Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Friday, June 16, 2006

Green Party Leadership Debate Notes 2

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The Green Party's French-language debate between its leadership candidates took place two nights ago, here in Montreal. Elizabeth May (M) and David Chernushenko (C) are vying for the leadership, as is a third candidate, Jim Fannon, who did not show up to the debate for reasons unknown. At any rate, here is the second part of my notes (here's part one of my Green leadership debate notes) on the Green leadership's French debate.

A question was asked as to whether the candidates would continue to work for the Green Party even if they didn't win the leadership. Chernushenko flip-flopped on this and eventually gave a moderated, timid yes. M gave a vivid answer saying she has burned her bridges behind her and has no future other than in the Green Party.

C: I'm 100% engaged in the Green Party, totally engaged. [...] There's lots of work to be done even if one isn't the party leader.

M: For 17 years I was part of the Sierra Club [so leaving was difficult]. I've already made my decision. "Je n'ai rien d'autre. J'ai fait un choix pour le reste de ma vie que je vais travailler pour le Parti Vert." ("I have nothing else. I have made a choice, and that is to dedicate the rest of my life to working for the Green Party.") I was impressed, and I'd say the strength and sincerity of this answer moved a few other people in the room as well.

C: "Il y a plusieurs facons de faire. Les autres [partis] sont prets a parler vert mais ils ne sont pas prets a agir vert." ("There are many ways to go about this. [...] The other parties are ready to talk green, but they aren't ready to act green!") I liked that too, as the Liberals are big-talkers on the environment who don't really walk the walk, and of course, the Conservatives are no better.

M: "C'est dommage que Jim Fannon n'est pas la. C'est evident que nous sommes un tres forte equipe." ("It's a shame Jim Fannon isn't here, because it's really quite obvious we've got a strong team.") Also, we're not at each other's throats in this debate as the other parties are [in debates].

Question: What is your opinion on strategic voting? (For those of you who don't know, this is the practice of voting for a candidate with better odds of winning a riding than the candidate you'd prefer to win. Like supporting Brazil for the World Cup because, while you'd prefer Ghana to win, Ghana has very little chance of actually taking the title.)

M: I was part of a coalition that supported it (sensing why the question was asked), but it wasn't my personal position. "La democratie fonctionne mieux lorsque les gens votent pour le candidat qu'ils aiment le mieux, pas celui qu'ils detestent le moins." ("Democracy functions best when people vote for the candidate they like best, not the one they hate least.")

Solid! I think she may have prepared that answer though, ahead of time, because it seems like too well-worded a sentence for anyone to come up with on the spur of the moment... Nevertheless, that would still mean good preparation.

C: C'est un concept absurde. La strategie c'est un meilleur pays, le developpement durable. [Il faut penser, avant de voter,] 'Quel est votre strategie?' [Ou voulez-vous en venir avec le Canada?]
La strategie [pour le Parti Vert] c'est d'avancer au point ou il [l'electorat] voit qu'on peut gagner.

This was an equally nice idea, that unfortunately doesn't translate well into English (partly because it was slightly awkward phrasing). Chernushenko said that strategic voting is an absurd concept; the real strategy he said, is to advance your interests by determining what your aims are for Canada, and to vote accordingly. The Green strategy is to build to the point where the electorate sees Green candidates as realistically capable of winning a riding, which would put an end to "strategic voting."

M: Cites David Emerson, the Liberal who went Conservative. She continues to ask what good it is to vote strategically when your least-hated elected representative can just change parties?

C: Cites a similar story.

Question: Can a single MP change things?

C: Yes, and we've seen this before. Cites the example of an elected official in Paris.

M: Cites Canadian Parliamentarian Chuck Cadman, who saved the Liberal minority government at one point. Then the explosion: "Le vrai nom de ce parti c'est le Parti Alliance Conservateur Republicain du Canada!" ("The real name of the Conservative Party of Canada is the Alliance Conservative Republican Party of Canada!")

Wide appreciation in the room for this; I was less than thrilled, to say the least. I would hate for the Greens to pander to close-minded anti-American sentiment - you'll notice those that hate Bush and the Republicans almost inevitably are the same people saying that Americans are dumb, fat imperialists - and this is definitely an example of it.)

C (agreeing): "On peut changer le nom mais pas les couleurs." ("We can change the name but not what the party stands for.") Answering the original question, he says that as soon as one MP is elected, Canadians will vote "en masse" for the Greens.

Sounds a little utopian to me... C missed an opportunity to clarify that Green opposition to Bush's party and/or Harper's Conservatives is a matter of policy, rather than fear-mongering opportunism. Both candidates here should have been clearer about their problems with the right, rather than just playing this easy, unclassy card.

M (agreeing): It will be an important "psychological barrier" that will be overcome. May couldn't find the words in French, if memory serves.

That was another thing I noticed in the debate. Chernushenko's French is at a relatively decent level, and certainly stronger than May's, who several times had to resort to saying something in English. Neither candidate is fluid though (Chernushenko is arguably fluent, but he's not fluid/smooth), and each one's French will need work. The practice will have to be given high priority if they're going to debate with the other party leaders in nationally-televised debates.

The following question asked M and C whether they thought a party leader should also be the party's spokesperson. The question probably came from someone in attendance (questions were culled from the audience and from the Green Party's website), as this issue relates to a recent issue in Quebec politics where a far left party's spokesperson shot off at the lip about how 9/11 might conceivably be some big conspiracy.

