Annamie Paul’s Leadership Troubles have Origins in Green Party History

The problem of personality in a party that was supposed to reject it

After a brief reprieve, it looks like Green Party leader Annamie Paul’s leadership is again on the chopping block.

Last Sunday, party sources leaked to the media the Green Party federal council vote to trigger a formal review of Paul’s leadership, scheduled on July 20, had been cancelled. At a press conference the next day, Paul called on the party to put aside internal divisions until after the anticipated fall election. That lasted all of two days.

It was revealed on Wednesday that the agreement to cancel the vote was the result of arbitration between Paul and the federal council. The Green Party has now announced that they will go to court to overturn the arbitration. On the eve of a federal election, an ominous sign.

Paul’s current troubles began, in public at least, on June 10 when Jenica Atwin, member of parliament for Fredericton, announced that she was crossing the floor from the Greens to the Liberal caucus. Atwin claimed that the disagreement was over the recent flareup of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paul called for both sides to deescalate the violence, and Atwin responded in a Tweet calling on the party to more openly support Palestine.

A former adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, also Tweeted pro-Israeli statements, which led to his contract with the party not being renewed.

Atwin’s move amounted to the loss of one third of the Green caucus in parliament and obviously alarmed the party’s two other MPs, Elizabeth May and Paul Manly, and other members of the Green leadership.

A week later, on June 15, the media reported that a review of Annamie Paul’s leadership was taking place. The Green Party federal council met that night to vote on beginning the formal 30-day process laid out in the party’s constitution.

Paul survived the first vote, provided that she publicly repudiate Zatzman for his inflammatory statements, but she refused to do so. The federal council was scheduled to revisit the vote until last Sunday. Now who knows what’s going to happen.

The first thing to note about the debacle is that it’s not really about the Israeli-Palestine issue. Four days after leaving the Green caucus, Atwin released a new statement on Israeli-Palestine that was remarkably similar to Paul’s statement, and in line with the position of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

The incident also reveals the irrelevance of the Green Party, so easily derailed by interparty fighting, and the problem of personality within the Green ranks.

The party was founded on the principles of radical decentralization, and has long prided itself as a party that tolerates people with different opinions. Yet since Elizabeth May became party leader in 2006, the Greens have been dominated by their leader.

While it’s common for political parties to have strong cults of leadership, the Green Party’s problem is that everyone wants to be leader, and that’s causing a major crisis within the party on the eve of a federal election in the fall.

Green Parties around the world emerged from the environmental and conservation movements of the 1960s. By the 1970s, the first political parties with environmental and ecological ideologies were formed in Europe and Australia/New Zealand.

The impetus for the creation of the Green Party of Canada was a 1979 article in Conserver Society Notes by Trevor Hancock, who would become the party’s first leader, calling for an ecological party in Canada. The Green Party was officially registered in June 1983, and the following year 60 Green Party candidates ran in the 1984 federal election.

The party’s early structure was very much influenced by ideas of grass-roots democracy, activism from the bottom up, and radically decentralized leadership (ideas used by, for example, the Occupy Wallstreet Movement in 2011). Into the late 1990s, party members debated the level of power that should be granted to the national leader in a decentralized party.

Until the early 1990s, for example, the party’s constitution prevented the national leader from serving as the party’s spokesperson, relying instead on five regional representatives to speak on behalf of the party. The party also required an 85% majority to pass resolutions at national conventions and meetings.

Not surprisingly, the Green Party found this radically decentralized structure unworkable. At the Green Party convention in 1996, the party’s constitution was officially changed to make the party leader its official spokesperson. The majority required to pass resolutions was reduced to 66%. Further steps taken in the late 1990s and early 2000s to centralize the party’s leadership structure. At the same time, the party continued to gain support in national polls.

The Green Party reached the height of its power on Thursday, October 2 from 9 to 11 p.m. EDT, when Elizabeth May participated in the 2008 federal election English debate.

Since May became Green Party leader on August 26, 2006, her command of every political issue of the day, ability to clearly and plainly state positions, and independence from the political games of the other parties have given her a rare moral clarity in Canadian politics. Someone to count on in Question Period or in the media to give an authoritative opinion on the political questions of the day.

The 2008 debates (one in French and one in English) gave May and the Green Party, which had always been excluded from the debates because of their lack of seats in parliament, an unprecedented opportunity to reach voters. Eight million viewers watched at least part of the English debate. The Green Party became the only party to increase its vote share in the 2008 election (from 4.47% to 6.80%).

May’s rise was also help by positive media reporting. The Canadian media has been fascinated with the possibility that the Greens might have a breakthrough election or gain enough seats to play kingmaker in a minority government.

So by the late 2000s, the “radically decentralized structure” of the early Green Party had give way to a party dominated by its leader - to the point that I started referring to the Green Party as the Elizabeth May Party - and the party continued to gain support, with May finally winning a seat in 2011, and two more Green MPs elected in 2019.

It all worked fine until May decided to step down as leader in November 2019.

The post-May Green Party started out well enough, with Annamie Paul elected leader on October 4, 2020 to great fanfare as the first Black Canadian and first Jewish woman to lead a major political party in Canada.

But the leadership campaign revealed divisions in the party.

First, at least one candidate accused May, who remains a Green MP and the party’s parliamentary leader, of trying to maintain control of the party by choosing her successor. May’s husband, John Kidder, also sits on the very Green Party federal council that is now trying to push Paul from the leadership position. May and Paul reportedly had a tense meeting on June 15 where Paul demanded that May support her 100% at the federal council. May said in a July 20 media statement that she has played no role in the current spat between Paul and the federal council.

It’s also clear that, while the party’s other MPs, Jenica Atwin and Paul Manly, did not run for the party’s leadership, they want, or wanted in Atwin’s case, a say in how the party they represent in parliament is run. Members of the federal council, it seems, also want to exert influence over how Paul runs the party.

These divisions boiled over when Atwin announced she was crossing the floor.

Post May’s leadership, the Green Party is coming to terms with its past radical decentralization and toleration for difference of opinion and its current identity as a party dominated by its leader.

Perhaps it’s not surprising after thirteen years of May’s leadership that the party would reconsider its identity and its future. The problem is that everyone apparently wants to be the next Elizabeth May. To stamp their vision for the future of the party on the Green Party image. While this type of internal struggle is nothing new in Canadian politics, the Green Party is small enough that everyone has a shot at leadership, and the current crisis is the result.

The solution, ironically, is a strong leader. A Jack Layton type figure to embody the party’s image and command the support and loyalty of its members, while moderating the party’s policies to appeal to the largest number of voters.

Now that Paul has avoided a leadership review, for now, she’ll have to demand that the federal council fully support her leadership, or ask them to resign. She might even have to ask May herself to step back and allow Paul to be the undisputed leader of the party.

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