It was recently announced by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May that she would be stepping down, effective immediately, so that the party can find a new leader in time for the next election (whenever that may be, given that minority governments may fall after any failed confidence vote).
This announcement is very bittersweet. Loyal party supporters were quite sad, as she is incredibly popular within the membership. I’m sure May herself is both sad to leave the job and relieved to be done after leading her party through four elections as leader. Political pundits are mildly intrigued by the move, but given that they generally write the Green Party off as an interesting distraction at the best of times, that’s not much of a surprise.
However, this quest for a new leader may actually make or break the Green Party going forward, as it will likely settle a long brewing ideological battle within the party once and for all.
While most often simplistically referred to as left-wing, environmentalism and green politics take on various forms across the world, on both the left and the right. There are conservative and right leaning green parties in Italy, India, Germany, France, Greece and several other countries, highlighting just how diverse the green movement is.
For years, the Green Party of Canada has sat in a place of ideological limbo on the political spectrum. Depending highly on their leader at the time, the party has shifted from the centre and centre right to the left and possibly even left wing in this most recent election, as they outflanked the NDP on a number of their platform points.
Elizabeth May was a fairly pragmatic leader who personally seems to identify more with the left, though she also maintained an emphasis on balanced budgets, cutting taxes and maintaining a more grassroots approach to politics and governance. She’s a unique political character to say the least, one that the party will likely miss, but she doesn’t exactly speak to an ideological base.
If the Greens want to have any long term shot at making a name for themselves and truly energizing the Canadian electorate around environmentalism and environmental politics, their next leader needs to come from the left wing of their party.
While green conservatism offers a unique spin on traditional conservative politics, playing within the restrictions of balancing budgets, helping big business and incrementalism is not going to sell to the environmental crowd that has emerged in recent years, which the Greens desperately need to do.
It’s also important to consider the political strategy of this situation. Who would the Green Party appeal to if they were to move towards the centre or the centre-right? The Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer ran their campaign in the last election on scrapping the carbon tax. While the Liberal’s carbon tax is not perfect or even great environmental policy to begin with, to not have a price on carbon is a non-starter for any environmental party. So with that said, what votes are there to be picked up from pivoting to the right?
Critique as I will the Liberal’s environmental record under Justin Trudeau (they paid $4.5 billion for a pipeline, but I digress) they have one of the most ambitious climate plans of any Canadian government in history. While the bar wasn’t exactly set all that high before them, this fact alone has galvanized the more environmentally-friendly portion of Trudeau’s base, making them unlikely candidates to abandon their party for a more moderate Green Party.
What this means is that they only have one place to look to increase their support, among non-voters and future voters. That means young people, so what better place to look than the emerging and passionate environmental movement, made up largely of non-voters and young people?
The modern environmental movement, as largely inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg, have made their demands incredibly clear. This is a cohort not interested in moderate change around the edges, they are looking to radically reshape our society and economy to curb climate catastrophe in the next decade.
Regardless of your opinion on this movement, their demands shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when you consider the recent climate strikes wherein we saw millions of Canadians, especially young people, take to the streets in support of climate action.
If the Green Party is looking to maintain their recent surge in popularity and political relevance, then they will aggressively try and bring this crowd into their ranks and support a leader that speaks to them. A Green Party built by and around the interests and demands of this base could have major implications for Canadians politics going forward, hopefully pushing other major parties forward on the environment in the process.
While May was able to carve out a lane for herself after decades of political involvement, the Green Party really doesn’t have the luxury of time to build up a cult of personality around another affable and quirky leader. The clock is ticking, both politically and literally when you consider the IPCC report on climate change. It’s time for the Greens to take a bold step forward.
The good news is that the party leadership seems interested in going in this direction. The interim leader, Jo-Ann Roberts, has made it clear that they are looking for new voices, diversity and different perspectives, all of which seem to point towards a move in this direction.
However, if they choose not to embrace the environmental movement and instead retreat towards the centre or even the right, that would spell the end of the Green party’s “moment” in Canadian politics.
The people in the modern environmental movement know that the targets of the Paris Climate Accord (which Canada is not even set to reach) are not sufficient. They also know that we can’t continue to subsidize the profits of the fossil fuel industry and they won’t be fooled.
Now is the chance for the Greens to harness this raw passion and organizing prowess and use it for political gain, they just have to make sure they don’t screw it up.
I’m personally not engaged with the Green Party enough to know who may be a good candidate for leadership, as their caucus of three consists of May and two rookie MP’s, one of whom has already expressed that she isn’t interested in the job.
Whoever it is though, they need to come from the environmental left if the Greens are to capitalize on their recent momentum at the provincial level and increased recognition throughout the country. They need to excite the environmental movement and bring them into the fold if they want to move forward politically or save the planet.