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May press gallery speech a stumble, not a fall, say strategists

By Laura Ryckewaert      

While some say Elizabeth May’s performance raises legitimate questions and will serve as future partisan fodder, others argue reaction to the failed comedy act, hardly the first of its kind, has been overblown.

Whether called “uncomfortable,” “offensive,” or a “mic drop moment,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s speech at the annual Press Gallery Dinner on May 9 received a lot coverage in political Ottawa last week, but strategists are mixed on the fallout.
While some say Ms. May’s performance raises legitimate questions and will serve as future partisan fodder, others argue reaction to the failed comedy act, hardly the first of its kind, has been overblown.
Keith Beardsley, president of Cenco Public Affairs and a former PMO issues management head, said Ms. May took “the right approach in handling backlash: she came out, she apologized, she made herself available, she didn’t run and hide—that in itself was important in being proactive in trying to deal with the issue.”
“Most people have accepted the apology. These things happen in politics,” he said.
Previously an off-the-record (and altogether boozier) event, the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner has been on the record since 1994. Though the format has changed over the years, humourous speeches from the federal party leaders have long been a feature, with past prime ministers taking part (Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn’t attended since forming government).
Former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe’s flat and partisan 1998 speech went over so badly people threw buns at him—he refused to attend subsequent dinners—and in 1990, then-NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin was forced to duck after her speech bombed. Bun throwing is something of a tradition at gallery dinners: for example, former governor general Ed Schreyer had to dodge them in 1980, and in 1957, PM John Diefenbaker reportedly threw buns at reporters.
On May 9, Ms. May’s (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) speech at the dinner veered into the “uncomfortable,” as many have described it, and has since been called “rambling” and “offensive” by some observers. (The buns, however, stayed on the table).
But first, some context: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) kicked off his speech May 9 with a, “Hey, ladies,”  he joked that press gallery reporters were “future Liberal speechwriters,” and said that he truly, sincerely wanted to extend his hand and work cooperatively with those “pieces of shit” across the aisle. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was joined on stage by This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ Mark Critch doing his Mulcair impersonation, and joked about how he thought the best person to interview him was himself.
The last of the leaders to speak, Ms. May began by recognizing the event was being held on traditional First Nations territory, and asked, “What the f*ck was wrong with the rest of you that you didn’t notice?”
Ms. May touched on her desire to participate in the federal leaders’ debates, referencing Freud in the process—her “debate envy,” she joked—and snapping some wayward listeners back to attention with words like “oral” and “anal.”
It was around this time—the eight-minute mark—that Transport Minister Lisa Raitt began making her way to the stage.
A clip of her encouraging Ms. May off stage—as Ms. May begins playing the theme song to Welcome Back, Kotter, a 1970s American sitcom, before saying Omar Khadr has more class “than the whole f*cking Cabinet”—posted on YouTube by Huffington Post bureau chief Althia Raj on May 9, had more than 126,000 views on YouTube as of May 15, while CBC’s video of the whole speech had 75,000.
While attendees kept relatively quiet on social media during the speech itself—perhaps too busy wondering how much was scripted—by the next day the major networks and social media alike were abuzz over Ms. May’s speech.
On May 10 and 11, Ms. May did the media rounds, apologizing for her speech, which she’s called a “disaster” and a failed attempt at comedy, and fielding media questions—including one from CTV over whether she would resign as leader as a result.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was less than respectful for the people with whom I work,” said Ms. May in a May 10 interview with Maclean’s. “I apologize that I made an attempt to be funny and edgy…and it didn’t work.”
The National Post’s John Ivison penned a column calling Ms. May’s speech a “meltdown,” and said while she’s a “nice lady” and one of the few MPs to take time to read legislation, she shouldn’t “get a pass.” Her goal as Green leader has been to move the party to equal footing with the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP, said Mr. Ivison, so she should be treated with equal scrutiny.
“May has brought her whole party into disrepute, even if the charge is just poor judgement,” he wrote.
Greg MacEachern, a vice-president at Environics Communications in Ottawa who was at the dinner, said success in gallery dinner speeches is all about “self-deprecation,” but Ms. May’s speech had “serious” tones and “missed the mark.”
“Even if it was unfunny, if it had been unfunny and directed at herself instead of outwards I think people would have been more forgiving,” he said.
“If people are scratching their heads trying to puzzle out whether it was a joke or not, again, not successful.”
Mr. MacEachern said doing so many interviews on the subject was a mistake and Ms. May could have “done more to nip” the story in the bud and move on.
“I think if you just simply and succinctly apologize, that’s probably your best bet,” he said.
Given the amount of media coverage, Mr. MacEachern said the speech is likely to stick with her, but is “not going to be the only thing she’s known for.”
“My opinion hasn’t changed all that greatly. I think it is a reminder that we’re all fallible, and that people can make mistakes,” he said.
That said, “a week is a long time” in politics, said Mr. MacEachern, and both former PM Brian Mulroney and Jack Layton bombed their first press gallery dinner speeches.
“I do think people need to take a deep breath and consider how important is this really.”
Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies who was also at the dinner, said Ms. May’s speech was “kooky to say the least,” and made “a lot of people uncomfortable,” and has been rightly scrutinized by media.
“It was incoherent, it was rambling, it was offensive in part, it was not funny,” said Mr. Powers. “Elizabeth May is the leader of a national party…and if another national party leader had gone on and made the same comments that Elizabeth May did, they’d be feeling the wrath of the media and the public,” he said.
Mr. Powers said Ms. May made the right move in quickly apologizing, but said it was a mistake to do numerous interviews in subsequent days.
“I think she needs to stop apologizing now and I think she just needs to move on and focus on her work at hand,” said Mr. Powers.
Ms. May declined an interview request from The Hill Times on May 12, with a spokesperson saying she was no longer doing interviews on the subject.
Mr. Powers said he thinks the speech will stick with her “for a while.”
“I think people will look at it and say, ‘What does it say about her judgment? What does it say about the party she represents?’ I think she’s going to wear it for a while,” he said.
Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells penned a column last week questioning Ms. May’s position, now nine years in, as Green Party leader.
“I think after events like those that transpired at the gallery dinner, I think it’s fair to ask, like, remind me why she’s the Green Party leader?” Mr. Wells said in an interview.
He added that “time heals all wounds” and that he thinks “her admirers will need a lot more than that to give up on her.”
“I think it was news. She said some shocking things, and people are absolutely able to decide how big a problem they think it is,” he said.
Mr. Wells wasn’t at this year’s dinner, but said the speech first caught his attention that night after he spotted tweets from attendees “eager for her speech to wrap up.”
“There’s no rules for these things, and those of us who’ve been to a bunch of gallery dinners have seen a bunch of lousy speeches,” he said.
Mr. Beardsley said he thinks the story is really only one within media and political circles.
“I did political damage control for leaders for years and they all do stupid things, it’s just a matter of what goes public and what doesn’t. I don’t think it will hurt her in that way [politically] at all,” he said.
Manon Cornellier, president of the press gallery and a reporter for Le Devoir, said she personally felt “uncomfortable” by the speech, though not “offended.”  But she thinks reaction to it has been “overblown.”
“She’s not there to make a political speech, she was there to do a comedy act. She misread the crowd. I think she went a bit overboard, but you know the gallery is asking the leaders to take the risk of publicly transforming themselves into stand-up comics,” she said.
“We are the ones asking them to take that risk and they are the only ones bearing the consequences of it if they fail. But it’s still only a comedy act…we have to relativize this.”
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