating, either. In politics, ideology can be…malleable.

Growing our caucus through by-elections and MP poaching, however, will put us in much better standing come the 2015 election.


Ask a Green which Party poses the biggest threat to the success of the Green Party, and you’re likely to receive an emphatic response: The Conservatives!

Of course, the Conservative Party of Canada does pose the biggest threat to the kind of Canada that most Greens want and advocate for. The anti-environment, anti-democratic policies and practices of the Conservatives stand in direct contradiction to just about everything that the Green Party stands for. In a very real way, what the new false majority Conservative government is likely to implement in terms of eliminating the per-vote subsidy, selling off the CBC to corporatist media barons, and instituting guidelines for national televised debates which would keep the Bloc and the Greens out in 2015, is very likely to constitute significant threats to our Party.

None of these situations are within our ability to control however. We can crow as loudly as want to about how the removal of the per-vote subsidy is a blow to our democracy. It won’t matter. It’s still going to happen. We must find our own way forward towards success within this reality. Crowing about it isn’t going to help (although crow we and others must, because it is an injustice and insult to the democratic health of our nation).

Ultimately, though, the Conservative Party isn’t the biggest threat to the success of the Green Party, and that’s because the Conservatives create a helpful anti-Green bogeyman. Greens need look no further than to just about every action that the Conservatives undertake, point a finger and declare “that’s not the way to do it! Here’s what we should have done!”

Of course, the other parties are going to be doing the same thing with their own version of the Conservative bogeyman. And they will be more successful in getting their own messages out, because they are larger parties and are better funded than we are, and they are more well-respected by the media. Our Green voices will continue to be drowned out by others.

Don’t misunderstand me: our message may be superior, but if we lack the ability to communicate it, superiority won’t matter. We witnessed this in the past election, and lost popular vote-share as a result.

The Party which poses the biggest threat to the success of the Green Party is the New Democratic Party. The media has branded the NDP as the progressive voice of Canadians, to the point that the NDP was able to slay left-leaning Liberals and Bloc supporters. The NDP now sits unopposed as being the moral voice of Canada’s left.

Try as we might to instill the notion that the environment isn’t a partisan issue, in the eyes of the media, it is. If you advocate carbon-pricing to fight climate change, you’re a lefty socialist. If you want to continue providing subsidies for renewable energy projects, you’re a lefty (even if your name is Dalton McGuinty or Dwight Duncan). If you believe that climate change is an international socialist scheme to redistribute wealth, well you’re on the right (both politically, and increasingly in the eyes of the media, morally).

Greens need to be prepared to answer to the perception of the environment being a left-wing issue. Our response must be then to assert ourselves and our policies as being different and preferred to those on offer by the left wing of Canadian politics, meaning the NDP. This isn’t going to be an easy task, given the inherent association of environmental issues as within the realm of ownership of the left, again meaning the NDP.

The Green Party can try to reclaim ownership of progressive, environmentally-conscious vote-share in one of two ways. First, we could decide to move further to the left than the NDP. This might at first glance seem like a good way of recapturing the progressive vote which appears to have abandoned us. We know that the NDP’s environmental policies are weak and contradictory. Surely we will discovered disgruntled former supporters flocking back to us if we present ourselves as Canada’s most progressive party.

The problem with this approach, however, is getting the message out. And frankly, being believable with that message. We keep hearing about how the Liberals, in an attempt to capture left-wing support in the last election, failed to do so because their supporters figured why bother voting for the NDP-lite Liberal Party, and instead opted to vote for the real thing (especially given that the NDP’s platform was the most centrist it’s ever been).

And let’s not forget that the NDP will be commanding significantly more media exposure, as a result of becoming the Official Opposition.

A leftward path for the Green Party will be, in my opinion, a path towards abject failure and obscurity.

A second approach worth considering is to identify the Green Party as a viable alternative to the NDP, one not bogged down by socialist ideology which continues to commit to union-dominated, brown-economy ways of thinking. This approach will inherently mean that the Green Party might have to move towards the right of the political spectrum, and that we continue to focus even more strongly on economic issues.

By moving right-ward, we will occupy a more centrist position. The rightward move can’t be helped if we are to set ourselves up in opposition to the NDP. And I believe that we absolutely must do so.

The NDP are not our friends. They may be allies on certain issues, but at the end of the day, they are our opponents, and they are offering Canadians a version of Canada which might be better than the one being offered by Conservatives, but it’s still very problematic. Arguably, from an economic standpoint, the NDP’s Canada is a perilous place indeed.

That’s not to say that we can’t work with them. It is to say that we can not lose sight of the fact that the NDP would gladly see the Green Party self-destruct over the next 4 years. Clearly, from an NDP perspective, a rising Green Party poses a long term threat. They know it. Do we know it enough to focus on the NDP as the greatest risk to our success?

