Martyn Brown: It’s lonely being Green

Elizabeth’s May-tag

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      It must be very tough being a Green candidate. 

      With barely five weeks to go in the federal election campaign and the opinion polls showing the Green Party stuck in low single digits outside of B.C., Elizabeth May’s would-be “national repair team” is suffering badly for lack of attention.

      Despite its earnest efforts to garner more media coverage, the Green Party’ s campaign strategy doesn’t appear to be working. Once again the party finds itself increasingly marginalized by its comparative lack of national organization, by its lack of financial resources and by its visible lack of momentum.

      This was to be expected, especially in a tight three-way race.

      As in every previous election, the Greens’ utter absence of election advertising and their cash-strapped campaign have compounded and undermined the party’s bid for new national relevance.

      It is caught in a familiar, self-perpetuating “spin cycle” that was sure to intensify as the campaign rolls on, whereby the national media relegates most of the party’s coverage to its potential for sapping NDP and Liberal support and to indirectly helping Harper’s Conservatives.

      Thus far, May’s own conservative campaign has done little to break that cycle.

      Concerns about the Greens’ vote-splitting potential as a “spoiler party” have reached new heights, however overblown they are or how tangential they may be to many citizens’ reasons for voting.

      Except for the perfunctory coverage of a handful of nationally newsworthy events, such as this week’s release of the Green Party platform, May’s team has been given the proverbial brush-off by the mainstream networks and newspapers.

      They know what their viewers and readers value. Namely, the horserace that is now headed for a photo finish, which has so far left the Green Party in the dust and out of the picture.

      I, for one, find that frustrating. The party and its eclectic, most qualified-ever team of candidates deserves far more media attention than it has been able to generate.

      What to do? Is there any way for May to press the reset button, to put a fresh spin on her party’s efforts to win new voter support and more balanced media treatment?

      Easier said than done, no doubt. But in word, absolutely.

      As I wrote here a month ago, the first thing that May needed to do was to somehow generate tangible public support and discernible growing momentum for her inclusion in the leaders’ debates.

      With the Globe & Mail leaders’ debate only a week away, it’s probably fair to say that won’t happen. Sadly, May’s efforts to participate in that forum have been underwhelming and mostly unpersuasive.

      My sense is, she has been so concerned with “playing it safe” and so afraid of appearing desperate, shrill or grasping that she has been reluctant to create the type of photo ops, or to generate the type of social media support that are critical to winning her public appeal for inclusion in the debates.

      As former BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson so skillfully demonstrated back in 1991, when he fought so hard to be included in that election’s provincial leaders’ debate, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.

      His highest strategic objective was to earn a spot in the CBC’s televised leaders’ debate, which he only succeeded in achieving through a series of public relations stunts that had their desired effect. He literally forced the CBC to capitulate under enormous public pressure, punctuated by active protests in front of the Mother Corporation’s Vancouver headquarters.

      Where are the Green Party’s physical protests in front of the Globe & Mail? Where is its social media campaign, supported by online videos, pictures and ads that might be freely produced and published to drive May’s argument and support? They are nowhere to be seen.

      Even columns like this one written in the Globe & Mail that wax on about the type of debate that Canadians deserve on issues that are key to the Green Party have not been directly addressed.

      They should be, by the leader and by her supporters alike. Zero comments to such stories do nothing to help the Greens’ case to be included in the debates. Worse, that lack of input looks disorganized, if not just apathetic.

      Where are May’s celebrity champions? Surely she must have some.

      Why have they not been identified and pressed into lending their voices in any concerted way to advance her lonely fight? You can bet that if the likes of Margaret Atwood were fully engaged in fighting for media fairness on May’s inclusion in the debates, that issue might gain some much-needed traction.

      Instead, May has mostly tried to advance her own appeal to take part in the debates with rather tepid letters to the other leaders that lack the punch, urgency and provocativeness necessary to get voters’ tongues really wagging. The letters to other leaders make sense, but not as a stand alone gesture or without the added combative content that might make them more newsworthy and socially engaging.

      Fact is, there are many ways that May could generate more so-called “earned media” that would at least put her party in the daily news and on voters’ TV, computer and mobile screens.

      The environmental movement and its many organizations used to be masters at such tactics.

      They, too, have been far too complacent of late in their efforts to focus public attention on the issues that are so naturally aligned with the Green Party’s principle attractiveness to so many disaffected voters across the ideological spectrum.

      May seems to be consciously trying to broaden the appeal of her party by shifting more of its focus to other mainstream issues, such as electoral reform and other vitally important issues that are addressed in her sweeping new platform.

      However laudable and desirable that strategy might be in positioning the Greens as more centrist agents of change who are broadly concerned with the whole panoply of public policy, in this election, it risks reducing their media relevance.

      As May herself has admitted, the Greens will be happy to win even a handful of seats, a goal that today seems almost unthinkable.

      Where is the strategic focus on the issues that are likely to produce the most votes for the very few seats that might be won by Green Party candidates? Especially in BC?

      The opportunities for nationally worthy photo ops are dime a dozen, with a little creativity, taking their cue from past environmental campaigns.

      The Kinder Morgan project, the Energy East pipeline project, the Tilbury Island LNG project, the Woodfibre LNG project, the newly proposed Malahat LNG project and the Pacific Northwest LNG project are all ready-made targets for Green attention.

      They all provide meaningful backdrops for the Greens to advance their unique position against fossil fuel development that an organization like Greenpeace would have had a heyday in lambasting in its PR campaigns of yesteryear.

      The same could be said of so many issues that Greens stand ready to fight and change, from grizzly bear hunting, to genetically modified foods, to the restoration of home postal service, to the need for electoral reform and more.

