May was, after all, a uniquely domineering personality in Canadian politics. She was also an alleged workplace bully who saw multiple members of her own inner circle quit from exhaustion with a leadership style that’s been characterized as “autocratic.” During her 13 years as Green chief, it was all but impossible to tell where she ended and the party began. At the climax of her reign, an increasingly large share of party resources were redirected to simply help her hold her own parliamentary seat.
Over the years, I’ve exerted much effort chronicling May’s litany of outrages: her tireless promotion of pseudoscience; her endless enabling of crackpots, conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites; her cringe-inducing public behavior; and her far-left demagoguery. With her retirement, this era now comes to a close. Our new task is to ponder whether her long, strange, one-woman-show of a political career reveals anything useful about Canadian politics more broadly.
To begin, May clearly proved that in a political system as top-down as Canada’s — where individual members of parliament have virtually no power and their leaders dictate everything — becoming head of a party is the quickest path to national relevance.
Even by leading a small and unpopular party, May was able to assert all sorts of ex officio privileges to grow her personal brand, including a podium at numerous prime-ministerial debates, a presence at any parliamentary summit featuring the heads of “every party,” inclusion in powerful “all-party” committees, and guaranteed attention from a fairness-obsessed media determined to give “every party leader” equal time. Her constant pulling of rank could veer into absurdism, as when she decreed the governor-general would have to consult her when deciding who to make prime minister in a minority parliament situation, but even this was at least inspired by a forgivable envy for the considerable powers of legitimate party bosses.
In that sense, one of May’s most immediate legacies is probably Maxime Bernier, the head of the right-wing People’s Party, who appears to have emulated the May model for fast-track political fame. Like May, Bernier was able to tap into all sorts of automatic privileges simply by proclaiming himself head of a political party. He was included in this year’s prime-ministerial debate, and his grinning face appeared alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other party leaders on the CBC’s “Canada Decides” graphics. Television stations even reserved the People’s Party a color on their election night maps.
All of this looks preposterous in retrospect, given Bernier and his party ultimately pulled in a measly 1.6 percent of the popular vote and failed to win a single seat. Yet the Elizabeth May precedent of giving the heads of fringe parties equal billing to the incumbent prime minister and opposition leader simply on the basis that they believed themselves to be viable candidates for the nation’s top job seems fairly entrenched. One shudders to think how many similarly-inspired “party leaders” will crowd the stage in the next election debate.
The more useful conclusion, however, to draw from Bernier’s and May’s failure to make any meaningful electoral breakthrough (and to a lesser degree, the persistently underwhelming showing of the New Democratic Party) is that Canadians remain stubbornly loyal to their country’s two big parties. The broad left/right socio-cultural cleavage that divides Canadian society looks to be well represented by the Liberal and Conservative parties, whose perseverance debunks oft-heard warnings about smaller, more ideological rivals.
Indeed, given the fact that Canada’s parliamentary system is based around geographic representation, to the extent successful new parties ever can emerge in the country, the evidence suggests their starting base should be geographic rather than ideological. That is why the Bloc Quebecois remains Canada’s third-largest party despite minimal national support, and why May was not wrong to focus on building her cult of personality on Vancouver Island at the cost of becoming less popular elsewhere.
As “regionalism” becomes the watchword of Trudeau’s second term, this is the lesson of Canadian party politics worth remembering. Future Canadian parliaments will probably never look much like those found in Europe, where environmentalist and nativist parties comprise powerful blocs, but rather something far more distinctly Canadian, wherein Quebec nationalists — and perhaps, someday, prairie separatists — instead hold the balance of power.
No longer fueled by May’s peerless pursuit of the spotlight, it’s difficult to imagine the Canadian Greens surviving for much longer. Its lack of success as anything but a vanity vehicle for Canada’s grande dame of egotism is a monument to the fine art of playing Canadian politics wrong.