I’m not advocating in engaging in the politics of mudslinging and negativism when I say that we need to focus our efforts in setting up the Green Party as an alternative to the NDP. I am instead suggesting that the limited messaging that the media allows us to convey to Canadians needs to shift its focus away from the Conservatives and towards the NDP. It may seem that we’ll be bashing an opposition party which can’t influence government. But if we do it right, what this approach will prove to be is representing the Green Party as a studied contrast to the reactionary and contrary attacks of the NDP on the Conservatives, while simultaneously pointing out that the NDP isn’t wearing any clothes.

We’re in parliament now. Let me provide an example of how our messaging can change. Take Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, passed by the last parliament and killed in the Senate. At the time the Bill was being debated in parliament, our Leader came out in support of its passage. This NDP private member’s bill would have committed Canada to achieving certain targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by certain milestone dates.

But it didn’t provide any mechanisms for actually reducing emissions. It just established dates which required the government to work towards, while putting off the much more difficult questions regarding how to get there.

Yes, absolutely Bill C-311 was much better than anything else we’ve had in terms of keeping climate change on the public agenda, and yes I think it was wise of the Party to support the bill’s passage in the last parliament.

In this parliament, however, the Green Party will need to take a much more critical and studied approach to proposed legislation such as Bill C-311. First of all, we’ll be able to do so, because anything proposed by the NDP isn’t going anywhere anyway in the next parliament (so there’s really no risk of scuttling half-good bills). Secondly, we gain by being seen to offer a more studious, reflective and solid approach to the issues brought forward by the NDP in a knee-jerk, half-baked kind of way.

Those kinds of discussion in front of the media will lend legitimacy to Greens in the eyes of Canadians (and the media), and will assist in differentiating ourselves from the NDP. And they’re the sorts of discussions that we should be having anyway.

My point, however, is that our focus throughout the next four years should not be on being critical of the Conservative Party; it must be on the NDP, as that party represents the biggest impediment to our future success.

Carbon Pricing: Time to Dump Cap & Trade

Currently, our Party is committed to carbon pricing by establishing a carbon tax, and a cap and trade emissions trading market for large emitters. We have traditionally played up the carbon tax over cap and trade for several reasons, but primarily because it is a far more sensible and business-friendly approach to carbon pricing. Cap and trade, though, has remained a fixture behind the scenes within our Party because it used to appear that this would be the preferred method of carbon pricing which the Americans were going to pursue.

Well, guess what? Cap and Trade is a dead issue in the United States. Obama is reluctant to mention that climate change is even happening, and recently the U.S. Congress voted that the jury is still out on climate change, which means that the U.S. government need not worry about doing anything about it just right now.

The latest buzz for climate pricing coming out of the U.S. is the growing movement to use James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” approach. Fee and dividend would put a direct tax (or premium, if you prefer) on carbon-rich goods and services. The profits raised by the government through the imposition of this fee would then be returned to Americans by directly cutting them a cheque. With more money in their pockets, the theory goes that Americans will then likely begin choosing goods and services which are less carbon-rich.

Sound familiar? That’s our carbon tax policy (except that our policy wouldn’t directly cut a cheque for Canadians; instead, we’d pay Canadians back through reductions in income taxes, and provide relief to the poorest amongst us through a guaranteed livable income. This approach is, in my opinion, superior to Hansen’s, as his cheque would go out equally to everyone (a “flat” approach), while we can utilize the income tax system to provide more relief to the middle class, and target those who really need it through GAI. Our approach is also superior to the NDP’s desire to put revenues from carbon pricing into social programs, as Canadians require real insulation from rising prices. That must mean more money in our pockets with which to make smarter choices).

When the topic of carbon pricing is discussed in the next four years (and it will be, although not as much as we’d like it to be), the Green Party needs to be able to clearly differentiate ourselves from both the Liberals and the NDP (and the Bloc too, for that matter). We’re the only Party talking about a sensible and predictable small-business friendly approach to carbon pricing. We need to get that message out. That means that we can’t muddy the waters by weekly claiming to support Cap and Trade, along with the NDP. We must present ourselves in contrast to the NDP’s policies. Not just because it’s politically smart for us to do so, but because cap and trade is far less “smart” than a carbon tax.

I believe that our future success relies on the Green Party establishing itself in opposition to the NDP. One of the best ways of doing so is to continue to hammer away at the NDP’s cap and trade scheme. When and should the NDP abandon cap and trade, we’ll be able to claim a moral victory. But I don’t expect the NDP to let go of cap and trade any time soon.

But the Green Party must.

