Why Elizabeth May's speech to the press gallery is the least of her concerns

Welcome Back, Elizabeth May

Paul Wells explains why the Green Party leader’s weekend outing is the least of her problems

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt coaxes Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to stop her speech and leave the stage at the Annual Parliamentary National Press Gallery on Saturday night in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt coaxes Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to stop her speech and leave the stage at the Annual Parliamentary National Press Gallery on Saturday night in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)

Let’s go back to quite a long time before Elizabeth May’s odd performance at the annual dinner of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, which news channels have been playing essentially on a continuous loop since Sunday afternoon.

Let’s go back to August 2006 when May became the Green Party leader. Nobody then predicted she would become the longest-serving Green leader in the party’s history. No, the prediction then, in the highly unstable aftermath of Stephen Harper’s narrow 2006 minority election victory, was that May would sweep the Greens into Parliament and make her party a major player.

Almost none of these predictions has come true.

“Beware the Greens,” Barbara Yaffe wrote in the Vancouver Sun. “They’re at the gates and there’s a better than excellent chance that, after the next federal election, their party will have its first seat in the House of Commons.”

The choice of “media magnet” May gave the Greens “the potential for a real breakthrough,” Sheila Copps wrote in the Toronto Sun. “May’s impeccable media connections will certainly influence the broadcast consortium” that, in those days, claimed a monopoly on debate organization, ensuring May a spot in the next leaders’ debates, Copps said.

And indeed, May did participate in the 2008 leaders’ debates. But she didn’t win a seat in that election, as she had already failed to do in a by-election in London. It wouldn’t be until 2011 that she would win a seat in Parliament (despite being shut out of that year’s debates). Along the way, her promise to build the Greens into a national movement has met with … well, mixed results. She “boldly predicted breakthroughs in Quebec in the next election,” the Globe and Mail reported two days after she won the Green leadership. No such luck. If we’re able to have both candidates and advisers, people speaking to Green Party policy favourably, who come from unexpected sectors—corporate Canada, trade labour unions, First Nations leadership—I think that will communicate to Canadians that we’re a party that speaks to a broad range of issues,” May said on the same weekend. That hasn’t really come to pass.

The 2011 election was the perfect expression of the May era. She won her seat, and has since been viewed with affection by colleagues from other parties. (They elected her “Best Orator” in the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year honours in 2014. The punchlines practically write themselves.)

But the Greens’ nationwide share of the popular vote stood at 3.91 per cent, which was not only lower than its high-water mark (6.78 per cent in the 2008 election) but lower than in 2006 (4.48 per cent) and in 2004 (4.29 per cent). Recent polls suggest the Greens are riding higher, but that had better pan out in this October’s general election, or May will stand as a less successful Green leader, on average, than — than — does anyone remember the name of the leader she replaced? That’s right. Jim Harris.

But how can I say she’s less successful? She has a seat in Parliament. Jim Harris didn’t. She often gets respectful coverage (this was, I believe, the only column I’ve written in which May was the main subject, and she comes off looking pretty good).

But the Green Party, as a party, has wasted away until now it is basically a wizened life-support apparatus for May’s continued tenure as a member of Parliament. This guy used to keep track of Green Party Electoral District Associations that had lost their status as registered organizations with Elections Canada; by the time he gave up two years ago, it wasn’t looking good for the Greens. The party’s rules called for a leadership review vote in 2010; that got hoisted by a controversial party vote until after the 2011 election. When the vote happened, in 2011 May received more than 94 per cent support for her continued leadership; “turnout” for the online survey of party members was 23 per cent.

Meanwhile, she keeps talking. In 2006 she referred to some abortions as “frivolous.”  She said Stephen Harper’s position on climate change was worse than Neville Chamberlain’s on Hitler. She’s really not sure about Wi-Fi.

Elizabeth May has stripped the Green Party for parts, turning it into a vehicle for the continued advancement of her career as a parliamentarian. She needs that career to be worth promoting. What she says when she’s at creepy weekend social events may be the least of her party’s problems.


