Managing expectations and the Green Party of Canada’s ‘message’.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May plans to take on Tory MP Gary Lunn in the next federal election. Photo Credit: Tyler Anderson, National Post

Green Party leader Elizabeth May plans to take on Tory MP Gary Lunn in the next federal election. Photo Credit: Tyler Anderson, National Post

There has been a lot of interest and discussion within, (and without) Green Party ranks regarding the big question: “Where will Elizabeth May be running in the next election?” There have been some pretty open discussions about the relative merits, and electability in given riding’s, in a kind of a guessing game based on public utterances by Elizabeth, and whatever drip-pets of information come from informal internal sources. This discussion is healthy, and without question serves a useful purpose in drawing out strategic analysis of varying quality from people both within, and without the decision making loop.

I am afraid that most of us that I am aware of, (With the notable exception of Bill Hulett, a leading light and long time organiser in the Guelph EDA), have more or less ignored the consequences of talking it up so heavily. Cast your mind back to the 2004 election, with tons of hype by Jim Harris, and GPC hacks that Greens were poised to elect MP’s all over the place. Remember the public, and media reaction to the election outcome? “Greens fail to elect MP” is a reasonably representative headline for you to think about. Again, in 2005-6, Bruce Grey Owen Sound was trumpeted as the ‘breakthrough riding’, with predictable results when the election was said and done. London North Centre by-election? Same deal, with the added salacious fact that the shiny new media star had failed to win, even in a by-election. Central Nova? There was a broad reaction that despite the presence of Elizabeth in the debate, the Green Party still came nowhere near.

Over the past few weeks, Elizabeth May has been giving interviews charging that the Green Party has a single objective, that overrides all other concerns. Electing Elizabeth May to Parliament. If you actually sit back and consider the past consequences of failing to meet very demanding self imposed expectations, this starts to look like a very very risky communications fiasco in the making. The downsides for both Elizabeth May, and the Green Party are pretty big. If Elizabeth fails to get elected in SGI, then the Green Party has failed once again.

I don’t believe it will be fatal, or even particularly injurious to the GPC. We will continue to grow our strength in more and more EDA’s, because we do have many hundreds of dedicated local activists. Every election pours resources into well organised EDA’s, and the teams get broader, and deeper in skills, experience, and raw electoral resources like ID’d voter lists. Nonetheless, it will further damage our credibility, and will provide plenty of ammunition for our political foes. For Elizabeth May, it will be a big drag on her personal profile, and will devalue her once impressive stature as one of the foremost environment advocates in Canada. It is likely, even probable that Elizabeth would lose the leadership of the Party, with the attendant loss of prestige and credibility. Not a very good outcome for somebody whose future livelihood depends on the high profile that she has spent a lifetime building.

I have been as guilty as anybody in inflating the rhetoric surrounding the choice of riding’s. It’s a choice that needed to be made, and many people wanted to influence the decision, in a positive direction. I apologise if Elizabeth thought it was needful to quell criticism by acknowledging the Party’s wishes in this way. I wonder if it is too late to wind back the clock, and start managing expectations better? What would the best route be to backtrack, and start publicising equally important, but less ‘sexy’ objectives? Should we set up broader objectives to be given equal, (at least), prominence to the laudible, but very challenging task of electing an MP?

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14 Responses

  1. A nice piece from the inimitable Rex Murphy today, in the Globe and Mail:

    “Ms. May is quoted as saying that the most important thing for her party is for her to win a seat in Parliament. It probably is. Because for all intents and purposes, the Green Party is mainly an instrument for her continued visibility. It has been personalized as the Elizabeth May party..”

    The EM Party will run hard in SGI. Elizabeth will do a perfunctory leaders media tour outside her riding (8 days). The REAL Green Party will contest 307 other contests. Let’s make sure that these other campaigns get the basic campaign materials we all need – not like 2008.
    John O.

  2. Discussing where she is going to run, why, why not, etc…. I can’t see any of that 99% internal stuff having any effect on inflation expectation.

    My outsiders perspective is that it won’t even have that kind of effect on internal morale. If for no other reason, the lions share of the initiative for these discussions comes from people who range from very critical of to at least skeptical of Elizabeth May.

    Its not like you are going to be surprised to see her fail…. as much as most of you maintain hope it will turn out well.

  3. Spanner for the works:

    Clearly, everyone is lining up behind hoping for the best in SGI. The differences are in the depth and/or sincerity of how that optimism/hope is expressed.