Working with the Liberals

The Liberal Party might pose a big challenge to the future success of the Green Party, but it might also create certain opportunities. With a small caucus in place, occupying the reduced centre of the Canadian political landscape, the Liberals are sure to be enthusiastic about re-growing their base. However, given that the Liberals have been prone to make one or two mis-steps lately, we Greens need to opportunistically eye what’s going on with the Liberals over the next four years.

This doesn’t mean that we need to attack the Liberals. On the contrary, I believe that it’s in our interests to consider the Liberals to be our Party’s best ally in parliament. Largely because they’re in the closest situation to our own.

Consider that the Liberal Party is no friend of either the Conservatives or the NDP, both of whom they’ve just lost vote share to. They, like the Greens, are going to be squeezed out of the discussions (and media coverage) in this coming polarized parliament. What media coverage they receive is going to almost be entirely focussed on their own internal issues, and not the ideas or policies which they may advance (not that there are likely to be many of those for the first little while).

I believe that the Liberals, in an attempt to re-invent themselves, will be looking for a much bolder vision on which to fight the 2015 election. In casting around for the next “big idea”, they are sure to land on the environment and climate change. Sure, they were there before with Stephane Dion (and look how that turned out for them), but what about similar, compelling ideas brought to you by Justin Trudeau, or even Bob Rae?

Wherever the Liberals go, they’ll be setting themselves up in a contrary position to the Conservatives and the NDP. In fact, they are likely to zero in on the NDP as the bigger threat, given that the Liberals first goal must be to recapture Official Opposition status, rather than go straight from 34 MP’s to government. The Liberals know that the NDP support in the last election was “soft”.

With our tiny caucus of one, and our shrunken share of the popular vote, the Green Party really isn’t a threat to the Liberal Party, unless we do the right things over the next four years: grow our caucus, score some points on the NDP, receive more media coverage, organize in local priority ridings, and proving to all that we can be a serious player on the national stage, if a small one.

Even in those circumstances, our threat to the Liberal Party will only likely be felt in certain ridings (such as Guelph and Vancouver Centre, maybe one or two more). What if in 2015 we decided to not oppose progressive Liberals in certain ridings which they wish to hold or expand into, in exchange for their agreement to stand back and let the Greens give things a shot in a few ridings, just as Dion and May did back in 2008?

Think about it: if we were to step back from Guelph and Vancouver Centre, along with a number of other ridings (maybe in Quebec or Northern Ontario), maybe the Liberals would cede opportunities for us in Calgary, or better, on Vancouver Island. Since we should be looking at a small number of regional priority ridings anyway (especially in B.C.), and with the per-vote subsidy eliminated, it may be very advantageous for us to work with the Liberals in 2015 in some sort of non-compete deal.

But that’s only if the Liberals end up chasing a more progressive agenda than they did under Michael Ignatieff. Frankly, Ignatieff’s policies were anathema to Greens. But in 4 years time, we’re likely to have a better idea of a where a reinvigorated Liberal Party is coming from.

Getting into the Debates – Conservative Electoral Reform

Given all of the focus on the idea that our electoral system is somehow “broken”, I fully expect that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will strike some sort of blue-ribbon task force to look at ways of fixing it. Rather than hitting on real ideas like instituting proportional representation, however, no doubt the suggestions brought forward will be to add more ridings in places like Ontario and Alberta (which is probably a good thing, given population changes, but ultimately likely assisting the Conservatives more than any other party), removing the per-vote subsidy, and providing guidelines for the televised Leader’s debate (maybe they’ll move to re-institute corporate donations to political parties as well).

It’s in Harper’s interest to limit the media exposure of his national party leader opponents in the 2015 election, and the Broadcast Consortium would be a great and timely target for him to take on, thanks in part to the Green Party having kicked up such a fuss recently. Handing down clear rules for the Consortium to follow (or at least a “guideline”) regarding who gets invited to the debate would finally put to rest the controversies which have dogged our recent elections.

So, in Harper’s world, who would get an invite, and who wouldn’t?

To me, it only makes sense that the Conservatives would advocate that only the serious contenders be given a platform. Too many candidates speaking at once is unworkable, and frankly won’t help the Canadian electorate make up their mind about which leader to vote for (hey, I’m in Harper’s world for a moment…allow me some license here).

That means only political parties which are established political parties in the House of Commons will be allowed to participate in the debates. And that means only those parties which have 12 or more seats.

This position would work well if Harper decides he’s written off Quebec, because it would eliminate the Bloc from participating in the debates, which would create a significant amount of backlash). The NDP could likely support this approach, because they would also benefit from sidelining the Bloc (and they would have the added benefit of being seen to oppose it in the House and in the media, so as to avoid the backlash being focussed against them, secure in the knowledge that their opposition won’t change a thing).

While the Green Party won’t be the specific target in this circumstance, we’ll be impacted by association.

