Canada’s National Observer sat down with Amita Kuttner, interim leader of the Green Party, to talk about the party’s future and why they took on the challenge. With the Nov. 24 appointment, Kuttner, 30, is the youngest person, the first trans person and the first person of East Asian descent to lead a national political party in Canada.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What are your main priorities as interim leader?
Definitely uniting and strengthening the party, making sure we're all on the same page with a common vision, fundraising, putting on an awesome leadership race to find the next leader, supporting caucus as much as possible, making sure their work in the House is going well and I'm doing everything I can for them and … just making sure everything's running smoothly.
Q: The past year has been undeniably divisive for the party. What factions need to be brought together?
I am still trying to get a lay of the land. I'm trying to sense the system, like what is happening? And from what I'm feeling, the majority of people have not been involved in these conflicts. The majority are just like, "Can we please get back to work? We just want to be able to move forward and just do whatever is next." But I know there's a lot of hurt, whether that's just from what's happened or things people said to each other. It's also difficult to tell whether there are actually groups or factions or just people with lots of different opinions and hurt feelings that we just need to say, “Hey, we're moving past this. Here's what's next. And these are all the things we agree on. Let's go.”
There are a lot of different people, and a variety of backgrounds … And I think almost no one feels like things are what they want them to be. And so when you have that, no matter what groupings or opinions anyone has, no one feels welcome, no one feels good about it. We need to make sure we renew our agreements and how we work with one another. We need our own kind of internal security and sustainability. Everything we hope for the world, we have to reflect on the inside.
What people are reading
Q: And how do you plan on fostering this understanding and trust?
It's impossible to tell people what to do — it's not the way I feel comfortable going about getting people to do something. So, what I'm doing is: I'm taking the first step saying, I'm going to trust everyone, I'm going to show up, ready to engage, ready to listen, to be there, to help people unpack what they've been through. But also, if I get a sense of people not seeing the same thing and they're not agreeing, I’ll actually try to have those conversations. I'm hoping to travel the country, pandemic depending, of course, just meeting people to hold the space.
Q: Is the Green Party’s participatory democracy sustainable? How do you get a coherent platform?
There have been two schools of thought about this. One, we need to control people, and the other, we need to trust them. I'm on the “trust everybody” side of things. But you have to do it in a way that makes sense. The idea that you just put everything to a vote makes very little sense to get any sort of cohesion. What we need to do is actually strengthen the membership process and consensus-building so it actually works and produces great results. That means trusting the membership and everybody involved to have the discussions necessary. It's actually like, OK, let's go get you background evidence for this, let's talk to experts about how to phrase this in a way that's effective and always brings it back to our principles, put it through a rigorous policy development process with experts, and then put it forward for discussion.
I've seen the larger consensus process work. If there's enough disagreement, you listen to the people who are disagreeing. You hear what they have to say, try to address it, and then you take it back to them to see if you took care of their apprehensions. It's amazing what 150 people in a room can actually completely agree on. People will say, “Consensus is impossible. You should just be voting.” Consensus is possible. I think leaning into it and strengthening the process makes more sense than changing the structure because if done wrong, you're not getting participatory democracy, you're getting the people who have the privilege to be able to participate and their opinions.
Q: There has been a lot of coverage about the party’s financial trouble, lawsuits, membership and donor loss. How long can this realistically go on?
I think it has already turned around. Certainly, this was a tough year. And if people don't feel like they're going to get something out of it, they're not going to give you anything. Now that we're getting things back on track, it's turning around. It was just like a holding of breath and we're all exhaling. Like, OK, we can do it. When you have litigation going on, nobody wants to pay for litigation. But that's done. We had great fundraising at the VGM (virtual general meeting), we're getting messages from across the country, people renewing their memberships, starting EDAs (electoral district associations) that have never existed without any party action to make that happen. People saying, “I'm donating again.” I don't have the numbers yet, but the indication is it's turning around. I was, of course, expecting this to be difficult, and I think some of it will be. But this first week has been overwhelmingly positive.
Q: What would be the consequences for Canadian politics if the Green Party went under?
We're the only party that isn't extractivist. We're the only party whose economic policies are not based on consumption. We’re the only party that understands humanity is a part of nature. And we're the only ones who are willing to always tell the truth no matter what. That's what we lose from Canadian politics. If you don't have people completely dedicated to truth-telling, even if there's only a couple of them, you lose the sense of accountability in the House and that would have a profound impact across the board.
Q: How will your work with the Moonlight Institute, gender identity, and background as an astrophysicist inform how you approach your role as interim leader and the challenges facing the party?
With everything that's going on, the fact I went through a really analytical field is really important because I just like analyzing all the different pieces, looking at them, piecing them together and sensing all the pathways forward. That’s the practical aspect of having done scientific research, you just approach the whole thing like a project to learn about and solve the problems one by one. The Moonlight Institute gave me experience in organizational direction, fundraising, policy projects, and a background in governance.
