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Green Party Leadership Debate Exposes Fault Lines Over Party’s Future

The TVO-hosted event featured 10 candidates seeking to replace Elizabeth May.

OTTAWA — Ten candidates vying to replace Elizabeth May as leader of the federal Greens squared off in two rounds of debates Tuesday, exposing a range of perspectives on the party’s political positioning, the case for cap and trade over a carbon tax model, even a call to abolish — not just defund — the police.

Moderated by TVO’s Steve Paikin, the debates were broken into two 37-minute sessions with mostly the same questions posed to each group of five contestants. While there was unanimity against the building of new pipelines, and on the necessity of the Green party (several candidates noted the B.C. NDP’s support for carbon-heavy projects), the mostly collegial exchanges did expose some fault lines on where and how the candidates believe the party should grow.

On one side of the spectrum stood Burnaby astrophysicist Amita Kuttner, who argued that the party should be “squarely socially left,” and former Vancouver Island candidate David Merner, who believes the Greens should be known as “the most progressive party in Canada.” On the other side seemed to stand Glen Murray, a former Liberal Ontario provincial cabinet minister, who said the Greens are a “big-tent party” that attracts everyone from Green capitalists to eco socialists, and Andrew West, a lawyer and past candidate, who views himself as a moderate and pitched a party in the political centre.

Green Party of Canada leadership candidates are shown debating on TVO’s “The Agenda” on June 23, 2020. From bottom left: David Merner, Glen Murray, and Annamie Paul. From top left: Judy Green and Amita Kuttner
Twitter/The Agenda
Green Party of Canada leadership candidates are shown debating on TVO’s “The Agenda” on June 23, 2020. From bottom left: David Merner, Glen Murray, and Annamie Paul. From top left: Judy Green and Amita Kuttner

“I think that if we shift the party towards the left, which a lot of people want — a lot of candidates want to do — then we are going to have more candidates fighting over a smaller piece of the pie,” West said. “If we want to get elected, … then we need to stay in the centre and attract votes [from] disenfranchised voters who are fed up with the NDP and the Liberals, but also Conservative voters who also feel that the Conservative party has lost their way, especially when it concerns the environment and fiscal responsibility.”

“We are the party that pushes the discussion forward,” said Annamie Paul, a lawyer and social entrepreneur. Her vision of the Greens is a party that pushes a more just and sustainable society, one that puts a priority on “wellness as the outcome.”

Judy Green, a former airframe technician in the Canadian Armed Forces, argued that the Greens are more relevant than ever, as the Liberals and the NDP can’t be trusted to enact the bold policies to combat climate change. “Incremental change is not going to solve the problems,” she said. “We’re the only ones who have targets and a plan to get there.”

Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife, congratulated the federal Liberals for putting a price on carbon but noted the party also bought the Trans Mountain pipeline. She called for a climate accountability act, a legislated carbon budget with mandatory climate audits to bind the hands of future governments.

Watch: May defends party’s $30,00 entry fee to leadership race

“Trudeau wants to do the right thing, but he doesn’t have the guts,” said Dylan Perceval-Maxwell, a six-time candidate and environmental entrepreneur. He suggested the Greens should publish a map during the next election to inform strategically minded voters.

“We’ve got to support the NDP and the Liberals in the ridings where it makes sense,” he said, noting that the party could still field candidates. “That way we can ensure the Conservatives never get back in power unless they do the right thing, and support proportional representation.

“They got the most votes in the last election and they didn’t win. If that happens enough, they will change their mind and, like the NDP, support a different electoral system,” Perceval-Maxwell said.

Though the Greens captured 6.5 per cent of the ballots cast in the 2019 campaign, 1,189,607 votes, the party won only three seats. The Bloc Québécois, with its vote concentrated in certain ridings in Quebec, won 32 seats with 7.6 per cent support nationally.

Ontario lawyer Dimtri Lascaris said no other party had suffered more because of the anti-democratic nature of the first-past-the-post system. Although the Liberals campaigned in 2015 to change the voting system and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly abandoned his pledge, Lascaris said he believes the issue could be thrust on the agenda again if the Greens win 35 seats.

