Green Party in pre-election mode

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Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May at last weekend's Green Party meeting.

Buoyed by a balance-of-power Green Party electoral breakthrough in Australia on Saturday, the Green Party of Canada (GPC) met this weekend in Toronto, for their Biennial General Meeting.

Defusing a potentially explosive resolution about the de-criminalization of polygamous relationships and sweeping aside criticism about declining membership numbers, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May strode confidently into Constitution Hall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to deliver her keynote address.

Paradoxically, she pleaded with Canadians to "wake up" as the Harper government, driven by an "autocratic and libertarian ideology," is systematically endangering democratic governance by silencing voices within the federal public service. Feeding on rising voter disgruntlement, public resignation and apathy, Ms. May attempted to move her party in a more centrist and value-based policy direction, by provoking anti-incumbent and anti-status-quo sentiment.

"We set a new record [during the 2008 Election with 937,613 votes]as the only federal party to have such high levels of public support and yet not win a seat. This is not a record we want to retain! The Bloc, with 1.3 million votes, won 49 seats. That one ‘factoid' tends to win over converts to proportional representation in the blink of an eye."

Ms. May also sought to deflect the issue of strategic voters parking their votes with the Greens by emphasizing her preference to "grow the vote." Despite strong stated "intentions" to vote, approximately 10 Million Canadian eligible voters did not exercise their right at the ballot box in the last federal election. More inclined to focus on expanding the electorate rather than wooing fickle voters, the party leadership urged Canadians to "Vote for what you believe in" in the next election.

Successfully putting to rest any questions about her leadership, Ms. May delivered an incisive and impassioned speech and was rewarded with an extended standing ovation. Echoing many of Barack Obama's 2008 U.S. election themes, May believes the GPC has demonstrated that it is now a viable National party and encouraged people to vote for "the power of the idea, rather than the idea of power."

While espousing efforts to diversify the policy platform away from the public perception of the Green Party as a single-issue party, at times the debate on the convention floor seemed to be contradictory and inconsistent. Radical tax reform proposals were interspersed with discussions about the danger of diluting traditional Green Party founding principles, namely social and ecological justice issues. A concerted effort was made to breakthrough "the tree-hugger, upper-middle class ‘movement' stereotype" to appeal to a broader base of "ethnic" and "everyday" Canadians. This new emphasis appeared to be aimed at building a bigger political tent through a mixture of participatory democracy and proportional representation reform, with middle class bread-and-butter economic issues such as personal and payroll taxes, moving to the forefront of prepared speeches.

Given that some polls in British Columbia have the Green Party teetering on the edge of mainstream acceptability -- with support in some ridings running close to the 20 per cent range -- an argument can be made that the Green Party is the most ripe political brand in the country at the moment. With an enormous yet unrecognized potential to build and convert support, many party officials grudgingly concede that they lack the financial resources and sufficiently sophisticated organizational and communication capacities to elect more than a handful of MPs.

Concern was also expressed about the party's ongoing inability to compete head on with the War Room resources and mentality of the Big Four federal parties. From the air war(media)of expensive televisions ads to the ground war (voter mobilization), candidate training focused on critical and cost effective means to maximizing electoral advantage during the next federal election.

Sensing the strength of this constituency early on, it is interesting to note that Ms. May's career at the federal level can be linked to her work with the Federal Environment department under former P.M. Brian Mulroney, who sought to permanently split Conservative opposition by giving Ms. May a great deal of political encouragement in the mid-to-late 1980s. Ms. May heavily criticized the gutting of the Federal Environmental Assessment Act in the 800-page omnibus budget bill that passed the Senate just before Parliament recessed for the summer.

Constitutionally, the Green Party appears to be moving towards more of an "executive federalism-style" of governance dropping the "shadow" from its cabinet critic designations and adopting some asymmetrical policy stances. While streamlining operations, decision-making protocols and communication channels, it is somewhat reminiscent of a "Charlottetown Accord-like" syndrome, whereby the interest of the parties are served but the general message fails to engender enough enthusiasm to placate the party faithful, empathetic, and/or strategic voters.

Friday night's speeches concentrated on youth engagement and growing the electorate, economic and fiscal rectitude, and the theatrical masks dawned during the electoral writ period. Keynote speaker and former Deputy Minister of Finance, Don Drummond gave the party a B+ for its recent "Vision Green" policy document, however he also vigorously dissected the preliminary platform by poking holes in its fiscal aspirations and generally dated tone - a point that Ms. May recognized in her follow up comments. Drummond gave all the other Federal parties a failing grade for their lack of detailed disclosure of their respective economic platforms to date.

On climate change Ms. May took her cue from the G20 position of U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, Director of the White House National Economic Council, by explicitly pledging to eliminate corporate fuel subsidies. Although nowhere to be found in the final G20 communiqué this structural adjustment proposal seems to be gaining considerable momentum worldwide and would give countries substantially more wiggle room when it comes to budget planning and prioritizing appropriations.

With the Bank of Japan and some U.S. Federal Reserve officials now highlighting a pressing need for an additional round of stimulus, Drummond referred to the need for further clarification of the future of "stimulus" spending by alluding to "expanding the capital stock" or what is commonly referred to as quantitative easing or printing new money. Some political commentators are starting to call this fledgling co-ordinated effort -- QE 2.0.

In a back-to-the-future move, a faction in the Green Party leadership actually proposed the elimination of personal income taxes and the party adopted a resolution in support of a more activist Bank of Canada in the face of increasingly volatile market trends and what some now call the "casino capitalism economy."

"Pledge for the Planet" was an innovative PBS-style online fundraising auction and public outreach initiative. Aside from raising $35,000 in an hour, the highlight of the web-a-thon was a live call in from Australia pledging international solidarity with the GPC.

Co-opting the recent electoral success of some municipal candidates in Canada, such as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, the Green Party's "Vision Green" document was interpreted as a pre-election attempt to frame the National debate in terms of the need to increase spending on neglected and decaying urban infrastructures. In some respects one could imagine a Sheila Copps, Stephane Dion or perhaps even a Helena Guergis standing alongside Ms. May and feeling comfortable with many of the aspects of the emerging Green Party electoral platform.

The Long Form census, the Long Gun registry or the Long War abroad aside, the strategic priorities of the Green Party and Elizabeth May remain fairly narrow -- elect the leader, focus on a few critical, winnable ridings, and increase fundraising efforts.

Morgan Gabereau is a writer-director based in Toronto.

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