Annamie Paul Toronto Central

The new Green leader wants a seat in the House of Commons. Is Elizabeth May standing in her way?

By Chantal Hébert – Contributing Columnist

As things stand now, voters will likely have to wait until the next federal campaign to really see incoming Green party leader Annamie Paul in action. The early evidence suggests they could be impressed.

The latest addition to the federal leadership roster comes across as a deft communicator. She is more comfortable in French than her NDP and Conservative counterparts.

Paul also happens to replace the last baby-boomer still standing on the federal podium. Generational change at the national level is taking place at a faster rate in Canada than in the U.S. 

And while the lineup still falls well short of gender parity, it has, over the span of less than a decade, become more diverse.

But whether Paul’s arrival as Green leader stands to alter the federal dynamics in any significant way will likely remain an open question until the next federal campaign.

The odds that she will enter the stage of the House of Commons between now and then look extremely long.

Yes, she is running in a byelection scheduled to be held later this month in Toronto Centre, but former finance minister Bill Morneau’s riding is a relatively safe Liberal seat. This is also her second run in the same riding; last year, she finished fourth with only seven per cent of the vote.

To elevate the Green prospects in Toronto Centre, her predecessor would have the New Democrats stand down.

Earlier this week, Elizabeth May argued that Jagmeet Singh owed her party as much. Did the Greens not abstain from running a candidate against the NDP leader back when he first ran in a federal byelection in Burnaby South?

In fact, anything short of the Liberals simply giving Toronto Centre to the Greens out of the goodness of their hearts would likely fail to see Paul elected.

Even if the NDP did agree to stand down — and it will not — Morneau beat the New Democrat runner-up 57 per cent to 22 per cent in last year’s election.

Moreover, the assumption that NDP and Green votes are virtually interchangeable is questionable at best.

If only to justify her party’s existence to the progressive Canadians who fear a split in their vote would be to the advantage of the Conservatives, May has spent the past four federal campaigns highlighting what distinguishes the Greens from the NDP.

As for the practice of extending the courtesy of a free run at a seat to incoming leaders, it falls well short of a convention.

In the not-so-distant past, the Liberals did sit out the byelections that paved the way for Stockwell Day, Joe Clark and Stephen Harper to lead their party in the House of Commons.

But what those examples mostly show is that May is missing the forest for the trees.

In each and every case, incoming leaders ran for seats previously held by their own party.

The Vancouver riding Singh vied for became vacant when the NDP incumbent moved to municipal politics.

Harper inherited the Calgary seat vacated by former Reform leader Preston Manning upon the latter’s political retirement. 

Day and Clark got their shot at securing a seat because one of their MPs agreed to step aside.

Those precedents show that there is an available shortcut that could see Paul in the House sooner rather than later.

If May really believes it is vital for her successor to have access to the high-profile stage of the House of Commons before the next election then past practice suggests the way to go is to vacate her own seat. 

That would provide her successor with both as safe a launching pad to Parliament as the Greens have on hand and the opportunity to hit the ground running on the task of demonstrating that the party amounts to more than a platform for May.

A word in closing: With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Toronto, Paul is calling for the Toronto-Centre and York Centre federal byelections set for Oct. 26 to be put on hold. She argues that democracy will be poorly served by holding votes in the midst of a pandemic.

Fair enough, except that in one of her first decisions as leader, she instructed her caucus earlier this week to vote against the Liberals in a confidence vote on the throne speech.

Had that vote resulted in the defeat of the minority government, would she — by the same token — have advocated that a general election not follow?

If it is Paul’s position that the opposition parties refrain from precipitating an election by toppling the Liberals until Canada has turned the corner on the pandemic, she will at some point have to reconcile that stance with the way her own party votes in the Commons.

Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert