Elizabeth May’s ‘kooky’ press gallery speech unlikely to hurt politician in long run

Canada Politics
Elizabeth May says sleep deprivation behind failed attempt to be 'edgy' on Khadr

Hill denizens and politics watchers knew 2015 would be a unique year in Ottawa, but few probably guessed how weird things would get at this year’s annual parliamentary press gallery dinner Saturday night.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s speech — an attempt at comedy, she’s admitted — fell like a dead weight and made the hundreds of journalists and politicians in the great hall of the Canadian Museum of History shift in their seats uncomfortably.

As May rambled, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt made her way to the stage to escort the party leader out of the spotlight, at which time May told the crowd that Omar Khadr, recently released on bail, has “more class than the whole f——g cabinet.”

May’s speech has been a topic of conversation in political circles since Saturday, some voicing anger over the cabinet comment, some expressing confusion, others in support for what she said.

But will her words haunt her, politically? Is there damage control to be done?

Yes, some, said Tim Powers of Summa Strategies. May does well by getting along with most people — her likeability has put her in good stead with Ottawa journalists.

“I think the challenge that she has beyond likability, and that has been valuable for her in politics, is to be seen as serious and substantive, and not sort of on the edge or kooky,” Powers said.

“And I thought the comments related to Mr. Khadr and the cabinet were in the kooky vein.”

He added that May is very good at an “old school” kind of politics. “Make noise, a bit of a shock and awe strategy that’ll get you some attention,” Powers said. 

“However when the shock and awe makes you look shocking and awful, it’s not the shock and the awe you’re looking for.”

Anything that hurts her credibility will ultimately hurt her cause, he said.

May appeared on CBC and CTV Monday morning to discuss the mishap, noting that she was functioning on little sleep and probably shouldn’t have been up on stage.

“The exhaustion made me think [the jokes would] be funny,” May said. “The exhaustion of being sleep deprived…Timing is everything in comedy, and if you get it wrong, it’s just not going to work.”

It’s no secret, too, that the parliamentary press gallery is a tough crowd. Some party leaders nail their speeches and get journalists, editors and their guests laughing and others simply don’t.

Laura Peck, senior partner at TransformLeaders.ca, said that as long as May doesn’t put her foot in her mouth like that again, the event should blow over soon enough.

“She has apologized. She’s done the right thing, she’s apologized,” Peck said. “One mistake is forgivable, two is a pattern.”

It’s more of an “inside Ottawa beltway” thing anyway, Peck added.

“It’s the press gallery dinner,” May said on CTV Monday morning. “I’ve been there when politicians gave speeches that didn’t work. I’ve been there when politicians have used a lot more expletive language…but I wouldn’t take it seriously because it’s the press gallery dinner.”