Skip to main content

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has decided to stay on as leader of the Green Party.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

When the Green Party threatened to stand for something that Elizabeth May opposed, it was the party that bent.

The leader had found it hard to stomach her party's vote to support the boycott-divest-sanctions movement against Israel. She suggested she might quit, and went to ponder her future on vacation in Cape Breton. On Monday, she emerged to say she'll stay, and that the party will reconsider that Israel policy.

Related: Elizabeth May to stay on as Green leader after party rift over Israel

The Green Party, in the end, couldn't even think of life without Ms. May.

Ms. May portrayed it as a moment of unity and a return to consensus-building, but it really came down to who was bigger: the leader or the party. Ms. May is bigger. The Green Party is smaller.

Of course, it seemed pretty clear before that the Greens are the Elizabeth May Party. She's the figure people know, the only MP ever elected in Canada as a Green and a participant in televised leaders debates in 2008 and 2015.

She doesn't top the opinion polls, but she gets respect. A Nanos Research survey found 36 per cent say she had the qualities of a good political leader, about the same as interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose. On election day last year, she was walloping then-PM Stephen Harper on that measure. It's no wonder the Greens' federal council asked Ms. May to stay.

But the Green Party's smallness was underlined by the whole episode.

The BDS movement had been rebuffed by the other three major parties, and proponents hoped to find a voice in the Greens' policy book. Organizationally, the Green Party convention, held in Ottawa earlier this month, was easy pickings: Only 250 party members were registered.

The BDS motion stood out at the convention because it, and another resolution about Israel, were the only two foreign-policy matters up for debate. Critics of BDS used that to argue the Green Party was obsessed with criticizing Israel. It certainly suggested the Greens weren't especially interested in most of the world.

After the Israel resolution was passed, and Ms. May left to ponder her future in Cape Breton, it was a party official, according to Ms. May, who came up with the idea that the party could just change the way it votes on policy. It could go back to the voting system that was in effect before 2012, and revisit convention resolutions, including the BDS issue. A quick do-over will be scheduled, probably in December.

So, Ms. May found reasons to stay.

Ms. May described all of those machinations to reconsider the policy as a return to the better system the Greens had used in the past. Before 2012, resolutions passed at the convention had to be ratified by party members in an online vote. The party decided to change that, so resolutions would be decided at conventions. Ms. May said she thought at the time it was worth a try, but "now we know" that it was a bad idea.

So, hey presto, party officials changed the system again, over the phone on Sunday night, so the policy resolutions passed at the convention can be voted on again.

It's not that there's any big principle that's been sacrificed. Intraparty democracy in Canada is mostly a question of who can pack a room at the right time, and the vote of the 250 Green members who made it to Ottawa for the party convention is not a landmark of governance. But the quick-and-easy undoing of the convention results just makes the Green Party seem a little rinky-dink.

All of that make the Greens more the Elizabeth May Party than ever before. Except she doesn't sound so keen on staying. She says she'd be happy to step aside. Will she lead the party into the 2019 election? She's not sure. She'll stay on for 18 months or so, and see.

The whole thing has been a distraction. Ms. May said her party wants to focus on climate change and electoral reform, and that's surely true. But the episode also underlined that with all Ms. May's perceived success as leader, the party hasn't really taken the next step.

Former leader Jim Harris had the first "breakthrough," taking the party above 4 per cent in the 2004 and 2006 elections. Ms. May reached almost 7 per cent in 2008, and won a seat in 2011. But the party's popular vote has fallen back below 4 per cent in the last two elections. It's still a small party, and it's acting like one.