Will Canadians stand for it? Well, a majority of Canadians opposed the exclusion of Elizabeth May from the debates in the recent campaign (around 60%). And that was before the Greens had a seat in the House. Having a seat in the House is largely the perceived threshold for an invitation to the debate (although even with a seat in 2008, the Consortium initially denied May the chance to participate). So we can expect Canadians to be up in arms over the Green Party’s exclusion.

But this is likely to be tempered by the notion that the separatist Bloc Quebecois will also be excluded, and we won’t have to listen to this “treasonous” regional Party spout its nonsense to a tiny audience during the English language debate.

No, the response from Canadians will be muted, largely because the decision will be made at time when an election is far from the minds of most Canadians. And because the Bloc will get the shaft.

You heard it here first, Canada: Elizabeth May will not be in the next televised Leader’s debates.

More Mainstreaming of the Party

In my next blogpost, I’ll expand on the notion that the Green Party needs to continue along the path of mainstreaming that we’ve been on for a while now, by looking at some of the structural and policy related things which the Party can do. However, action within the Party itself only takes place at a slow pace (and then, all at once…and then…nothing). Outside of the Party structure, though, there are things which Elizabeth May can do to create the perception of an increasingly mainstreaming party in the eyes the media and voters.

First of all, I have to say that May has been doing an excellent job of this anyway. Despite losing vote share, May has publicly stayed on message that the Green Party isn’t a one-issue fringe party. She has articulated the policy and program initiatives of our Party to the public in an easily understood manner, while at the same time coming across as a committed activist politician and (perhaps more importantly) intellectual heavy-weight. And she’s done so while simultaneously assuming the mantle of significant moral authority.

When the public thinks of Elizabeth May, that’s often the image the general public has in mind (coupled with the notion that maybe she’s in the wrong party; or that she’s simply just a maniac who doesn’t get it…but the voters who hold that view were never going to come her way anyway).

May needs to continue to do what she has been doing well. Her recent comments and criticism over the oil spill in Alberta have been bang-on, and although they’ve been receiving no attention in the mainstream media, at some point they may achieve a breakthrough of critical mass. And even if they don’t, she’s been right to be critical, and being right continues to build moral authority.

The mainstreaming of our Party relies in part on May’s continuing to assume the mantle of moral authority on a small range of issues, with the environment being the most important, closely followed by the democratic deficit. These are core Green issues, but we lost votes to other parties recently (the NDP) who have presented watered-down sound-bite solutions for these issues.

As much as we might want to try to expand the issues on which May can assume moral authority into such areas as health care and the economy, it’s not going to happen. With limited resources, Greens need to recognize that it’s just not going to be in the cards for the media and voters to turn to May to offer up her opinion on corporate taxation or health care.

That doesn’t mean that May and the Greens should abandon those issues. Far from it. But it does mean that our strategy for putting the party in front of the eyes of Canadians should not include to any significant degree the issues on which other parties are likely to maintain their moral ownership of.

Look, we know where we shine, and we know what we do best. Let’s focus the limited public attention that May is going to get on those things.

And maybe one other issue, which I believe we can and should take ownership of. In the past election, I was very troubled by the fact that so many marijuana activists went over to the NDP, given that our policy to legalize marijuana was far superior to Layton’s waffling, inarticulate and confused ramblings. I by no means am in favour of marijuana, but I chafe at the economic damage that prohibition has brought to Canada.

If May were to take moral ownership of the marijuana issue, I believe that Greens gain in several respects. First, it insinuates us into economic discussions, as our support of legalizing marijuana stems in large part from a very valid economic argument (along with a pro-peace value, given that the War on Drugs has been a violent and abysmal failure). Secondly, it may be a wedge issue for a small minority of voters, but couple with our sustained offensive against the NDP, it may be enough to pry some (very well organized) supporters away from that party.

Some might believe that a pro-marijuana stance isn’t a mainstream idea. That might have been so at one time, but no longer. Ending marijuana prohibition has been front and centre in the mainstream media for several years now, and will increasingly be so over the next four. This is one issue that Greens, who have always been out in front on, need to embrace.

Party Branding

And finally…we need to do more to brand our Party. I’m not just talking about slogans and logos (although I’m also talking about that). Branding involves a concerted commitment to staying focussed and on track with regards to everything from message delivery to visual appearance. We’ve been getting better at branding, even with the undercurrent against this within our own Party (it’s not easy for those opposed to corporatism to embrace Madison Avenue-style marketing, you know!).

We actually have a decently recognizable brand on offer already. And the name of our Party is helpful in promotion. Some have said that Green Party name is also a hindrance, as the word “green” has only an environmental focus. That may be true, but again I would suggest that it only makes sense for the Party to focus its limited resources on those things which we do well, so in this case, being “Green” is easy for us.

