Building the Canadian Green Party

May 29, 1991

By Steve Painter
and Dick Nichols

"There's no right way to form a green party", says Steve Kisby, a leader of the Canadian Green Party who visited Australia for the Ecopolitics V conference at the beginning of April. "We had that debate in Canada, and it really held us back for a long time", he told Green Left Weekly.

Much of the debate centred on the assumption that the German Green Party offered the model, but most green parties haven't followed the German example. "They're usually formed by a small group of people or from a previously existing party based on basic green values."

In Australia, "you have a truly unique situation. You've got several parties, at one extreme they've got elected [parliamentary] officials, at the other extreme they're fairly small, and there's more than one of them and they all are changing towards a green party."

In Canada, "the green parties in different areas formed on the basis of different experiences. The Green Party of British Colombia started out as a very traditional organisation formed by frustrated politicians from other parties."

Over time, the opinion grew that "if we're going to promote an idea, we should be living it ourselves to some extent. So, slowly the party changed. If you're promoting decentralisation, you should have a party that's decentralised. If you're promoting real democracy, you should have a party that's really democratic, and that changed the party."

Activists in Ontario came at the task from the opposite direction. "There the Green Party was formed from a coalition of local green electoral groups, and the provincial party was formed as a coalition of those groups, with each group sovereign.

"They don't even have a central spokesperson to talk to the media. We tell them they're too hard to find. They are now moving cautiously to set up central administration procedures and functions that would not be centrally controlled."

In Quebec there was a third experience. "They tried to form a green party there, and again it was a small group of very dedicated people." They wanted to base the party on organisations such as the Canadian Peace Alliance, environmental groups, women's groups. This failed because "these organisations are often funded by government grants. Many also feel that they get support from all political persuasions", and aligning themselves with one party would cost them support.

Kisby thinks an official connection with single-issue groups might not be to the advantage of either organisation. "The Green Party is not an environmental party. It has to make holistic decisions. The single-issue groups should be vigilant against all political parties, the Green Party included. We're a full-fledged political party that deals with all issues."

Alliance

Nationally, the Green Party "functions more like an alliance. We believe in self-determination, we believe in decentralisation and community control, so we wanted a party that reflected that. However, we also wanted to run in national elections, so we decided to have an alliance with an extremely flexible structure." Candidates are selected locally.

The local organisations are not like traditional party branches with "off-the-shelf by-laws". Each local group is free to do what it wants, though they must speak in their own name, not in the name of the national party. "We allow the local groups to have policy different than the Green Party of Canada provided it doesn't contravene the basic principles."

In one case, the national media made a great fuss, claiming that the Green Party of Newfoundland supported seal hunting while most other greens opposed it very strongly. In fact, the Newfoundland group supported traditional seal-hunting rights for indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, the group's policy is different. "So now, if the Green Party of Newfoundland was in a national election, it would have to explain both its own position and that of the federal party."

Labour party

Canada's New Democratic Party is like the Australian Labor Party, though the NDP was formed later and has never won a national election. "The two parties are very similar", says Kisby. "They started out with basic principles, but they've now moved from being parties of principle to parties of public opinion, and unfortunately that has resulted in major sell-outs in just about any circumstance where they have formed a government."

In Saskatchewan, where a lot of uranium is mined, the NDP had a no-uranium policy until it won a provincial election. "There was huge furore over that because they got a lot of votes from people who believed they would carry out this policy." Kisby thinks the existence of a green party would have made it much more difficult for the Saskatchewan NDP to drop its policy.

Recently, for the first time since the emergence of the Greens, the NDP formed a provincial government — in Ontario. The Greens also did well in those elections, confounding NDP supporters who had accused the new party of favouring conservative forces by stealing progressive votes. "It turns out that the votes the Greens are stealing are from all political persuasions. The Conservative Party did very poorly, and it had held government there for a long time. We're very excited about the situation because the NDP have copied a lot of their policies from the Greens.

"Now, they're expected to carry out those policies, because if they don't, the fallout will come to the Green Party. If they do implement those policies, it's still a success because our policies are being carried out. The Green Party is in a very important position as the conscience of the government.

"In Canada, the two parties that have basically held the government the UK. There has never been a situation where a party grew out of the grassroots and went on to form a national government." The NDP has taken 60 years to get to the stage of winning provincial elections.

Long term

"We've got a long-term strategy. We're a party of grassroots organisation and although we're putting in effort at all three political levels, we expect to get elected first at the community level, build up our credibility there." Later, they expect to break into provincial legislatures. "Then, if the governments still aren't green, we'll be taking seats at the federal level."

The Greens have had support from local trade unions. "We are not anti-job; we're for sustainable jobs. If a job is not sustainable, it's a temporary job. Unfortunately, this message only gets out on personal contact, because the media pay most attention to the large parties. When we have had opportunity to talk to union organisations, they accept this principle and support it. Again, their support is independent because it's better for the unions to scrutinise all political parties and not align themselves with any one. We certainly accept financial support as long as there are no strings attached."

The Greens assume they won't get any help from the media, "so during elections we try to go door to door with publications and very personal contact, which is how the UK Greens achieved their stunning success. They said, if the mainstream media won't help us, then we'll rely on our own channels, and they came up with all sorts of procedures to reach the public.

"Consequently, they reached the public to extent that the media didn't even notice until election day, and there was a total shock in the entire UK. The next day the media were falling over each other to cover the Green Party."

Decision-making

"In the Green Party of British Colombia, the membership is supreme", says Kisby. "We have conventions where members have voting rights, and corporations such as unions, cooperatives or industrial organisations don't have voting rights. The conventions determine policy using a consensus process, in which all concerns are reviewed. We really treasure our consensus process because it ensures a more holistic decision is reached, even though it takes longer."

The Greens are used to a lot of internal debate. "I personally feel that's good because that's diversity. If you look at the ecology of a situation in nature, diversity is the saving grace. We're not saying we have all the answers, we still have an awful lot to work out, but one of the things is working with diversity. I feel very confident that we've experimented with different ways of making decisions."

Decisions are taken by consensus or a 75% majority. The Greens' rules specify a series of steps, usually involving committees whose responsibility is to gather and weigh information. "Our procedure is consensual until we come to a point where the group determines whether the decision is so pressing that it must be made now." At a policy convention, "it's very rare to go to a vote because you're of unity." n

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