(Update August 22: For a follow-up comparing the outcome of the vote to the ballot comments, see Green Party vote result mirrors partisan ballot comments.)
(Update June 21: For a follow-up post explaining in detail the problems with ballot-box commentary, see Why ballot box commentary cannot work.)
Today I received some surprising news from friends of mine within the Green Party of Canada (GPC), showing evidence of vote-influencing in the GPC’s internal policy process. These events add weight to recent claims by members that the party is abandoning its tradition of grassroots democracy and shifting to a top-down system of control.
Background: GPC Conventions and Prioritization
Every two years, the GPC holds a national convention. In addition to various speakers, training sessions, and so-on, the convention is also the place where the party debates, amends, and passes all of its policies, directives, and constitutional amendments.
Leading up to the convention, members often propose a large number of policy motions. Not all of these motions can be dealt with at each convention, so a prioritization system is used. Members receive an electronic ballot and indicate which motions they consider high or low priority. Technically, this vote is advisory only–the members who attend the convention have the absolute right to change the agenda. However, the priority ranking is generally followed.
So far nothing special, but it’s important to understand one thing about this system: there is never enough time to deal with all proposals. In fact, it’s usually not even close.
As a result, a low priority score is like a veto, because low-priority motions never get to the convention floor to be debated or voted on. This makes the priority voting, although nominally “advisory”, an important part of the process.
What Happened Today: Partisan Messaging on Ballots
Today the GPC sent out the electronic ballots so that members could prioritize policy proposals for this year’s convention.
Many members were stunned to discover that today’s ballots included partisan messages telling members which way to vote.
Here’s an image I obtained from a party member that shows one of the partisan messages, which I’ve outlined in red:
As you can see, the partisan comments are part of the ballot itself. They appear directly underneath the policy proposal and in close proximity to the checkbox used for priority voting.
Each ballot question is accompanied by only one comment–there are no counterpoints or balancing statements. The comments are attributed to either the party’s Shadow Cabinet (in the case of policy motions) or to the Governance Committee (in the case of constitutional amendments).
What Sort of Comments Appeared on the Ballot?
Here are some of the positive comments that appeared beside certain proposals on the ballot:
- “[This proposal] is well-worded, clear, and progressive.”
- “… should be prioritized for discussion …”
- “… would be a strong and timely addition to [GPC] policy …”
Here are some of the negative comments that appeared beside certain proposals on the ballot:
- “… is not of the highest priority …”
- “… unlikely to be effective …”
- “… somewhat premature …”
- “… lacking nuance …”
There are also a few instances of neutral technical comments, for example:
- “management of forests is under provincial jurisdiction”
- “policy G14-P26 … already calls for support of domestic refining”
However, only a small minority of the comments were of this type. The vast majority are partisan as described above, and these partisan comments are not objective or neutral:
- they include speculation (“unlikely to be effective”);
- they include value judgments (“timely”, “progressive”);
- they include subjective critique (“well-worded”, “lacking nuance”); and
- they pre-empt convention decisions by suggesting which policies should ultimately be passed (“would be a strong addition”, “far from viability at this time”).
Taken as a whole, the partisan comments constitute a clear signal to members to vote certain policies as high or low priority.
Keeping in mind that a low-priority vote is effectively a veto, these comments represent an act of direct central control over the policy development process.
Attribution and Authoritarianism
It’s bad enough that the ballots include partisan comments presented without counterpoint. However, of additional concern is the source of those comments.
The Shadow Cabinet is a group of policy experts directly appointed by the party leader. Furthermore, in recent years, members of the Shadow Cabinet have been expelled for failing to obey ultimatums issued in private by the leader.
A body that is appointed by the leader and answers to the leader under threat of expulsion is not autonomous. It is an extension of the leader’s will and operates only within the boundaries of that will. Allowing such a body to make comments directly on a ballot is anti-democratic.
Furthermore, the comments on the ballot are not even attributed to specific members of the Shadow Cabinet, but simply to the Cabinet as a whole. As a result, a member who wants to ask for clarification on one of the partisan comments, or to point out an error, would not even know who to contact.
In fact, the GPC Shadow Cabinet includes more than 30 critics at the time of writing. Attributing any statement to 30+ people creates diffused and weak lines of accountability.
Keep in mind: claiming authority while diffusing accountability is a classic behaviour of autocratic regimes.
How Could the Problem Be Fixed?
The Global Greens Charter declares “Participatory Democracy” to be one of the movement’s six core values. Clearly, fixing this misstep should be a high priority for the leadership of the GPC.
Of course, one cannot simply “unsee” partisan comments, and redoing the electronic vote would cost thousands of dollars and potentially create confusion among members.
To correct the problem, here are some alternate steps that would come at no great material cost:
- Discard the prioritization vote entirely. (Keep the election results for Federal Council and other positions, since these vote checkboxes were not accompanied by partisan comments.) Since the prioritization vote is only an advisory vote, and is not required by the constitution or bylaws, it can legally be ignored.
- Send a party-wide message explaining the error, apologizing, and encouraging members who are attending the convention to discuss prioritization with their fellow members.
- At the convention itself, begin the agenda by holding a new prioritization vote. This need not be a paper ballot–reading down the list of motions and recording a show of hands for each would be sufficient. (Note: for/against votes at convention are not secret, so there is no reason that prioritization votes would need to be.)
- From there, continue as normal with the debate and amendment process.
- During or immediately after the convention, create guidelines to be followed for all future member votes to ensure they are democratic.
- (In a fantasy land of actual accountability, one or more people would also resign. I won’t hold my breath on that one though.)
Unfortunately, it appears the party is committed to its transition to a top-down structure. One of the strongest partisan comments that appears on the ballots is a criticism of a proposal to restore some of the grassroots rights that members enjoyed until recently. The fact that the strongest comment is reserved for a pro-grassroots motion shows where the party’s new priorities lie.
What Does This Mean for the Future of the GPC?
The partisan messaging on today’s ballots is only the latest in a long series of changes that have slowly eroded the power of individual members and concentrated that power in the hands of the leader and in the hands of unaccountable central bodies.
A full run-down of those changes will require a separate post (or several). However, it suffices to say that the party’s commitment to grassroots democracy, which was once a unique point of differentiation from the NDP and other federal parties, appears to be nearly extinguished.
The party’s relevance to Canadian politics may not be far behind.