Green Party of Canada leadership candidates are shown debating on TVO’s “The Agenda” on June 23, 2020. From bottom left: Dimitri Lascaris, Dylan Perceval-Maxwell, and Andrew West. From top left: Meryam Haddad and Courtney Howard
The Agenda/Twitter
Green Party of Canada leadership candidates are shown debating on TVO’s “The Agenda” on June 23, 2020. From bottom left: Dimitri Lascaris, Dylan Perceval-Maxwell, and Andrew West. From top left: Meryam Haddad and Courtney Howard

Two topics generated heated discussion. During the first debate, which pit Green, Kuttner, Merner, Murray and Paul against each other, Murray called the Liberals’ carbon tax a “joke” and said governments in Canada are moving in the wrong directions with decisions such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move to scrap incentives for electric vehicles and to dismantle of the cap and trade system, which Murray brought in when he was Ontario’s environment minister.

“Glen, I think we have moved on a bit from cap and trade,” said Paul, who has benefitted from May’s support on the fundraising trail.

Cap and trade, Murray said, was “necessary but not sufficient.

“Cap and trade is the only system that works, European systems are not working,” he said. “California and Quebec are still on track,” he added. What you get with cap and trade is a guaranteed reduction, whereas what a Canadian carbon tax has produced is price certainty, Murray said. “It sets the tax. And no legislature has been prepared to raise it to the 40, 50, 60, or 70 dollars a tonne necessary to have an impact.”

Paul responded that it is a question of political leadership. “We have a general consensus among economists, among Nobel Prize-winning economists, that a carbon tax is the cheapest, most efficient way when compared to cap and trade and other means to actually get to our targets,” she said.

Kuttner, who uses the pronouns they and their, said some of the leadership contestants are missing the core issue. “We don’t have seven or eight years; we have zero,” they said. “If we look at what is going on across the entire planet right now, there is already destruction,” noting how their mother died in a North Vancouver mudslide. “I’m watching everyone across this planet suffer already.”

The other point of contention revolved around the question of defunding the police.

Meryam Haddad, a lawyer who works with immigrants and asylum seekers, and who was on the panel with Howard, Lascaris, Perceval-Maxwell, and West, said the RCMP could not be reformed and “needs to be defunded.”

The money should be reinvested into communities, into affordable housing, free pharmacare and safe injection sites, she said.

“Defunding the police is not only just defunding it, but it is also a road to abolition, because this would be the end of it,” she said. When pressed by Paikin, Hadded said she believes that is the long-term goal. “Of course, but it is on the long run,” she said, declining to say how long a time period she envisaged and adding the important caveat that she still believes there would be the need to provide some “safety to people.”

Watch the full debate:

Some candidates such as Kuttner said they were absolutely for it but don’t believe it is an immediate process.

Others, such as Paul, who is Black and called excessive use of police force and the over-representation of Blacks and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system a “day-to-day reality” for herself and her community, disagreed.

“I do not think that is the right strategy,” Paul said. “...There are some very bad people doing some very predatory things, and there is no amount of community or social services that is going to stop them from doing that, and we want them off of the streets,” she said. “What we need to do is just be very clear about what is the appropriate role for the police and what is the appropriate role for other types of social services.”

Somewhat echoing those remarks, Howard suggested the discussion would be more helpfully framed by calling for a redistribution of resources. There were many moments in her life, she said, when people were in danger and she was “very happy” to see the RCMP around. She called for de-escalation training and a focus on more restorative justice, as well as better insight into systemic racism and unconscious bias.

Merner said the problem lies not only with the police but with the justice system, which he said also needs to see “deep change.” He called for more multidisciplinary teams to handle a range of police calls. Green similarly urged a focus less on reactionary responses to more on alleviation of poverty. She called for an end to the militarization of the police.

Candidate’s proposal called ‘super racist’

Murray said decentralizing services to cities and neighbourhoods would lead to better outcomes through community-based policing.

“We’re now into surveillance policing, police helicopters, smart technology, cameras, face recognition. This stuff is costing us a small fortune, and it is enhancing racism and it is enhancing colonization,” he said.

Perceval-Maxwell said Canada has a huge problem — though not as bad as in the United States — and called for the police to be trained better. He proposed that the police should give “$20 to every person of colour they stop.

“This would contribute a little bit to [offset] the trauma and inconvenience of being stopped, and it would make the police think twice before they stop them,” he said.

“Your $20 solution is super racist, and as a person of colour, I find it very, very offensive,” Haddad responded. “You want to pay people to address systemic racism? … What would be the next step? If the person gets beaten up, we give them 50?” Haddad said.

“That’s not what I want,” said Perceval-Maxwell, who was out of time and could not elaborate.

Green party members will select their new leader this October, through a preferential mail-in ballot or online vote. Anyone seeking to vote has until Sept. 3 to join the party.

The final slate of candidates will be released after Sept. 1, when the last set of nominating signatures and a $20,000 deposit are required.

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