At any rate, I got distracted with my camera again at this point, and I also daydreamed a touch (I think May's answer didn't really grab me at the outset). Overall though, I don't think it was much to miss, since this wasn't a hugely important question; if a party has its communications act together, then it's irrelevant who is communicating, be it the leader or a spokesperson.

M: [Missed because of distraction.]

C: We're preaching to the choir too much.

M: I have a good network, including links with CEOs and people outside of militant environmental circles.

[...]

Question: Your priorities as a leader?

C: I want to retake the number "5" from Stephen Harper. My priorities are durable energy, promotion of a healthy population to save money to treat the truly sick, affordably housing, and a couple of things that were inaudible to me (not a distraction this time).

M: I have 10 priorities [read: I'm twice as good!!?]. "Reformer le systeme fiscal," something about "equitable and ecologique" (my hearing again), and eliminating poverty in Canada (not just reducing it, as Chernushenko apparently suggested).

C: I'm human, I can err, so to prove all that to you, I'm going to admit a mistake (yes it really was that awkward). I forgot arts and culture. We need to support people who work in these fields more than we currently do. Quite so!

M: It's a scandal people can't graduate from university without a huge debt load.

I agree!

My problem with all these nice wishes was that the candidates weren't asked what the flip side was: where they would take the money to finance their goals, nor how they would practically achieve them. Sure, let's help the poor, students, and those in the arts (kind of redundant, I know), but what do we cut to do that? Unfortunately, I'm not one to criticize, as the questionnaires I emailed the leadership candidates don't ask that either. I promise to ask them that as a follow-up, though.

The next question was axed upon party priorities and issues.
C: We need a worldview, to define the rights and responsibilities of parties. Also, we need to negotiate rules for fundraising. (That I agree with. It's annoying to get a dozen letters in the same week all asking for pledges, as C said.)

M: We need to give a sense of unity to the party.

Somehow the next thing I heard concerned other groups with similar politics to the Greens. I was alienated by the comments from the Green Party's future leaders. I'm no great fan of NGOs, which are not infrequently (I'm using a double negative because I hesitate to suggest this is a frequent occurence, it's just that it's not rare, either.) run by people with a political agenda and aren't really as pure as their mission statements and press articles claim. May and Chernushenko both wanted to create closer ties with them, however...

M: We should expand links with pacifist groups, anti-nuclear groups and work with them.

C: I agree; these groups can often say things that are different for a political party to say.

Does that mean you would have NGOs be unofficial spokespeople for the Green Party of Canada? C has a good point, and you can tell Chernushenko's got a sharp political mind, but this was a bit strange.

Finally, the candidates read their closing statements to bring the night to a close.

C: We need ecological wisdom, meaning that we need to recognixe we're part of the environment and consequently need to protect it. We should be the party of social justice, which means promoting equality. This doesn't mean forcing everyone to be equal, though; promoting equality means giving everyone equal opportunity. (Couldn't agree more on this point.) The next little bit was mostly platitudes and cliches about how the Greens are about non-violence, respect, diversity, quality over quantity, and mixed in was something about how repression won't solve conflicts.

(Gee, I was under the impression most Canadians did believe repression was a useful tool to solve conflicts!)

M: Thankyou to everyone who is here tonight and helped make this debate possible. May went on to read an excerpt from the Earth Charter that summarized her positions. "Nous nous trouvons a un moment determinant, ou l'humanite doit choisir son avenir." ("We are at a critical juncture in time, where humanity must pick its future.") She repeated her commitment to eliminating poverty, and then named five qualities for an ideal society: simple, clean, durable, fair ("equitable," which means, fair, but has connotations to trade, as in fair-trade coffee), and of course at peace.

Nice, but again kind of cliche and utopian. I think that the Green Party and it's leadership candidates, to be taken more seriously by a majority of Canadians, needs to review its glossary and drop everything that the average, realistic, and slightly cynical Canadian considers utopian.

Overall the debate was fascinating, and really instructive of the candidates positions. I hope my notes have helped clarify those positions to you, dear readers, even if here and there they are marred by distractions and/or daydreaming and/or hearing difficulty. Overall, both David Chernushenko and Elizabeth May are pretty close ideologically.

In practical terms, the important differences I saw are as follows.
  • With regards to the candidates' French, Chernushenko has the upper hand. Both candidates need to improve the quality of their French, though.
  • In terms of media, it's no secret that May has good contact in the mainstream media and in society's upper-crusts, and so might have an easier time giving the party the "big" stature it needs. On the other hand, Chernushenko specifically knows where the Greens need to go outside of their comfort zone, as can be seen in part one of these debate notes.
  • Chernushenko is more obviously a politician, and has a good handle on technical/practical aspects of politics that I'm not sure May has. This makes sense given Chernushenko's history in party politics vs May's history in general activism.
  • May's contacts and stature in society would make it easier for the Green Party of Canada to get big donors on board its campaign.


There wasn't a clear winner to the Green Party's French-language debate, but there is evidently a strong field that is making for a very interesting race. I still haven't had time to upload pictures, but I'll be putting them online here in the next day or two. If you want to hear more about the Greens, their leadership and other related topics, consider our free newsletter. It's sent twice a month and keeps you informed on important issues in Canadian politics.

Here are some related articles:

Green Debate Video
An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore (Maybe Gore should become Green Party leader? Great movie on global warming, anyways.)
Boreal Forest Concerns Cause Environmentalists to Pressure Charest

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