Our Party logo though…I don’t know that the stylized sunflower truly resonates with anyone. Given that conversations around the need for action on climate change are bound to enter into the moral and patriotic areas in the next few years, I believe that our Party might want to get out in front of this through branding.

(as an aside: “Inaction on climate change jeopardizes the future of our Canadian children. Canada can and should be doing more to address climate change. Other countries are. Why not Canada? I fear what might happen if we don’t act…” Yes, discussions about climate change are going to start appealing to the patriotism of Canadians…they have to, and they will)

A green maple leaf just makes more sense. Either in conjunction with the sunflower or, better yet, on its own. We saw those green maple leafs floating down into ballot boxes in our recent advertising. That’s what we need more of.

The Green Party’s brand itself needs to become more patriotic, appealing directly to Canadians as Canadians. The Conservatives have experienced significant success with this approach. Do you remember the commercial they released near the end of the campaign, where a triumphant Stephen Harper voice over cascaded through a microphone, imposed on patriotic “Canadian” images of mountains and hockey players and families? Sure, that ad seemed a lot like a beer commercial…but what could be more Canadian than a good beer commercial trumpeting what it means to be Canadian?

(and another aside: I’ve been looking for comments from pundits having to do with the little Canadian flag pins Conservatives have started to wear recently. I’ve been unable to find any comments on these pins, which appear to cast the Canadian flag in the colours blue and white, instead of red and white. Is that just me and my failing eyesight or do those flag pins really have a blue maple leaf?)

Ultimately, having our Party brand associated more with Canada in the minds of voters just can’t be a bad thing. It’s something that we should work on.

That’s all for today.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Green Party of Canada: Focus on the Future, Part II: Creating Local Opportunities for Success

In Part 1 of this series, I took a little look at how the Party has ended up where we are at today, through the lens of the struggle between the “grassroots” and the “Central Party”. The strategy of the Central Party has been to continue centralizing and mainstreaming the Green Party’s power structure, in order to make Greens more palatable and electable to average Canadians. That this initiative has been pursued by the Party during a time of fiscal restraint has led to a situation where the grassroots structure of the party has taken both a hit in terms of power- and resource-sharing, and has been generally ignored by the Central Party, intent on pursuing its own centralist and campaign goals at all costs.

The grassroots response to this struggle has largely been to slowly disengage. It’s fair to say that we’ve seen the grassroots of the Party whither throughout the nation, with once-strong EDA’s such as Guelph and Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound shed members and vote share. EDA’s have been deregistered by Elections Canada at an alarming rate; they have not yet been replaced. Other EDA’s have become inactive in communities, and exist largely only on paper. Nationally, membership numbers are down.

But there hasn’t been much in the way of pushback from the grassroots on the Party’s march towards centralization. While some grassroots advocates tried to put their issues front and centre at the August BGM, by challenging a bid to change the Party’s Constitution to remove the 4-year Leadership Contest requirement (by replacing it with a “leadership review” 6 months after each general election), the grassroots failed spectacularly to accomplish much of anything. A poorly attended BGM in Toronto (due, in part, according to some, as a result of there not being the expected Leadership Contest), coupled with a sincerely anti-democratic approach to Party decision-making (if you can afford to attend the BGM, you can vote…otherwise, too bad, you and your EDA get no say beyond the Bonser Ballot), meant that the Central Party found itself in an enviable position to push forward the reforms it felt necessary to keep the grassroots in line. Ultimately, the Central Party emerged victorious, with support of their policy initiatives hovering at or below 18%of the Party’s membership.

The grassroots, however, can not continue to be ignored by the Central Party any longer. Not if there is to be any hope of moving forward in 2015 to recapture popular vote share. Historically, only a handful of our total membership has been engaged with the Party at all, and this circumstance has come about due in part to the lack of health of the primary interface which members have with their Party: the Electoral District Association. Where EDA’s are not active, this primary grassroots interface is lost to our members, and other potential supporters. It is therefore very critical that the Party now begin to turn its attention to creating and maintaining healthy EDA’s throughout the nation.

This does not mean that the Party must forgo its move towards centralization and mainstreaming. On the contrary, both efforts can and should be complimentary to one another. A mainstreaming of the Party can offer opportunities to broaden local levels of support, and to build and create coalitions with local and national organizations.

However, the Party is still operating with limited resources, and therefore the development of a strategy for the wise use of those resources must be the first item of business on the agenda of the next Federal Council meeting. While it is important to build and maintain local associations throughout the nation, it is certainly more important to do so in parts of the country which may become potentially “winnable” for Greens.