My identity, I carry it with me and it certainly influences how I look at policy, how I look at internal organizing. We need to work on discrimination, obviously. But I also see that those issues of discrimination are just a reflection of society and exist in the other parties as well. We have the chance to stop denying it, take it seriously, work through it, and become a good place to be for people that is actually built for everyone of different backgrounds, rather than being a colonial white supremacist structure that we're shoving people into because that's what you get by default in our political system. I'm certainly putting myself out there as a trans person in the middle of transition, which is weird. It's like cutting open your cocoon and showing yourself to the world before you finish your transformation.
Q: Why, especially at this point in your life, did you decide to step up to this significant challenge?
I don't know that I can answer why I was willing to do it at this point in my life because it doesn't make any sense to me. I've got a lot on my plate personally, so it is a huge sacrifice and a risk. But I decided to do it because after this last year watching everything and caring about what the party exists for, I really wanted to help. And I felt like the skills I have are right for it since I went through the leadership contest last time. I have a pretty good sense of what we shouldn't do for the next one.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer
The big thing about the
The big thing about the Greens is this: citizens’ concern about the environment has been increasing for years and, now, frequently polls first or second to the economy which was once the traditional and by far number one concern. So why can’t an ostensibly environmentalist party not gain political traction?
Are citizens wrong about their environmental concerns or about what they expect or see in the Green Party? Whatever the answers are, it’s plainly impolitic to turn that around by saying they are wrong in either of those respects. One smart thing the party did in the last election (which perhaps stands out against all the dumb things it did) was to leave the electoral-systems issue out of its campaign presentation (the NDP has a clear policy to switch to pro-rep, but it too did not feature this in its campaign). That’s illustrative of not calling voters wrong about the kind of electoral system they’ve repeatedly expressed support for: the status quo single-member-plurality system. Naturally many Greens would rather pro-rep, but since they comprise such a small party (“fringe” in numbers but certainly not in environmental concern), their previous electoral-systems campaigning often came off as self-serving because, presumably, any small party wins more seats (any number is better than zero) under pro-rep. Anyway, leaving it off the main plank shows the party is sensitive to voters’ wishes, at least in this case (voters, especially in BC, have repeatedly opted for “first-past-the-post” and thus are tired of the issue trying to beat its way into their ballot preferences). Every party knew the issue was a dead letter best avoided, at least in campaign rhetoric.
The other thing manifest in Ms Paul’s tenure: an international issue (Israel-Palestinian conflict) caused a set-to within the party that, firstly, most Canadians wondered at in terms of the issue itself (‘why is an environmental party getting involved with a foreign matter that isn’t really about the environment anyway?’) and, secondly, in terms of leadership (‘why didn’t Paul nip this in the bud when letting it fester to the point it did hurt her and her party’s prospects?’). Greens’ inclusiveness, consensus, bottom-up and all that is very nice, but it looks to voters like picky membership rules—and, don’t forget, about 98% of voters are not members of any party and don’t want to be. That is, they’re prone to reject a party that gets in a twist about membership (‘too snooty’) or, for that matter, a party whose members get in a twist about anything—just look at how that sort of thing took down the most successful party in Canadian history (and allowed the most unloved party to govern for nearly a decade of retrogressive policy).
Plainly the Greens have some work to do, but they’d better be careful how they do it or voters will reject the party completely. Not necessarily what the party does, but, again, how they do it. Too much touchy-feely stuff and it’s curtains. And that would be too bad because the environment is top-of-list and, aside from failing to grab hold of that concern, the Greens already have to atone for screwing up internal politics. Most voters like winners so failing to get purchase on something that seems should be a cakewalk does not look like a winner.
Perhaps a dose of Keep It Simple Silly (the “KISS” principle) is in order.
If I may: getting tangled in an international matter suits a party that can plausibly form government; the Greens haven’t earned that yet, so getting involved with Israeli politics, whatever its ethical merit, looked presumptuous and too big for the Greens’ britches. It’s a small party, so it should accept the fact and act accordingly by first building up some seats. In fact, until 12 seats are won, each Green MP is an Independent Member of Parliament. Start with that: Independents succeed when they take on local issues too small or thorny for bigger parties to risk their shot at power on. Given every riding, city or country, East, West, or North has environmental concerns, Independent candidacy should be particularly suited for Greens. And that means keeping a healthy distance from entanglement with issues outside of those ridings, at least in detail. In other words, the party is advised not to get above its raising, as ‘t were.