    What about the timing of that leadership race?

    Saying that the election is going to be the next window- this Fall- is par for the course from all party leaders and brain trusts. Although, that said, the rest of the parties are just saying the “be ready / we’re ready” stuff.
    At any rate, the punditry is divided on whether there will or won’t be. It is DEFINITELY not a certainty.

    If there is no fall election then those shared expectations are going to bite into how people look at leadership race timing. And those expectations are happening now, they’ll be totally entrenched if you wait till after the fall election doesn’t happen to consider their impact.

    “How can we be doing this to Elizabeth now? We need her to concentrate on winning SGI.”

    “OK. But we are constitutionally required to do it some time this year. When will it not interfere? If we set the date for November, the race is still on and will intensify.”


    Thats quite a strain to put on the process for deciding when the race is.

  4. Ken :
    If SGI is a done deal, then the die is cast, and why not hope for the best? Hopes are free. BUT the assertion that this is the sole objective is already out there, and will not readily be put back into the box. You’re right about what it means internally. Some people will want Emay to fail, but politely subscribe to the Party line. It will be nuanced.
    If you are expecting some kind of juicy battle over the leadership race’s timing, rules, etc. don’t hold your breath. The last race was very fair, and despite some of the assertions from EMay’s camp, (of which I was a prominent member at the time). I am sure that a fairness commitee will be struck, they will follow approximately the same timing and rules of the last race. Hopefully they will increase the spending limit, (from $50k to maybe $200k?), but I won’t h old my breath, with the proviso that the Party splits the loot with the candidates. I don’t think that anybody will be inclined to do different, because the precedent is established now. It is conceivable that if the election slides to next fall that it could cause problems, but I think that the Leadership contest will have to be firmed up long before that, election or no. If you were talking about the GPO, then yes, there would and are all kinds of process manipulations going on. It’s a less transparent organisation, and they have always been pretty brutal on the internal politicking side.

  5. John:
    I’ll meet your 307, and raise to 308. Like yourself, I doubt SGI will win, so in the absence of a win, let’s hope that a fully funded campaign bears long term fruit for SGI.

  6. BGB,

    About what I see as the knotty problems of leadership race timing ‘interfacing’ with banking everyting on May winning…. I was already taking account of you having earlier expressed confidence in the process.

    Not knowing otherwise I deffered/defer to that judgement.

    But try as people will, this is becoming a very unusual circumstance for which there is no good path to resolution that I can see.

    I’ve run through various timing scenarios, and none of them are good for other contendors. And not merely ‘not good’, but fraught with disadvantages greater than just being the underdogs, not having infrastructure to draw on, etc.

    I suspect at bottom there is a simple, direct and essentially ‘non-controversial’ problem. Parties eschew elections when a leadership race is on or imminent. Since the GPC has zero control or even influence over election timing, you can only control the leadership race timing. But you’ve locked yourself into sometime in 2010.

    Simple problem, but hell if I would know how to get around that.

  7. Ken,
    the only problem I really see is if the general election coincides with the ‘writ period’ of the Leadership race. The Leadership will probably formally happen over about 3 months from May through August 2010. Any other candidates will be busy right through. Expect some nifty publicity seeking during the general election, as it’ll be one of the chances for potential leaders to highlight their credibility.
    A spring election would be a problem though. It’ll be hard to raise money just after an election, which will mitigate in favour of the establishment candidate(s). Adrian Carr, and Frank DeJong, (who I guess is kind of the anti-establishment, establishments candidate). You’d think that Adrian would be the far away favourite given that she’s a full time politician, with a couple of staffers at her beck and call, but they haven’t been recruiting very much, so with the exception to the national tour that Adrian is on right now, she hasn’t done much to establish herself anywhere except with staff and head office.

  8. Frank Dejong would strike me as being far from an under-dog if Ontario still holds the majority of GPC memberships. Also Frank has been a very, very popular leader of the GPO. Moreover, I would suggest that Ontario has the best organization in the country. If Frank can pull this stuff together, I would suggest that he should be the front-runner, not Adrian.

