May’s op-ed shows she needs to ‘loosen the reins,’ says strategist

By Palak Mangat October 5, 2021

With the Greens in “crisis mode” amid the departure of Annamie Paul, one communications expert is urging former leader Elizabeth May to loosen her grip on the party following her recent public airing of grievances.

Speaking to Parliament Today, Alyson Fair with Bluesky Strategy said the latest chapter of the Green saga highlights the need for May to “let the leaders lead.”

“We can’t keep going back to, ‘What would Elizabeth May do?’ because it doesn’t help anyone,” said Fair, a familiar Ottawa face who frequently kept tabs on Hill events during her days as a CTV Power Play producer.

“This is now, it’s not then. Everyone within the Green Party needs to know that they are moving ahead if they want to continue to make change within politics.” Fair added she wants to relay “strongly” that May “was the leader, and needs to know that and refrain from what was.”

May, who headed up the party for more than a decade, made waves after penning a lengthy piece in the Toronto Star this week, detailing her troubled relationship with Paul, who she painted as a demanding and controlling captain determined on securing “relatively autocratic powers” in line with what a company CEO would want.

May wrote Paul, who often touted the notion of “doing politics differently,” and her leadership style “clashed with party culture almost from the beginning,” and despite her best efforts to explain the “reality of the position” to all leadership hopefuls, May wondered if Paul “just did not believe my explanation” of that role. The ex-party captain explained that unlike most parties, the Greens have long operated as though “the leader had no power” and “could not set policy, but represented the policies passed by the membership.”

The piece garnered swift reaction online, given it marked the first time May broke her silence on internal party rifts and confirmed she took a backseat in speaking to reporters upon Paul’s request to “shrink” her position within the party.

While there were long whispers around the Hill of discord between May and her successor, Fair said it appeared May was sharing too much internal “dirty laundry.”

“I think they need to go in and do a clean sweep of the party, from top to bottom,” which should include a wholesale review of party policies, procedures and delegation of responsibilities, Fair said.

“I really think they need to take a step back, stop interacting with the media unless they are asked … because right now, the Green Party doesn’t exist in the eyes of Canadians.”

With May’s re-election and a breakthrough for Kitchener Centre’s Mike Morrice, the Greens retained their seat count of two after the election, bidding adieu to Paul Manly in a tight three-way race, after he’d held office since a 2019 byelection victory.

Per CTV, May ruled out stepping in as an interim leader but said her preferred choice to do so is Manly, whose 24 per cent support was not enough to defend the Nanaimo—Ladysmith seat that swung an NDP orange this time around.

While Fair said she respects May, a veteran politician, “any communications person would have told her not to go as far as she did” in the Star piece, as it “just adds to what is going wrong in the party right now.”

May “started off well,” Fair added, by laying out support for Paul during her leadership bid in the editorial, but she got lost in the weeds by mentioning specific dates and events, when the overall editorial “could have just been left with what needs to be done for the Green Party as a whole.”

Since Paul’s leadership victory last fall, a string of media stories have emerged detailing discord between Paul’s team, the federal council and May loyalists, with reporters sometimes citing anonymous sources. Paul openly dismissed threats to her leadership, which she fended off this summer thanks to an arbitrator and other legal mechanisms, as coming from a “small” group of federal councillors unhappy with her leadership victory.

The only current Black and female federal leader also alleged criticism of her leadership style was rooted in racism and sexism — a theme that some online commentators say needs to be explored further.

Green saga a ‘case study,’ says expert
Memorial University political scientist Alex Marland, who’s written extensively on party discipline and political staff, said it’s clear the party will now embark on a process of “renewal,” though it remains uncertain what the future holds for the Greens.

But, he added, with May calling for an accounting of the roster’s poor electoral showing and a “serious independent inquiry” into Paul’s experiences and “serious charges,” much could be riding on how Paul’s successor settles into the role.

“If the next leader goes in and experiences the same sorts of issues, that makes it difficult,” said Marland. He added his recommendation is to ensure any internal investigation or inquiry, part and parcel of that “renewal” process, does not “drag on.”

The professor added the party’s internal drama and subsequent fallout will likely be studied for years to come. “A lot of what’s happening with the Green Party has become a bit of a case study because it’s undoing a lot of the norms of what we expect from political parties and what we teach, because it’s so unusual,” he said.

May frequently trumpeted throughout her tenure the fact that the Greens, unlike other parties, do not whip their votes, meaning she does not have the “power” to exercise what she once said could be seen as a tool to “silence” MPs. Given that “ethos,” it’s not entirely surprising that the “spirit” of openly expressing different points of view seeped into media coverage of the election, he said.

“That’s a great democratic move but at the same time, there’s consequences for that,” said Marland, adding it can appear to “sow the seeds of division” by giving party brass and caucus members free range to publicly challenge the leader. (Former Green-turned-Liberal MP Jenica Atwin, for example, cited a lack of public backing from Paul as a reason for crossing the floor to the red team. A former Paul adviser, Noah Zatzman, had accused Atwin of antisemitism and vowed to “defeat” her and her supporters in the next vote.)

By the same token, Marland said the notion highlights a “fundamental dilemma of the way party politics works in Canada,” where caucus members are expected to publicly support their captain, “and if you don’t, you’re a traitor.”

‘National profile’ should be priority for next face of party
The expert added the party “really seems to have been structured around Elizabeth May, so obviously it’s had a very difficult time adapting to moving away from her leadership.”

Moving forward, it will have to contend with how that squares with the next leader’s style. May has already called for an accounting of why the party was unable to run a full slate of candidates in the last vote.

Since 2004, the Greens ran 338 candidates each election, though it “managed” in 2021 to run only 252, she noted. The figures were further dampened by a drop in the popular vote to 2.3 per cent from 6.5 per cent in 2019.

With the Greens once again not carrying official party status in the House, limiting the roster’s ability to take part in committees, there will be a renewed emphasis on the party standing up an interim leader who can speak to reporters, said Marland.

For most voters, as long as the party is seen to have frequent communication, it won’t “matter” if the person steering the ship is doing so on an interim basis or not.

“What will really matter is whether that person is available for the next federal election and to develop a national profile,” much like when Paul earned praise for her performance on the national debate stage last month, he said.