Elizabeth May’s potential return to the Green party leadership would not be entirely unprecedented — and given the party’s currently dire position there might conceivably be a plausible case for putting her back at the top.
But a second run for May would only make sense if it was used to better prepare the party for a post-May future.
The best precedent for a May comeback might be Joe Clark’s return in 1998 — 15 years after he was ousted as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and five years after he seemingly retired from federal politics. Clark’s second run as PC leader lasted five years and the former prime minister managed to keep the struggling party’s head above water, if only barely.
But Clark’s comeback did not obviously set the PCs on a course for continued relevance. He resigned in May 2003 and before that year was over the party had been folded up and merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the new Conservative party of Canada.
May’s reported interest in being a co-leader alongside another candidate — reportedly Jonathan Pedneault, a former researcher at Human Rights Watch — is also not entirely fanciful. Green parties in England, Scotland, New Zealand and Germany function with co-leaders. At the provincial level, Quebec Solidaire has co-spokespersons. For those who worry that party politics has become too focused on individual leaders, this might be a welcome change. For a minor party looking to get noticed and offer something different, it might be worth trying.
May steps aside, things fall apart
The Green party seemed to have gone as far as it could with May as leader when she announced her intention to resign in 2019.
In that year’s federal election, the Greens elected three MPs, a record for the party. May has a gift for getting attention and she indisputably made the party more relevant, but her leadership also seemed to have reached its ceiling. After the Greens won 6.8 per cent of the national popular vote in 2008, they slipped to 3.9 per cent in the 2011 election and then 3.4 per cent in 2015, before bouncing back to 6.6 per cent in 2019.
In the lead-up to that 2019 campaign the Greens seemed on the verge of a significant breakthrough, with a chance of challenging or even surpassing the NDP’s seat count. But the Green campaign stumbled out of the blocks and the moment was lost.
The bad news is the Greens then did a lot worse after May left.
The initial promise of Annamie Paul’s turn as leader was quickly buried under an avalanche of dysfunction and recrimination, documented across countless leaks and news reports. Jenica Atwin, one of the three Green MPs elected in 2019, quit the party and joined the Liberals. Paul managed to hold on to the leadership just long enough to see the Greens win 2.3 per cent of the vote last year.
The party has hardly come roaring back since Paul walked away. In the first two quarters of this year, the Greens have raised just $857,000 from donors — down from $1.36 million in the first two quarters of 2021 and $1.2 million in 2020. By comparison, the NDP has raised $2.56 million so far this year.
However low her ceiling might be, May’s return might at least rebuild the floor under the party’s feet. But to what end?
Is this what Green renewal looks like?
When Clark returned in 1998, a Maclean’s writer reported that some Tories “saw his mere presence as a sign of a party unable to renew itself with fresh talent.”
That does seem like a very reasonable thing to deduce when a former leader comes back to reclaim their former title — and May will presumably face the same skepticism if she goes ahead with a leadership run. At some point, the Green party will have to be led again by someone other than Elizabeth May and her return would be further cause to wonder whether the party is ever going to be set up for a post-May future.
Perhaps the co-leadership model could be a way of elevating someone else. And maybe having two leaders would make it easier for someone to focus on rebuilding the party.
But whoever is leading the Greens — and whether it’s one leader or two — they will also have to give some thought to justifying the party’s continued existence.
With the Liberal government pushing hard on climate action and the NDP ceaselessly demanding that the government push harder, it’s not necessarily obvious that there is much space left on the federal political spectrum for the Greens to occupy. And that’s even before you consider the damage the party did to itself over the last two years.
There should still be a place for rigorous and substantive arguments that challenge the government to do more and push the national conversation to consider what might be possible. And a lack of rigour is what the NDP was criticised for during last year’s campaign. Then again, so were the Greens.
If climate policy has become more serious over the last seven years, the politics should follow suit.
Whether or not May can help lead the party back toward such a useful direction will be a decision for party members to make. But either way, the example of Joe Clark’s PCs might loom large. Because if a party with as much history and success as the PC party can crumble and disappear, there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t happen to the federal Greens.