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Welcome Back, Elizabeth May

  1. I’ve never been a huge fan of Elizabeth May, but I am now. She pulled off something at the Press Gallery that rivals what Colbert did at the White House Correspondents Dinner, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZnuYKKtpxg
    I’ll admit she’s not got the best comedic timing or delivery, but she spoke truth to power. And her courage to mark Khader’s release was a gloriously gutsy thing to do. I’m all for a political contender who is prepared to be that simple child who calls out The Emperor.

    • Truth to power is not a concept understood in the Parliamentry Press Gallery. It’s embarrassing to even contemplate.

    • I think May’s Mona Lisa smile as she “apologized” was quite telling. She proved two things: 1. Canadians have no sense of humour and 2. As a woman, and leader of the Greens she will get no Media Coverage unless she does drop an F-bomb. What better venue to say that?

  2. Although there is zero sympathy toward May in this column or any of the others such as Ivison I have seen, in thinking about her in hindsight, she has been looking tired and drawn lately. I for one can’t imagine those endless flights to Victoria over and over. I guess Wells, if not in sympathetic way, is describing the stress to succeed and not let people down she works under.
    We’re not getting any younger Liz, slow down.

    • If flying from Ottawa to Vancouver a couple times a week is too much for her to handle, I’d suggest she’s not Prime Minister material. It’s pretty clear that she was hammered.

  3. Elizabeth May is a goof, always has been.

  4. Synchronized finger wagging from Canada’s press luminaries is so much more disturbing than anything Elizabeth May said. May’s moment of candor would fit right in at almost any adult social gathering in the country –even without the second bottle of wine. We’ve heard the PM’s name prefaced by an F-bomb so many times some are now convinced that is his name.

    To Paul Well’s point on May’s Chamberlain/Harper comparison. It’s true –it’s inexact. Chamberlain had public opinion on his side. Yet the analogy risks seeming more apt in the future, as climate change visits misery on hapless billions. In the years ahead, Canada will likely find little to be proud of in the Harper “denier” years. The oil industry monomania? The obdurate inaction. The scientist muzzling? The closet nihilism of imported, dumb-as-donuts Tea-Party ideology? The Soviet-style police surveillance? Or just the bland affect-free remorselessness of the guy: a rote-learning savant who excels at reciting… stuff. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink.

    May is no Stephen Colbert but she sets the bar for truthiness in official O-town. The press should give it a whirl.

  5. As usual Mr. Wells, you are spot on. I also believe that the circumstances of this occasion and fallout are emblematic of the challenges facing real and courageous political participants these days, especially for those in the Green Party.

    Who is to say what is proper and appropriate social decorum.? Politics is filled with socially awkward, long winded, ill-mannered, obnoxious and unfunny people. How else can one express visions of difference and newity.?

    We, as Canadians, need not be controlled, corralled, demeaned, censored or surveilled by means of voyeurism, ridicule, stigma, time-frame or taste. Self-regulation is often plenty enough to mitigate elements of extremism or to gain composure.

    After all, the Green Party stands for a cleaner environment, a fair economy, an inclusive political system and a sensible perspective on justice. How can that be something that’s radical or untenable.

  6. “She said Stephen Harper’s position on climate change was worse than Neville Chamberlain’s on Hitler”

    Of course that is true. Bizarrely,Mr. Wells pretends that it is somehow axiomatic that May is wrong. According to the IMF, The Harper gang gives 34 billion dollars a year in corporate welfare subsidies to big oil and gas in the TAR sands in order to accelerate the planet killing oil profits and help Harper’s power base.

    • I wonder what was behind the near unanimous vicious media pile-on the endless attacks which far outstripped the importance of the rather innocuous inside the beltway event.
      How many times was that loop played?
      Great to see 2 outside the bubble columnists defend May in today’s Star.