During the Maclean’s–CityTV leader’s debate on September 12th 2019, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh contrasted his party with the Greens by naming four alleged points of difference between the parties. Are those differences legitimate?
Here’s what Singh said:
We have a solid position, unlike the Greens, on a woman’s right to choose. … We have a solid position when it comes down to national unity. We have a belief that we can’t leave workers behind, and we strongly believe that we should not be putting Mr. Scheer in the prime minister’s seat, unlike Ms. May and the Green Party, who believe that’s the right choice.
Green leader Elizabeth May immediately dismissed these as “absurd statements” and refused to address them during the debate, suggesting “people can check” for themselves.
So, let’s check. How legitimate are these alleged points of difference? In this post and the following three, I’ll examine each of Singh’s points. I’ll be referencing the Green Party’s 2019 platform and the NDP’s 2019 platform, along with past statements and actions by party leaders and candidates. In this post, I’ll look at the first claim, regarding abortion rights.
Singh claims that the Green Party lacks “a solid position … on a woman’s right to choose”. What does the evidence say?
- The Green Party’s policy book states that “the Green Party of Canada will not support any laws on abortions that would aim to make it more difficult for women to obtain them”.
- The Green Party’s 2019 platform promises to “Negotiate the Canada Health Accord to prioritize [mental health, wait times,] access to safe abortion services and [gender-related health services].”
There are similar claims in the NDP’s platform document, which states that it’s “not enough for elected officials to say that they won’t reopen the abortion debate—we need leaders to take action to improve access to services”.
There would appear to be no significant difference in the two parties’ formal positions here, so what is the basis of Singh’s criticism? Some possible answers lie in a pair of media reports that surfaced days before the debate—and a recording from a decade ago that refuses to die.
The Power & Politics Interview
On September 9th, the CBC website ran an article with the headline “Green Party won’t ban members from trying to reopen abortion debate, says May”. The article was based on an interview between Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos and May, and included a question about whether May would whip her MP’s in a vote on abortion. May responded:
I could talk to them. I could try to dissuade them. I could say it would be unfortunate … but I don’t have the power as leader of the Green Party to whip votes, nor do I have the power to silence an MP. … And frankly, I think that’s a good thing because democracy will be healthier when constituents know that their MP works for them and not their party leader.
For people unfamiliar with the history of the Green Party, they have always claimed to support free votes on all issues in Parliament, something which many voters have viewed as laudable (despite it being moot until the party elects more than a handful of MPs).
However, for people who aren’t aware of that context, it’s easy to see how May’s answer might be alarming. It could seem to that listener as if Green MP’s might propose restrictions to abortion at any moment, and May would be powerless to stop them.
The same day the article was published, the GPC issued a damage-control statement which claimed that:
- “It is, and always has been, the Green Party of Canada’s policy that all women must have timely access to safe, legal abortions”
- “… all Green Party members of Parliament must endorse the Green Party’s values, including a firm support of a woman’s right to choose.”
- Candidates are vetted and must “wholeheartedly agree that the abortion debate is closed in Canada … any who disagree are not allowed to run”.
If Green candidates and MPs are required to be pro-choice and to remain pro-choice, and as long as there is some party mechanism to enforce those rules, May’s inability to whip votes would seem to be irrelevant.
Keep in mind that Trudeau and Singh cannot, legally speaking, prevent their MPs from bringing forward anti-choice bills either. They can only eject an MP from caucus as punishment, and that threat is intended to prevent the MP from introducing the bill in the first place. The Greens, in their press release, are promising to use the same approach.
May’s decision to answer Kapelos by speaking about her limited authority as leader, without providing context and explaining the other mechanisms within the party, was a mistake on her part. However, taking into account the party’s actual methods of operating, it’s hard to see how there is any difference between the Green and NDP approaches here.
Past Comments by Two 2019 Candidates
Unfortunately for the Greens, a second CBC article the following day revealed past anti-abortion comments by two Green candidates.
The first candidate, Mark Vercouteren, had allegedly replied to a Campaign Life Coalition questionnaire in both 2014 and 2018 stating that he would support defunding abortion in Ontario, that there were no circumstances under which a woman should have access to an abortion, and that health care workers should have the right not to participate in administering an abortion. In a 2015 facebook post, Vercouteren also allegedly referred to himself as “pro-life”. (I say “allegedly” because Vercouteren has not admitted these comments. The CBC article included an image of the facebook post.)
The second candidate, Macarena Diab, allegedly posted anti-abortion comments to facebook in 2008 while still a teenager. (Whether the CBC is behaving ethically by quoting social media posts made by a minor, and whether the views of a minor should be held against them later as an adult, are separate questions.)