Focus on “Winnable” Ridings

Arguably, there aren’t any “winnable” ridings for Greens right now beyond Saanich-Gulf Islands (SGI); this argument would certainly be bolstered by our drop in popular vote throughout Canada. Nevertheless, there have been some parts of the country which Greens have identified as providing more of an opportunity for success. These areas can be broadly identified as being: 1) Vancouver, the lower mainland of B.C. and parts of Vancouver Island; 2) Southewestern Ontario, stretching from Kitchener-Waterloo, through Guelph and north into Dufferin and Simcoe Counties, and on into Grey-Bruce. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to these areas as “B.C.” and “Southwestern Ontario” from hereon.

B.C. might prove to be the most fertile ground for Greens, especially if the provincial B.C. Green Party can get its act together in time for the scheduled May, 2013 provincial election. Provincially, though, it seems that the Greens have been squeezed out by the NDP, and the provincial party may have to take a serious look at where best to expend its own resources. Certainly, there will be opportunities on Vancouver Island which should be exploited. Following the model of the GPC, provincial party Leader Jane Sterk and other provincial Greens might want to focus on winning just one seat (although it’s not clear that Sterk’s riding of Esquimalt-Royal Roads is the ideal location…but it may be, if all resources are brought to bear on winning it).

Nationally, the Green Party can expect to find itself better able to present a small number of candidates in B.C. for the consideration of voters, especially after the provincial party’s electoral successes. Breakthrough provincially in B.C., especially on Vancouver Island or within Vancouver, can only lend legitimacy to the national party. GPC members throughout Canada need to understand this. That means every effort should be made by the national membership to flood into Sterk’s riding (or wherever the GPBC chooses to focus its efforts) and volunteer in the same way that members did to help elect Elizabeth May. Our national success really does in part depend on provincial success, especially in B.C.

Southwestern Ontario presents a lower-order priority, only because the provincial election here will take place later in 2011, and will long be forgotten by the time of the 2015 federal election. However, there is a possibility that Ontario might elect an unstable minority government later this year, which means that the province will be operating in a hyper-political environment, much as we went through nationally. An unstable minority situation in Ontario could prove to be a real boon for Green success in Southwestern Ontario.

Although perhaps not as much of a priority as B.C., there are some opportunities for national party success in Southwestern Ontario which Greens should not now overlook. A strategic geographic convergence for electoral success is underway, now that one of the Green Party of Ontario’s most successful candidates ever has decided to make his return to provincial politics. Recently, Shane Jolley announced that he would be throwing his hat into the ring by seeking the Party’s nomination in the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound (BGOS), where he captured 33% of the popular vote in the 2007 provincial election. Jolley is a popular and articulate local, with a strong David Orchard-style organization (well, a David Orchard-style organization on a Green Party scale anyway) backing him. I suspect his return to provincial politics will reinvigorate BGOS in a manner that national candidates in 2008 and 2011could not.

That BGOS is held by the popular, folksy, ultra-conservative MP, Bill Murdoch, means that Jolley can attempt to do what he did last time: collapse the vote and present himself as the only real alternative to Murdoch. That Jolley clearly understands the needs and concerns of the ridings rural residents is quite clear. However, all non-Progressive Conservative candidates in Ontario are going to be in tough this election, as PC Leader Tim Hudak’s party has been way out in front of the polls, and offering populist fare for consumption. The PC’s may prove to be unbeatable, and with Jolley up against one of the most populist of the populist candidates in Murdoch, his task is going to be cut out for him.

Next to BGOS, and within the same area of media influence, is the riding of Simcoe-Grey. Greens haven’t traditionally had a strong presence in this riding, but with GPO Leader Mike Schreiner taking on steady, if unremarkable PC MPP Jim Wilson, this might prove to be a riding worth focusing on provincially.

The important thing for the national party to keep in mind is how best to exploit our advertising and media resources by looking for opportunities where groups of ridings which share common interests can be targeted. Those concentrations of ridings exist on Vancouver Island, and to a lesser extent, in Vancouver itself. It might be that the Party considers targeting only certain Vancouver ridings, such as Vancouver Centre where Deputy Leader Adriane Carr has been working on building a strong organization (although the continued lack of results in this riding might mean that it’s time for Carr to look around for a better home).

In the recent election, we here in Sudbury experienced the benefits of media synergies, as the Sudbury and Nickel Belt candidates were often interviewed together by the media, or hosted joint press conferences. Now, admittedly, the opportunity to carry out this strategy made a lot of sense in Sudbury/Nickel Belt, due to a fairly robust, locally-focussed media.

Those same media circumstances, however, certainly exist on Vancouver Island, and to a lesser extent, in Southwestern Ontario (although the shared media there is really just TV and radio, as print media in BGOS and Simcoe-Grey is fractured, with papers in Owen Sound, Meaford, Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, etc.).

