Elizabeth May's press gallery dinner speech will haunt her, experts say

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s high-profile gaffe at the annual press gallery dinner in Ottawa on Saturday is bound to become a part of her political legacy, analysts say.

Is Green Party leader's tirade politically scarring, or is the reaction wildly overblown?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks at the Annual Parliamentary National Press Gallery dinner Saturday May 9, 2015 in Ottawa. May's controversial speech will be part of her political image going forward, analysts say. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Elizabeth May's high-profile gaffe at the annual press gallery dinner in Ottawa on Saturday is bound to become a part of her political legacy, analysts say.

Two days after the Green Party leader's awkward, rambling and profanity-laden speech delivered to a stunned crowd made up of the Parliamentary press corps and the nation's political elite, May has publicly apologized.

"It will always be part of her personal brand going forward," said John Crean, national managing partner at National Public Relations, after the story garnered national attention.

"I was sitting 10 feet away from her and I was a bit stunned. I don't think I've ever seen a performance like that one," said Robin Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former NDP strategist.

May ranted for almost 10 minutes before she was ushered off stage by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

"This isn't an isolated event," said Ian Capstick, managing partner of MediaStyle and a regular contributor on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon. "She's weird and she's quirky and this reinforces that brand and will not serve the Green Party well."

Excuses might hurt more than help

May acknowledged that her speech — the highlights of which included playing a recording of Welcome Back, Kotter and saying Omar Khadr, who was convicted in the United States of war crimes in Afghanistan, had "more class than the whole f***ing cabinet" — was a "disaster." She offered to answer reporters' questions and also apologized during a daylong string of interviews on Monday.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt tried to convince Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to wrap it up when it was obvious May's weekend dinner speech was going wrong. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A mea culpa and apology is probably where she should have stopped, analysts say. Instead, May used the two-pronged excuse that her 10-minute rant was the result of sleep deprivation and a failed attempt at comedy.

"The 'I work so hard and spend so much time serving the people that I was too sleep deprived to pull it off' excuse is relatively weak. And do people buy into that?" said Crean.

May also said she was trying to be funny, but it didn't work.

"I never heckle. I never swear. So, I had gotten the idea that it would be funny skit material if I was different from how I really am," she said.

May went on at length Saturday about being the only female leader and having to claw her way into televised leaders debates. She also talked in detail about male politicians in relation to Freud's psychoanalytic sexual drive theory.

"May has been known to express herself strongly," Crean said. "It didn't feel like a joke. She was ranting."

Excuses can be read as an unwillingness among politicians to really own up to bad decision making, and it becomes much harder to back away from once there is derision, he says.

"She's not going to shake this," he said. "Politics is a blood sport and she's given her adversaries a lot of material to work with and they won't let up any time soon," he said.

Asked if Saturday's performance will hurt her politically, May said she didn't think so.

"Anyone can have a bad night and anyone can have a bad attempt at comedy," she said.

Damage to the party

The public may be quicker to forget about this than politicians and the press, according to Crean.

While the video of May's speech has gone viral, only 10 per cent of respondents to a Power and Politics survey on Monday's episode thought the speech would hurt May politically, while 89 per cent said it would not.

The CBC's Evan Solomon received a string of emails and tweets during his on-air interview with May on Monday afternoon demanding he ease up on the intensity of his questions.

However, if her credibility is questioned, reporters won't be as likely to give May the exposure her party needs, says Marcel Wieder, president of Aurora Strategy Group.

"That's the most damaging part of this," he said. Will she get the same amount of air time as she did before? The jury is out."

Not her first controversy

Although Saturday was a new personal best, May's previous slip-ups have raised eyebrows in the past.

  • In 2014, she put forward a bizarre petition in the House of Commons asking the government to support a "9/11 truther" conspiracy theory.
  • In 2006, she came under fire for her comments on women's "frivolous right to choose" when asked about abortion.
  • In 2007, she compared Prime Minister Stephen Harper's stance on climate change to "a grievance worse than Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of the Nazis."

May's best course of action at this point, say analysts, is to move on and change the conversation.

"She doesn't want to give any more oxygen to reporters so she should shut up about it," Sears said. 

On the floor on Monday, all eyes were on May in anticipation of her addressing the speech further, but she didn't, keeping her remarks focused on policy.

Others have bombed, too

May is not the only politician in history to have bombed. Past press gallery dinner faux pas have stayed with politicians before. 

The prospect of having to perfect self-deprecating humour in front of a room of potential critics can be daunting.

"This is the most terrifying speech for leaders throughout their entire calendar year," said Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor, who frequently discusses federal politics on the CBC.

Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe's speech one year was so unpopular that reporters threw buns at him.

"My colleague said to me during May's speech on Saturday, 'They are removing the buns from the tables very quickly,'" the CBC's Evan Dyer said.

Jack Layton's press gallery dinner debut as NDP leader involved a speech that missed the mark completely at what is traditionally a satirical event.

"He did go on to greater things, but that stayed with him," Dyer said. 


  • The article previously incorrectly identified Marcel Wieder. The text has been updated with the proper last name.
    May 12, 2015 1:59 PM ET


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