The Green Party’s response was to foolishly claim that neither candidate “remembered” making the alleged comments. (While perhaps believable in the case of Diab, this seems implausible and almost insulting in Vercouteren’s case.)
The GPC further claimed that both candidates are pro-choice today, and would continue to be endorsed as candidates for the party in the 2019 election.
As with the P&P interview, the Green Party handled this incident in a way that could easily confuse voters who were not following the story in detail. The two headlines appear to reinforce one another. Furthermore, the party confirming pro-choice views on behalf of the candidates makes it look like the party does not want them to speak for themselves, or in other words, that their real views may have been suppressed.
Rather than claiming the candidates did not remember their comments, the party could have simply asked each of them to unequivocally state that they are pro-choice today. If either of them refused, the party could have begun the process of removing them, thus proving its commitment to fielding only pro-choice candidates.
(Update: Diab has e-mailed CBC news to ask that they “include in your article all my other posts where I am clearly pro-choice, as far as 2013 actually” and to also ask that CBC “indicate that I have publicly expressed the fact that I’m pro choice in all my pages”.)
(Anybody who has followed elections since the rise of social media understands that no screening process can be perfect. The NDP, for example, has removed a candidate this year for alleged domestic abuse. It’s unrealistic to blame a party for a single candidate who evaded screening—what should be damning is either a series of candidates with similar intolerant views all slipping through screening, or a refusal to remove a candidate against whom there are clear allegations.)
Despite this mishandling by the Greens, it’s important to be realistic about the actual significance of these statements. At worst, the GPC has one anti-choice candidate who somehow snuck through screening, and since being exposed, has been whipped instead of being ejected. Does that constitute a lack of a “solid position” on abortion?
One or two candidates cannot exert much influence on a party’s policy—unless, of course, one of them is the leader. Which, finally, brings us to…
That Thing with the Nuns Back in 2006
In 2006, a recording of Elizabeth May speaking to a group of nuns was released to the public. In that recording, May states she is “against abortion” and doesn’t believe a woman “has a frivolous right to choose”, but that she doesn’t want “a desperate woman to die in an illegal abortion”. May also claimed to have talked women out of getting abortions.
This recording has long dogged May, particularly because of the phrase “frivolous right to choose”. It is regularly resurfaced, particularly by NDP partisans, in an attempt to “prove” that May would attempt to limit access to abortion, or to falsely imply that May considers all women who get abortions to be acting “frivolously”.
In 2011, the Georgia Straight interviewed May about the recording. In that interview, May stated that she did not believe abortion was “morally wrong”. She elaborated that “in an ideal world … every pregnancy is a wanted pregnancy”, and that having an abortion is a “traumatically difficult decision”, but that a woman “has a right to choose”.
So what is May’s real stance? Is she secretly anti-choice? There is, and never has been, any indication of this in the public record. A person can logically support free and safe access to abortion, while also supporting modern sex-ed and access to contraception, in the hopes that as few women as possible end up needing access to an abortion. From a perspective of harm reduction, this would appear to be the most logical position, and it’s no surprise that this also appears to be the formal position of both the NDP and Greens. Why would May be criticized if she personally holds the same viewpoint?
And anyway, it’s arguable that May’s personal feelings are irrelevant. She has served two terms as an MP and more than a decade as Green Party leader, and her public record during that time has been consistently pro-choice. It makes more sense to interpret May’s comments to the nuns in the context of her long public record since that time, than to question her entire public record because of her comments to the nuns in 2006.
The Final Verdict
Let’s return to Singh’s original statement. Does the Green Party lack “a solid position on a woman’s right to choose”?
It’s indisputable that the Greens have a clear formal position on abortion. Their platform, policy book, and statements to the press leave no doubt.
The only question is whether that formal position is “solid”, meaning, can voters expect it to hold under all realistic circumstances?
The only reasonable answer here is yes. Even if May secretly had a personal moral objection to abortions, she has consistently supported access to abortions in her public role, and it is those public actions that influence the lives of Canadian women.
As for any MP’s that might join May in Parliament following this election, there appear to be reasonable mechanisms in place to ensure they are also firmly pro-choice—mechanisms that are the same as those used by the NDP to maintain their own “solid position”. If vetting, pledges, and ejections constitute a sufficient set of mechanisms for the NDP, they must be sufficient for the Greens as well.
In summary, what Singh has identified in this instance is not a true point of difference between the parties, but rather, an angle he or his strategists feel will play well to committed NDP members familiar with the Green “anti-choice” meme, and to casual observers unfamiliar with the history behind the issue.
On the basis of the evidence, however, this alleged difference simply doesn’t exist. Both parties are firmly pro-choice.
In my next post, I examine Singh’s assertion about national unity.
Edit 2019 Sept 18: Updated to add Diab’s e-mail to CBC clarifying her position as pro-choice since 2013.