One or two other ridings, with popular and qualified local candidates, might also prove to be priorities for the Party. Wherever these priorities are, however, the Party needs to begin the process of building and maintaining the strongest and healthiest EDA’s in those areas.

Organizing and EDA Building

Building strong and healthy EDA’s means that the Party has to lend a hand by providing strong and experienced organizers, who are able to promote clear strategies for local growth. That’s a bit of a tall order, given that the Party was forced to lay off a number of its experienced organizers back in early 2010; those organizers are just now being replaced.

Organizers have to get out into the field, and spend more than a few hours in each riding. They must meet with active Greens in every riding, and get local buy-in for workable growth strategies. They must also be prepared to teach local volunteers the basics of Organizing 101. Powerpoint presentations, YouTube videos, and printed hand-out resources must be all a part of a complete package of materials which Organizers will use as part of an educational process.

Organizing isn’t simple, and what works in one riding isn’t going to work in another one. But there are many lessons which are transferable. Our Organizers must become more active in ridings, with the goal of building up local knowledge, which could then be transferred between neighbouring EDA’s.

Communication between neighbouring EDA’s must also be promoted through the Organizers. Synergies can be looked for, and relationships developed. Far too often, neighbouring EDA’s have little contact with one another. This has to change.


Choosing the right local candidate is going to be important for all EDA’s, but doubly so for those ridings which have been identified as priorities. With “priority status” first put into place, the Party can then begin to approach excellent potential candidates, and explain to those individuals what it is that the Party will be doing to make give their candidacy the highest profile.

In short, we need the best candidates possible to run in our priority ridings.

This approach, however, might not sit well with local EDA’s. Any hard feelings will need to be ironed out between the local EDA and Central Party over potential candidates, and these situations should be addressed years in advance of the next election, and not just months or weeks.

I’m not suggesting parachute candidates need to be the rule, but I am saying that the Party should not rule out parachuting an excellent candidate into a priority riding. We’ve done so before, and experienced significant success, because we did it in the right way. Elizabeth May actually picked up her life and moved to SGI. She was not the typical parachute candidate. Ideally, this would be the model that the Party pursues in the future, but we may have to acknowledge that due to personal circumstances, it might not always work out that way.

However, getting the best candidates into priority ridings must be the focus of any winning strategy.

And who might these candidates be?

With Elizabeth May proving to Canadians that Greens can be elected in a first-past-the-post electoral environment, I believe that the Party must begin a serious effort to recruit candidates, potentially for both local and priority ridings. In the past, candidate recruitment has been one of the primary roles of the EDA. I would suggest that for priority ridings, the Central Party and EDA’s work together to find the best qualified candidates. The Central Party can lend strategic resources to candidate recruitment. By this I mean being able to offer a potential candidate a commitment to back and fully fund a campaign, when the writ is dropped, and to provide pre-writ financial and volunteer resources, much as we did in SGI.

A phone call from Elizabeth May or better, an in-person chat, would also go a long way.

We need to turn our attention to high-profile academics and environmentalists, along with green business leaders. For too long now, those in environmental organizations have remained neutral on politics, and those in academia have decided to sit out. I understand that there have been some good reasons for doing so, but I believe that there is a growing understanding that we are running out of time. With May in Ottawa, other high-profile climate change and environmental professionals and activists can and should be recruited to the Green Party banner.

This may mean that Party members, as well as the Central Party, might need to begin public appeals to select individuals, asking them to join us, telling them that they can no longer remain apolitical, because only through a political process can we begin to implement the changes that we all know need to be made.

Candidate Nominations

Candidates should be in place by the end of summer, 2012. Ideally, having a majority of our candidates identified by the time of the next BGM (which should be held on Vancouver Island, in order to lend support to the B.C. provincial Green Party’s electoral success). It’s critical that nominated candidates be in place, so that all future efforts of EDA’s can be focussed on building a candidate’s profile through local media, social media, and through public attendance and participation in community events.

Our nominated candidates must become the “go-to” people on Green issues in their ridings. To do so, they must start the process of profile building (unless they already have one). Showing up at community events, speaking out about important matters in front of local Councils, even running for municipal Council; all must be a part of establishing a nominated candidates presence in a riding.

A candidate who puts forward their name only and then only materializes in the public realm when the writ is dropped is absolutely not what the Green Party needs. One of my major criticisms of the Liberal Party is that their nominated candidates seem to disappear once they’ve gained a nomination, and only show up when there’s an election. I’m sorry, but that’s not the way to build local profile.

And building a local profile for a nominated candidate is a very important component of building a healthy organization. The nominated candidate becomes the face and voice of the local organization, hopefully drawing out volunteers from other organizations, community groups, and activists associations to join with the EDA and to build a campaign team. That’s why it’s so very critical that the right candidate be found. A nominated candidate who is not prepared to do this necessary work, or worse, who is polarizing and will turn off many potential supporters, simply isn’t the right fit for most EDA’s, and certainly not for those priority ridings.