      Words alone won’t cut it. Nor will grandiose policy pronouncements that all voters know will never see the light of day, however commendable they may be, with only one or two lonely Green MPs in the House of Commons.

      May has been sending voters conflicting messages.

      On the one hand, she has tried to present herself and her party as something of a potential prime minister and a contender for government by dint of the policies that “a Green government” would enact if it is elected. On the other hand, she has conceded that the best her party can expect to achieve is to win some more seats.

      The first message is overreaching, while the second message sounds defeatist. Both conspire to send a message to voters that the party that now sits at around five per cent in the national polls will never get a chance to implement its program with only a smattering of MPs, at best.

      No one expects May’s party to have the detailed answers to the issues that are widely perceived to be out of the Green Party’s wheelhouse. But many, many voters are looking for some hard evidence that the Greens know how to force an issue, be it in the campaign or in Parliament.

      Swing-voters who are toying with the idea of voting Green want to be persuaded that despite its relatively small numbers, the Greens know how to be creative in driving their concerns with irresistible visuals and with media-savvy strategies.

      Without the resources or broad-based support required to effectively compete with the other parties, the Greens need to be far more agile and aggressive.

      If they can’t bring the media to them, they need to go where the media is and to address what it will be in covering the campaign as it happens.

      That means dovetailing into the other leaders’ campaign events, to contrast Green policies and priorities with Conservative, NDP and Liberal positions, policies and actions.

      It means answering in real time what Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau all say and promise on the issues that separate them from the Greens, instead of campaigning in isolation of those other parties, as the other major parties can all afford to do, as relative equals.

      The media might be interested in the Greens’ take on issues that fit their frame. They always look for easy reaction to the major leaders’ announcements, especially if it is supported by visuals, irresistible quotes and combative arguments that perpetuate their own responses.

      Which is to say, the Greens have to figure out ways to give the media’s stories longer “legs” that make their responses newly relevant as story amplifiers and coverage extenders.

      Conflict, action and emotion have always been what drive media coverage. The Greens need to be far more conscious of looking for ways to organize their daily campaign events and photo ops in juxtaposition to their competitors’, which the media are guaranteed to cover.

      Beyond that, if the Greens are to have any chance of turning the tide back in their favour a bit over the next five weeks, above all, they need more support from their troops.

      As helpful as it is for the same activists in the Green “echo chamber” to post tweets on the handful of political election forums that dominate so much time and energy, that alone will not win many new votes.

      Party members and supporters also need to be more creative in driving their own campaign concerns and political narratives, starting with volunteering in greater numbers to help take their concerns to voters’ doorsteps.

      Passive politics never works for those who are too easily ignored.

      Lethargy never adds to any party’s energy, growth or cries for attention.

      And when all is said and done, there is no substitute for cold, hard cash in helping any party to advance its campaign chances.

      For a party with as many committed supporters as the Greens, it is always baffling as to why its fundraising efforts are not more successful. No party needs more campaign donors like the Green Party does.

      The Greens’ one ad featuring Claire Martin was great, but the truth is, Elizabeth May needs to put herself in ads that voters want to share because of their emotional appeal.

      The Greens could so easily produce reasonably high-quality campaign ads, at minimal cost, that set them apart from their competitors. With humour, with compelling facts and images, and with provocative headlines that beg to be shared through social media.

      Heck, they should be experts at that stuff. Tee-shirts, bumper stickers, fridge magnets, computer stickers, digital calls to action – whatever. It’s not expensive. It mostly just takes a little marketing expertise that seems to be sorely missing from May’s embattled crew.

      The bottom line is, time is running out for the Greens to give their supporters the campaign voice they deserve and to show voters how truly relevant their elected members might be at being heard in Parliament beyond their elected numbers.

      As I have said before, if the NDP ultimately gains the momentum it needs to look like the odds-on government-in-waiting, the Green Party might yet collaterally benefit. Especially if the anti-Harper crowd’s concerns about vote-splitting are somewhat moderated.

      But the scope for that potential growth will be largely determined by the extent to which the Greens are seen to be saying things that resonate and to the extent that they can show their relevance as active agents of change, despite their distinct minor party status.

      The Greens, Liberals and New Democrats have all done a great job this campaign of putting their ideas and policies on the table.

      It is encouraging to see an election that is about change to also be so focused on so many innovative and often exciting actions for bringing that change about.

      It is a pity that Elizabeth May likely won’t be in the leaders’ debates to make her party’s case for change.

      Her inability to muscle her way into the Globe & Mail’s debate makes it that much more urgent for her to retool her campaign, to win the national attention that her candidates so urgently need to become more viable contenders.

      The new May-tag should not be “it’s lonely being Green”, but rather, “let’s fix it, Canada.”

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at




      Sep 11, 2015 at 6:27pm

      Awesome article we so need may and greens as Canadians her platform is awesome let's keep pushing it

      James Blatchford

      Sep 11, 2015 at 7:26pm

      Most Canadians would rather ride this orb to a crisp than see four more years of Harper. Lizzie can try and dress it up, but voting Green in this election is playing with dynamite. Be smart people.


      Sep 11, 2015 at 7:42pm

      yes great article and agree the need for the greens to be more agressive.Mays platform is the best choice and how possibly can it be any worse than the other 3 parties over the years?fail and fail and fail pushing for green til the bitter end


      Sep 11, 2015 at 11:08pm

      The Greens may be internet popular but that doesn't translate to real popularity.
      Personally, I think May is a bad bet for a number of reasons, and I'm an out and out socialist.

      Guilin fish

      Sep 13, 2015 at 1:40pm

      I do not see hardly any differences between the Green and the NDP platforms - it is almost like they wrote it together.