If the party loses all its seats, it might be a good thing or a bad thing, but surely it will take some extra work to re-establish a beachhead such as the parachuted (the opposite of local) Elizabeth May had. Yes, the riding does have a lot of environmentally aware—even activist —voters, but it was always understood her importance was to lead the national party from that riding, irrespective of local issues. But there’s only one leader—something consensus outfits and anarchists often don’t quite get—and that’s why Ms May could get away with not being particularly involved with local environmental issues: party leaders have an advantage in any riding. But, again, there’s only one leader and no other riding can duplicate for the Greens what Ms May has.
Furthermore, don’t pick a party or ideology to fight against, pick issues, especially local, riding issues that have to do with the environment—and almost anything these days has to do with the environment whether it be homelessness because of flooding or wildfire, or health issues because of air or water pollution, &c.
I'm speaking here as someone
I'm speaking here as someone who has made a substantial financial contribution to the GPC, and occasionally done volunteer work for GPC candidates.
I'll start by saying that I agree with just about all of what Geoffrey Scott wrote.
I think that the "back from the brink" comment is overly optimistic. A serious housecleaning of the GPC's Federal Council is called for. Here's why:
- A "wrong number" was elected as Leader of the GPC. Has there been any discussion of how to avoid this happening in the future? If so, I haven't heard about it.
- This Summer, the GPC sent out a LONG list of policy proposals, which were voted on online. There was no way that all of these proposals could get appropriate consideration, except by people who don't have lives. Should "people who don't have lives" be making policy for the party? I don't, although it's understandable that those people who don't have lives will disagree with me.
One of those policy proposals was "Remove GPC 'Population Control' Policy to Better Reflect Party Values". It says in the content "Although it must be acknowledged that the world has a maximum carrying capacity and that overpopulation can indeed have detrimental effects on the planet..." That is correct, so why did the GPC feel a need to go back on this? I would like to ask the proposer, Kito Romero, exactly what constituency his proposal was aimed at? What happened here is, an extreme ANTI-green policy was voted on and passed. And, as I pointed out above, without due consideration.
While I've still got the microphone, two more things:
- Dimitri Lascaris is also a wrong number.
- I will not support any candidate of any party who supports BDS.
Just skimmed it, basically
Just skimmed it, basically the reporter's questions, to confirm that nobody yet is talking to a Green Party representative about the Green Party platform.
Besides climate change, which is hundreds of times more important, questioning the new GP leader about the party's official position on Palestine, whether it is considered appropriate in the GP for a Leader to speak in any direction but that of the platform. We really should just get that out in the clear, because only the previous Leader has been heard on that, those she outraged have not given open interviews.
But, really, the only topic for a Green Party Leader is climate change, right now. People in BC are still rationing food because they're cut off. Amita could have used this time to position as a strong, clear advocate for specific policies that other parties are not brave enough to champion. That would get a lot more positive attention than tiresome spin about party organizational issues that nobody on the outside should have to learn about.
Interesting interview at an
Interesting interview at an interesting time but herding cats still comes to mind.
Amita is right about the unique and credible role of the Green Party up until now, but that has also been in large part because of the respected leadership of Elizabeth May. The "Occupy" movement revealed the results of trying to relegate the importance of that in directing human behaviour. Which is what any political party is trying to do, despite Amita's naive statement about preferring to trust people rather than control them, if given a choice. It begs the question "have you met people?"
And with the environment no longer an arcane focus in our politics (FINALLY), both her and the party itself can certainly take some credit for that, but if they truly CARE about their essential cause(s) they need to fold in with one of the progressive parties that is actually electable. They've lost what credibility they had and are now coming off as a particularly fractious, narcissitic bunch trying to reinvent the wheel on all fronts simultaneously. Narcissistic because it's about their overly precious egos and desire for political power more than the TRULY precious environment, but if they gave up the ghost it would be the most powerful political move they could make at this point.
Many good comments, thanks to
Many good comments, thanks to all. A few correctives:
+ the Green Party has long moved beyond being about environmental issues, but media coverage and general perception, including Geoffrey Scott's, remains that that is all they are about. (It's the one major difference I have with GS's points);
+ that said, the GP's proposals to combat climate change remain the strongest and most coherent of all parties (ref. Mission Possible). Tradition has it that during an election parties come out with their "platform." The GP's was there all along, this "plank" being a major component;
+ agreed that participatory democracy has its challenges. I note that, during her brief tenure and despite all the contretemps she had to deal with, Annamie Paul succeeded in bringing together an outstanding shadow cabinet and had begun the recruitment of members in knowledge clusters in support of each area of policy. I hope that the Interim Leader will build on that;
+ reforming the electoral system remains as vital as ever, not just for the Green Party but for the health of Canadian politics in general. The popular and expert preference for proportional representation is strong (flawed referendums notwithstanding) but it is clear that sitting politicians in power cannot be trusted to support reform. Fair Vote Canada's campaign for a National/Provincial Assembly is therefore the way forward.