by Chantal Hébert
Since her election as MP in 2011, Elizabeth May has been a force for good in what at times is a toxic workplace. From her seat in the last row of the opposition benches in the House of Commons, the assiduous Green Party leader has earned the respect of Parliament Hill insiders and the affection of many of her peers.
Despite the limitations imposed on the participation of MPs who do not belong to a caucus large enough to benefit from speaking rights reserved to officially recognized parties, the House would be poorer without her contribution. On that basis, most will applaud her stated intention to run again in 2019.
If one were looking for a living argument for a reform designed to make the Commons more responsive to the diversity of Canada’s political voices, May would probably be it.
But what her model performance as a parliamentarian has not accomplished is to advance the fortunes and the policies of the Green Party in or out of Parliament. The notion that having a leader in the House and on the debate podium at election time would make a big difference has not panned out.
After a decade at the helm, May’s watch as party leader can be summed up as a case of diminishing electoral returns. Here are some numbers.
In the 2006 election – a campaign in which she neither led the party nor ran as a candidate – the party collected 664,000 votes and a 4.5 per cent share of the national total.
Almost a decade later in 2015, the Green vote was down to 600,000 votes. In a larger pool of voters the party’s take has become smaller.
There was more at play last fall than just the collateral damage of the so-called Trudeau effect. In the election that gave Stephen Harper his majority in 2011, the Green party registered its second lowest vote in more than a decade. Only in her first campaign, in 2008, did May manage to break through the 5 per cent ceiling.
Smaller parties often find solace in the notion that bigger rivals have stolen their best ideas. But that has not been happening to the May-led party. While the Greens are not only about the environment, it remains their defining issue. And yet the party’s appearance on the parliamentary radar has coincided with a lost Canadian decade on the climate change front.
None of the above is to suggest that someone other than May could have done better, or even that another Green leader would necessarily do as well. The party almost certainly needs her more than she needs it but, at this rate, that will still be true in five years. The real question is whether the party’s ongoing dependency is a good enough reason for both to commit to maintaining a relationship that is bringing so little joy to at least one of the partners to the arrangement.
May is taking time off these days to ponder whether to continue as leader. That comes on the heels of the adoption at her party’s national convention of a controversial resolution calling for sanctions against Israel in the name of Palestinian rights.
The Greens are the first federal party to endorse the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. The Commons condemned the movement by a large margin last spring. May opposed the resolution. She is adamant that her party rescind what she describes as a polarizing policy.
She is on solid ground when she predicts that it would be an albatross around the neck of Green
candidates in the next election. It could also deter some of her more notable recruits – people like former Ontario environment commissioner Gord Miller or leading Quebec environmentalists Daniel Green and Andre Belisle – from sticking with the party.
But May’s reflection on her leadership future should be divorced from the outcome of the internal showdown over the Greens’ stance on Israel.
In a pre-convention interview with the Globe and Mail given at a time when the party had not yet endorsed the contentious Israeli boycott, May described the leadership side of her political life as a thankless task devoid of any fun.
One rarely advises a politician to read his or her own media clippings, but if May is seriously pondering whether her heart is still into leading the Green Party, she might want to look up her own pre-convention statements on the matter.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services