Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday November 6, 2019
Elizabeth May calls it quits. Could the Greens do better with someone else?
Over the last decade, Elizabeth May became one of the strongest and most widely known personalities in Canadian politics. Under her leadership, the Green Party of Canada achieved the best results in its 35-year history.
Also under May, the Greens peaked at less than seven per cent of the popular vote and three seats in a 338-member House of Commons.
This is where the challenge lies in assessing May’s leadership and legacy.
By any measure, she’s the most successful leader in her party’s history. But that success was limited. And it’s fair to ask whether she and her party should have accomplished much more, particularly in the recent general election.
To May’s credit, her share of the political oxygen around Parliament Hill consistently exceeded her party’s share of popular support.
She convinced Stéphane Dion to not run a Liberal candidate against her in 2008 — when she chose to pursue a long-shot campaign against Peter MacKay in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova — and then talked her way into the televised leaders debates despite the fact that her party had never won a seat.
After she was elected in 2011 — defeating a Conservative incumbent in Saanich-Gulf Islands in British Columbia — she became a prominent voice calling not only for action on climate change but also for better decorum in the House of Commons and more respect for the sovereign power of Parliament. She was a constant presence in the House and a regular guest at parliamentary committees, where she would turn up bearing amendments she wished to propose.
She took advantage of every opportunity afforded her as a member of Parliament, all while making her case that the institution, its members and political parties needed to change. The Greens, she vowed, would be different — if they could ever elect enough MPs to form a proper caucus.
In 2008, her first election as leader, the Greens received 6.8 per cent of the vote, a two-point jump over the previous election result; the party still failed to elect an MP. Three years later, the Greens focused their efforts on getting May into the House. They succeeded, but the party’s national support slipped to 3.9 per cent. In 2015, its share of the popular vote fell again, to 3.5 per cent.
The Greens elected their second MP in May when Paul Manly won a by-election in British Columbia. He and May were then joined in October by Jenica Atwin, who pulled off a surprise victory in Fredericton.
Three MPs is three more than the Greens had before Elizabeth May became leader. But three MPs is also a smaller number of victories than the Greens seemed capable of winning at the outset of this fall’s campaign.
In early September, the Greens were polling at 11 per cent and seemed to have a shot at overtaking the New Democrats for third place. The NDP was weaker than it had been in 15 years, and the issue of climate change — the Green Party’s raison d’être — was more salient than it had ever been. It was possible to imagine the Greens winning a dozen or more seats.
In announcing her departure on Monday, May boasted that the Greens received more than a million votes in this year’s election. But the party’s share of the popular vote — 6.5 per cent — was still below the 2008 mark.
She also celebrated the fact that the party had “doubled” its vote in Quebec — which sounds more impressive if you don’t know that means the party went from 2.3 per cent in Quebec in 2015 to 4.5 per cent this fall. (CBC News)