The Green Party of Canada is about to go through a major shake-up that could have quite an impact on the unstable federal scene. Jim Harris, the corporate inspirational speaker who has led the party through a controversial three years of ups and downs has announced he will step down after a poor showing the last election.

Poised to replace him at an August leadership vote is one of Canada’s most well known and effective environmentalists, Elizabeth May. She recently resigned her position with the Sierra Club of Canada and just announced her intention to run. And depending on how she defines the role of the Green Party it could make federal politics much more interesting.

Jim Harris accomplished a single remarkable feat. Motivated by new legislation that provided significant federal funding for political parties based on votes cast, he managed to run candidates in all 308 ridings two elections in a row. The strategy got him 4.3 per cent of the vote in 2004 and that translated into $1.1 million a year in federal money.

But Harris’s initial brilliance was undermined by his autocratic style and inability to build the party into a national presence. Despite the funding, the party received just 4.5 per cent of the vote in the recent election.

That could change significantly if May wins the leadership. Unlike Harris who was virtually unknown even in Green Party circles, May is known everywhere and has a huge list of contacts and admirers in almost every part of the country. She is an engaging and articulate activist — a born politician who could build the party beyond its few thousand members based mostly in Ontario and B.C.

Yet there are a lot of unknowns and May is taking a big risk. Green Party politics is at least as nasty as any other and the party has a history of trashing its own leaders as soon as they, well, show leadership. Stuart Parker, a former B.C. Green Party leader has said: “In principle everyone is supposed to be completely equal. Most Greens believe that it is actually wrong to have a strong leader.”

The other factor that May will have to deal with is one she has pointed out herself — that environmental groups and their members have shown virtually no interest in party politics. Right now there is no relationship between Canada’s 2,000 environmental groups and the Green Party. Yet if May can be said to have a political base, it is within these groups. Her reputation amongst environmentalists might be enough to get them to change their attitude about electoral politics. But it might not.

Much depends on how she and a new executive of the party would define its role in a first-past-the-post system extremely hostile to small parties. May spoke about this issue on the CBC’s Sunday Edition during the last election: “I really believe that its [role is] to be raising the issues more forcefully even if you’re not trying to get elected or get to power, you’re trying to get to the other leaders and put them on the defensive, find out where they stand and make the environment an issue.” She told Michael Enright that she was going to vote Green but “…only because I am in a very safe Liberal seat. I wouldn’t take the risk of voting Green if I thought I might elect someone who would help destroy Kyoto.”

Yet in announcing her bid, May suggested the party will not just be about the environment. “You can’t have environmental sustainability with social injustice, it’s just not possible.” But May’s entry into federal politics will have its biggest impact on the environment issue. She has the potential for making it a key issue in the next election.

That would have an impact on all the parties and it could prove extremely troublesome for the Harper Conservatives whose environmental policies are the worst of any party in recent Canadian history. Parties with good environmental policies like the Bloc and the NDP could also benefit if the Green Party does not pre-occupy itself with winning seats.

It is here that the biggest unknown hangs over a redirected Green Party. While May would probably not replicate Harris’s approach of running in every seat — in the process helping elect Conservatives and defeat NDPers — she will minimally want a seat in the House of Commons for herself. Would the NDP, in return for the Greens avoiding ridings where the NDP has a chance, facilitate her election by not running against her?

If not, the NDP could face a more serious dilemma. If Jack Layton’s strategy is to replace the Liberals as the official opposition, the temptation for the Greens to replace the NDP as the progressive alternative might prove to be irresistible.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...