Along with helping EDA’s get themselves better organized, and selecting the best candidates, the Central Party must assist with education and information about how EDA’s can now best go about raising money. In the coming political environment where the per-vote subsidy appears to be doomed, it will be doubly important for local organizations to reach out to supporters and ask them for donations.

I’ve personally always loathed asking people for money, but I have to acknowledge that without money, the chances for electoral success are not very good. Promoting a local nominated candidate and building and maintaining a healthy EDA is going to require raising and spending money during the pre-writ period. For priority EDA’s, fundraising is going to be absolutely critical.

Not only that, if we are going to recruit some high-profile candidates for our priority ridings, we need to be in a position to offer them as much as we can during the pre-writ timeframe. That means money, too.

EDA’s must begin to acknowledge the importance of fundraising, and be prepared to devote a small group of volunteers to focus on how best to raise money.

EDA Outreach

EDA’s, along with nominated candidates, must become more active within their local communities, as well. In an effort to build profile, EDA’s need to be encouraged to participate to the fullest extent possible in community events, such as Canada Day celebrations, local festivals, Santa Claus parades, etc. To do so, EDA’s will have to invest in swag, such as banners and flags, and find volunteers to help out (the good news is that participating in these kinds of events is usually a lot of fun, so volunteers are more easily found).

There are many of these opportunities for self-promotion. But EDA’s can limit themselves to just promoting that the Party is here. Real relationships amongst like-minded individuals and organizations should also be fostered. Now that we’ve moved away from a cycle of perpetual election-readiness, we have some time to pause and look around for places to focus our outreach efforts.

Likely, many EDA’s have been doing these things anyway. If you volunteer to help a local Green Party EDA, chances are you’re volunteering somewhere else, maybe as part of an environmental or social justice group, or perhaps as part of a local chamber of commerce. Whatever it is, over the next four years, it’s time to start reeling in some of your contacts, and making them supporters of the Party as well.

In some communities, it might be difficult to get involved, as there are no active community groups which share your same interests. Or perhaps some groups have already been captured by another party. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s time for members of your EDA to start their own organizations, and begin promoting their own issues. If others want to get involved, who might never have considered joining a political party, perhaps they’ll be interested in promoting eating locally produced foods, or advocating for better transit, or building seniors housing.

Some might say that if we use our limited time to promote these other causes, we may be missing out on opportunities to promote ourselves. I say nonsense, especially if those involved in other organizations are quietly political. What I’m getting at here is that their political affiliation should never be a secret, although promoting the Party should never be on the agenda; leave that for the one-on-one conversations over coffee or a beer. Maybe invite allies in these organizations out to a “Green Drinks” night to talk about other environmental issues, using these opportunities to get to know others whom you are working with, and develop relationships beyond specific issues. Chances are if you see eye-to-eye with individuals on one or two matters, you will have more in common with them. Work to recruit members active in these other organizations, because afterall, you likely have this critical mass of shared issues.

And of course, use the media to promote the organization and yourself. This is especially critical for nominated candidates. There’s no reason you can’t be the voice of the Party locally, and the local activist for better public transportation, or the go-to person opposing a wasteful suburban housing development.

Outreach is going to important for EDA’s over the next four years.

Monitoring the Competition

This one might be trickier to do, but it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your competitors as well. Especially the NDP and the Liberals, from whom potentially we could lose votes, or gain supporters. Find out who is being nominated by the NDP or Liberals, and when. Is the nomination being contested? If so, what happens to the failed candidate and their supporters? If this happens early enough, maybe there will be some opportunities to build relationships with them, eventually leading to their being turned. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to poach support from other parties: goodness knows that they are keen on poaching our supporters!

People move around between parties all of the time. We do so largely out of self interest. A dynamic, engaging candidate, for example, can have a lot of influence on moving people from one party and into another (which is why it’s critical to get the right candidates nominated in priority ridings as soon as possible, to start building these individual relationships). To maximize success, though, it’s important to know as much as you can about what’s going on elsewhere.

For EDA’s which can pull it off, having a supporter become a member of another party could provide you with front-line intelligence. This tactic might be especially useful in priority ridings, especially if your mole can find a way onto an EDA’s executive. Some will say that’s not exactly a Green Party approach to politics, and I would agree with them. However, it is a tactic used by all of the other parties, and it works.

Those are my thoughts about what the Party and EDA’s can do at the grassroots to begin preparing for the 2015 election. In my next post, I’ll explore how the Party can engage in politics better, in order to maximize opportunities for gaining advantage for the Party.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be construed to be consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)