  9. Hi Bill,
    Ontario has about 60% of the membership of the GPC (as of now). Frank will be popular with a lot of Ontarians, but don’t forget that EMay will probably be ‘handing over the reins’ to Adrian. I ran Elizabeth’s Ontario Campaign ( as you may remember), and I can attest to the fact that there’s quite a chunk of EMay supporters in Ontario, who won’t know Frank from a hole in the ground. The good news for Frank is that most of them didn’t bother even voting for Elizabeth last leadership race, let alone Elizabeth lite.
    Adrian is not exactly monlithically supported in BC, but she’s got some good support there.
    I would, and many Greens would rather see Frank than Adrian, but Frank does have his detractors here. Sooner or later, Adrian will start recruiting, and given that she’s full time, and will have Party resources backing her up, (Her paid assistant, and lots and lots of staff support), I would at this moment say she’s the front runner. Her little ‘training tour’ is obviously intended to take the fight to Ontario, and build some networks outside the Ottawa staff, so let’s see how well she does with it.
    I know Frank’s support runs pretty deep. I know so very many people who were originally ‘recruited’ by Frank himself, and he is warmly regarded by many. But, as you said, he’s been around for ever, and has detractors, and even enemies scattered about. It’s close. Let’s see what teams they respectively put forward. If Adrian manages herself, and the EMay team is her only support, then she’s toast.
    I’m also able to say that there will be other candidates, and their impact will be complex, and nuanced. We’re a long way from the finish line.

  10. There seems to be an implicit understanding here: if Elizabeth wins a seat, her re-election as Leader is essentially a formality. But if she fails to get a seat she’s finished and may even be happy to leave.

    [What is she gets close to winning can be seen as a minor quibble.]

    Those seem like reasonable assumptions, even if of course no guarantees.

    But what if the leadership election comes BEFORE the election?

    This is no mere hypothetical- there are vey solid reasons to think the greatest possibility is that the election is still more than a year away. And if we don’t have one in the next couple months, that becomes by for the most compelling likelihood.

    There are 20 different ‘anti-triggers’ for a Fall election, and if that doesn’t happen, about 4 times as many against a Spring 2010 election.

    And a leadershp race begins in earnest at least 6 months before the date its called for.

    Hence my reference to all the others than May as underdogs. Because if there’s no Fall election, shes in the race, at the same time she is running what is billed as an all or nothing run for a seat.

  11. You don’t have to be cynical to say that its very canny of May to get everybody EXPLICITLY lined up behind this all or nothing assault on winning a seat, and to SAY its going to be a Fall election even if you see no such certainty.

    If and when the Fall election window passes: “So we didn’t have an election yet. We’re still on. Full steam ahead. A leadership race? I’m fine with that.”

  12. Ken, it would make a compelling case to keep her on if there is a pile of work done in SGI, then many will agree with you, and say ‘let her have the chance’. The counterargument would be that 4 year leadership term in order to capture a 4 month opportunity doesn’t justify. The rub is that SGI may become winnnable if there is solid fieldwork done with no expense spared for the next 18 months. So there’s some justice in the argument to keep her on. It’s a good point, but I am still pretty sure that the Liberals will pull the trigger, assuming that the dippers and bloc will vote no-confidence in a month or so.
    I may seem blase about the prospect of a delay in the general election, but the organising for leadership is going to proceed no matter what, and at this early stage won’t change much whatever happens.

  13. I agree about everything except the likelihood of a Fall election. Its not just up to the Liberals and there are a lot of reasons the BQ would go for a deal , and can swquare that to their constituency with what they are saying now. And thats just some of the ‘anti-triggers’. You know how proability of multiple requisite variables works; so even if even every ‘anti-trigger’ only individually has a 10to50% probability, the odds of getting by ALL of them are limited when there are a lot.

    That said, it doesn’t change your general point that the leadership race will continue building regardless.

    But if there is no Fall election and the SGI campaign goes on concurrently with a leadership race it certainly does change the dynamics of how hard it will be to ensure even reasonably fair setting of the timing and other neutrality issues in the leadership race.

    Not to mention the issue that wouldn’t even be part of the setting of rules: I sure wouldn’t want to be in Frank DeJong’s shoes trying to criticise Mays leadership while shes in the [endless] SGI campaign.

    And I would think it would pretty much rule out Carr running at all… unless May wanted to give her blessing. I guess thats possible [barely], but even if it is, would be damn strange.

  14. […] there is the obvious, and apparently over-riding objective, electing Elizabeth May in SGI. So what are the chances? Obviously, a win in SGI will require seperating a great many senior citizen votes from Gary Lunn, […]

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