Opinion

Elizabeth May, Liberal?

As leader decides her future, don’t forget: many green leaves turn red in the fall.

By Susan Delacourt 18 Aug 2016 | iPolitics

Susan Delacourt is one of Canada’s best-known political journalists. Over her long career she has worked at some of the top newsrooms in the country, from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post. She now writes for iPolitics, where this article first appeared.

The questions about Elizabeth May’s future won’t be totally settled when she announces whether she’s staying on as Green Party leader next week.

If May does step down (and she’s been dropping heavy hints to that effect), could she leave the Greens behind altogether? Over at The Globe and Mail, columnist Gerry Caplan is making a case for May to be the next leader of the New Democrats. That’s a stretch, I think. For May, the more natural fit is probably with Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.

Ever since the Green Party convention a couple of weeks ago – where delegates unexpectedly voted to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to economically isolate Israel – May has been quite clear about her profound displeasure with the BDS decision and how it came about.

The Green Party’s consensus model of decision-making was tossed aside, against May’s wishes – and now the party is embracing a policy that the leader cannot support.

May has taken great pains to say that she’s not angry at anyone and that she remains loyal to the Greens – but she’s said it so often, to so many people, that it’s starting to sound like the overture to a bad breakup. No really, it’s not you – it’s me.

In her interview with the CBC’s David Cochrane on The House last weekend, May sounded a lot like she felt her party had left her, not the other way around.

No leader wants to be seen walking away from a party in anger, of course – and May is a smart politician. It doesn’t strengthen her negotiating hand to present herself as a leader at odds with her own people. But she is. She called herself “broken-hearted” in the interview with Cochrane.

“I would say as of this minute I think I’d have real difficulties going not just to an election but through the next month,” May told Cochrane. “You’re talking to a broken-hearted person who is trying to figure out the best way forward.”

Working with the Liberals wouldn’t be a huge stretch for May. In 2007, she and then-leader Stéphane Dion announced a red-Green pact, the terms of which barred the Liberals from running a candidate in the Nova Scotia riding where May was vying for a seat, while the Greens agreed to do the same in Dion’s Montreal-area riding. The two were natural allies on the environmental front in particular; the Green Party and Dion’s “Green Shift” covered a lot of common ground.

That 2007 pact didn’t yield much: May failed to win the seat, but the Liberals would go on, through subsequent leaders, to support her presence in TV debates.

A year ago, Trudeau spoke out against the decision to exclude May from the first leaders’ debate – hosted by Maclean’s in the opening week of the campaign – calling it anti-feminist.

“On a personal level, my daughter watched my debate on last Thursday night, and it kind of bugs me,” Trudeau said at the time. “There wasn’t a woman among them. I think (it’s) yet another reason why Elizabeth May should be in the Munk debate, and in all debates.”

The Trudeau-May friendship goes back at least a few years before that. When Trudeau was an opposition backbencher, his assigned seat in the Commons was right at the back of the Liberal ranks, close to May’s desk. The two could often be seen chatting.

In the days before he became Liberal leader, she went so far as to tell a reporter that Trudeau was much easier to work with than Thomas Mulcair or the New Democrats.

“Over the last two years, I found Justin Trudeau to be collaborative and friendly,” May told The Georgia Straight in April 2013. She contrasted her experience working with Trudeau to her more strained, “discouraging” relations with the NDP leader.

“I think he’ll be much more open to cooperation... at least with the Greens, than will Tom Mulcair,” May said.

One reason the NDP and the Conservatives objected to her presence in the election debates, for instance, was that they felt she would be talking up the Liberals too much – that it would be like having two versions of their rival on stage.

That’s probably unfair, but it tells you a bit about where May’s rivals think she might go if she does abandon the Greens. Caplan’s idea is intriguing. I’m just not convinced she could find enough New Democrats to welcome her with open arms.

May has gone off the grid this week, away from email and phones, to plan her next move. But she was talking to a lot of people before she left, including some of her Liberal friends. I can’t say I’ve heard she was musing about joining the party; I strongly suspect she hasn’t ruled it out.

I do know that she is concerned about how her decision (whatever it turns out to be) will affect her standing on the electoral reform committee. She’s been an enthusiastic participant and the Greens stand to gain (or lose) a lot from Trudeau’s promise to end the first-past-the-post system.

Her standing on that committee is as the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, not the Green Party leader, but it’s an open question whether she would keep that place if she became just another Liberal MP. Also, Trudeau has a lot of MPs; he’s not that desperate for one more.

That may be an argument for biding her time – continuing to act as the voice of the non-traditional parties on that committee, at least for as long as it’s sitting.

Still, when May does return next week to announce her decision about her future, we might want to ask whether she’s considering joining Trudeau’s team. Leaves turn from green to red in the fall. Perhaps May will, too.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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