The Green Party of Canada (GPoC) is in freefall. When Jenica Atwin, the Green MP for Fredericton NB, crossed the aisle to join the Liberals, thirty-three percent of the Green Party Caucus went with her. Only two of the original three Green MPs remain: Paul Manley and the GPoC founder Elizabeth May. The current leader of the party, Annamie Paul is under fire from party members and facing a leadership review, and the executive committee fired her long-time advisor, Noah Zatsman. Instead of blossoming into a new political force, the Green Party is lost in the weeds.
But what is most confounding — yet telling — is that the volatile issue that lit the party aflame didn’t have anything to do with climate change, pipelines, logging, indigenous rights, or even electoral reform.
The spark that inflamed such passions was a tweet about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a tweet during the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict, Manly accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing”. In response, Paul tweeted for de-escalation and a return to dialogue. Atwin rushed to Manly’s defense pushing for more support of Palestine. Zatzman struck back. Within two days, Green party leaders littered Twitter with the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”, “Zionists” and “Antifa”.
A few days later, Atwin accepted the Liberals invitation to join the party citing “distractions” in the Green Party caucus. A few days thereafter, she put out a statement mourning the suffering in both Israel and Palestine and calling for the end to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The backstabbing and name-calling is soon to follow.
The fights are most vicious when the stakes are low. And the 50+ year Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t show any signs of being influenced by the likes of Green MPs from Fredericton, New Brunswick or Nanaimo, BC. So there is nothing to stop this war from waging further.
These are not signs of a party that is ready for centre-stage. Rather, these are signs of a cult collapsing. For all intents and purposes, the Green Party of Canada is an international political franchise with a popular local star that is Elizabeth May. My local MP. The ultimate “Raging Granny” from (for now) Salt Spring Island, in the heart of Greenpeace territory.
Elizabeth May is a good MP. She is thoughtful, well-versed in parliamentary procedure and the inner workings of government, and devoted to her cause and her constituents. But she is not a politician. She is much more of a High Priestess than a politician. Politicians have to compromise. Priestesses don’t.
Over the past 10 years, May has managed to gain a tenuous toehold on the political map for the Green Party. Largely on the strength of her personality. Few other party leaders are invited to national televised debates when they barely have official party status in Parliament. But her telegenic personality wins converts every time. Just not for the party’s local candidates.
Bringing the party from one seat (May’s) to three seats in 10 years is relatively disappointing, given the strong showing for the Green Party as a whole, but it’s a start. And Greens have been grateful for whatever they could get. In return, they granted May complete control of the party, its messaging, and media presence, along with her new husband, John Kidder, who founded the BC Green party.
Of course, the cracks in the cult were there all along, but May’s toothy grin on TV kept them papered over. From her perspective, blinded by the spotlight of centre stage, everything may indeed have seemed fine. That’s the way most cult-leaders see things. It’s not really their fault. It’s their followers’.
So, when the May resigned as leader of the Green Party in 2019, a power vacuum naturally arose. And all the pent up anger and egos in the party flooded in. Everyone’s pet peeve gets put on the agenda.
In a party that sees the intersectionality in everything from climate change, capitalism, racism, healthcare to Zionism, the agenda grows ever more extensive. It is true that all oppression is connected, but that’s why it is so important to be able to focus efforts and energy on fewer links in the chain.
In talking to one of the GPoC insiders, they confessed that the party doesn’t actually use a parliamentary code like Robert’s Rules of Order to guide internal policy discussions because it “doesn’t align with the party’s values”. The fact that this widely popular book of rules guiding civic debate was founded by an American Civil War general is likely the issue. Too old, too white, too male, too military, too efficient…
They have likely adopted “consensus-based decision making”, which became popularized with the crowds of seated demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street, wiggling their hands in the air to demonstrate consent. “Direct democracy for direct action.” Consensus-based decision making works great when there is already a large consensus amongst the group. It can help incorporate additional insights or criticisms into decisions.
However when the differences are too great, it becomes less about accommodating other viewpoints as much wearing down the opposition with endless, circular discussion until opponents cave in for their own sanity. Then the group can pretend that “everyone is on board”. It’s a recipe for groupthink and authoritarianism. It’s perfect for cults. And cult leaders.
But it’s disastrous for effective policy-making. In addition to endless, open agendas generated by the group, there is no “losing” side in decisions without votes. Opponents don’t get any true recognition or respect for the merits of their case, if they are forced to acquiesce for the sake of “consensus”. As a result, it gets harder for opponents to voice critiques that might actually improve legislation or at the very least highlight dissent.
For all the hundreds of rules crammed into a thick, 4x6" book, Robert’s Rules of Order provides more of a framework for handling disputes than it does for promoting consensus. The rules create a rhetorical container to hold the fluid emotions and opinions of the group. It’s true group decision-making with clear winners and losers. As it is in life. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. Pretending that you can is just fantasy. “I might not agree with what you say, but I agree with your right to say it,” is an adage that conveys respect for the rules of discussion above the content that is in it.
Without clear rules governing decision-making, it’s intellectual anarchy that is only beaten into submission by an authoritarian leader through ham-fisted words or disarming smiles. No one said Queens and cult leaders can’t be nice people.
Of course, the opposite is true. Cult leaders can be (and usually are) narcissistic, malicious, and often mentally deficient individuals. There are already too many examples currently on display around the globe at this moment. Mature authoritarian regimes can have plenty of rules but little respect for them — unless they suit their agenda — which is to maintain authoritarian rule. Temporarily lowering voting thresholds to push through an agenda is one method. Creating fictitious opposition parties or nominating yes-men who will do the leader’s bidding are other signs. People in this camp place don’t respect the rules either. The ends justify the means.
Respect for the rules can only be achieved when their is respect for the values behind them. Values like collaboration, understanding and empathy for opponents, the weight of words, freedom of conscience, civility and deference, and the power of individual choice.
The Green Party of Canada is going through the initial growing pains facing all parties. Once in power, it will be forced to confront the true challenge of true consensus — which is compromise. Modifying or focusing the party ideals to suit the practical realities of society and achieve collaboration with people who think differently than you. Partisan zealots may see it as “selling out”. Practical policy makers will see it as “governing.”
The question is why wait? If the danger of climate change is as urgent as scientists and Green Party leaders are warning, isn’t it in the interest of the country, and the planet to take any step forward it can get — no matter how small? Are the values and ideals of the Liberal party all that different from the Green Party, or the NDP for that matter? Is the cult of Elizabeth May any different than that of Justin Trudeau or Jack Layton? Balancing climate change with the economy, securing the social welfare network, respecting the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities, and yes, supporting “peace” in the middle east. Incrementalism is governing by inclusion. Radicalism is the opposite.
In the words of the Simpson’s Mayor Quimby, “it takes a skilled politician to dodge this issue.” And the key skill of a politician is picking their battles. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not an easy issue. A wise politician understands the value of compromise and the benefits of ambiguity. Sometimes the answer isn’t yet clear, or conditions require compromise or even contradiction for the greater good. Politics is not like Burger King. You simply can’t get it your way with everything you want, when you want it, and when you want it now.
And while the rank and file members may want to wage war on all fronts, battle any backtracking, and crush any compromise, a true leader understands that that the “my way or the highway” approach to politics leads to dead-end democracy and the political wilderness. If Greens leaders — and their supporters — don’t start to chart a more mature, conciliatory course, that may be where the Green Party of Canada may find itself, again.