Elizabeth May book excerpt: Restoring public faith in politics

Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, has just released a new book: Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. Described as a “marriage of memoir and manifesto,” the book explores both her life and her political philosophy. Today we present an excerpt from the book.

May is launching the book on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 1 p.m. at the Bob Wright Building at the University of Victoria.

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It had to be the most embarrassing credit interview ever — embarrassing both for me and for the woman from the Ottawa Women’s Credit Union who had to ask the questions. “All right, you’d like a $10,000 line of credit. Let’s start with revenue. How much do you earn?”

“Well, actually ... I am unemployed. I just quit my job.”

“I see. How about assets. Do you own your car? How much are your payments?”

With a sinking feeling about the whole proposition, I got the words out. “I don’t have a car.”

She remained remarkably chipper, though I did see a crease forming on her forehead, “OK, do you own your home?”

“Well, it’s really my ex-husband’s house and we have a mortgage.”

Then the question I had not seen coming: “What do you want the line of credit for? Home renovations?”

I swallowed hard and answered in a contrite whisper: “I need it to run for the leadership of a federal political party.” I didn’t think telling her it was the Green Party would help.

I had come to the conclusion that everything I had worked for over the last three decades and everything I cared about was at risk of being dismantled by our newly installed prime minister. Becoming leader of the Green Party was my best option for changing Canadian politics. But to run for the leadership, I had to become a member of the Green Party. As executive director of Sierra Club of Canada, however, I could not be partisan, meaning that joining a political party was a no-no. So I had to quit my job in order to lay out the $10 to become a member of the Green Party. And luckily, the Women’s Credit Union gave me the loan.

In 2006, Stephen Harper had only enjoyed a minority government. There could be an election any time. Given the prevailing political dynamic, I didn’t see any hope of a different electoral result.

Although they were polar opposites on the political spectrum, in November 2005, the Conservatives and the NDP, with support from the Bloc, brought down the minority Liberal government of Paul Martin, triggering an election campaign. Throughout that 2005-2006 campaign, the NDP avoided attacking Harper and kept a steady stream of television ads focusing on the Liberal sponsorship scandal. The NDP also avoided, as much as possible, mention of climate or Kyoto.

It was the rational, politically smart thing to do. Talking about climate and Stephen Harper’s opposition to Kyoto would risk driving soft NDP support to the Liberals. It was clear to NDP strategists that is what had happened in the dying days of the 2004 election campaign. Liberal leader Paul Martin had criss-crossed the country saying that the NDP and Liberal values came from the “same well-spring,” that Harper was the threat, and that the best way to stop him was to vote Liberal.

In 2004, the NDP had warned voters about Stephen Harper and his policies. Inadvertently, the NDP messages had echoed the Liberal message, and enough NDP voters migrated to the Liberals to keep them in power. It must have been galling to the NDP strategists in their post-election debriefs. They must have vowed not to allow it to happen again.

The NDP and the Conservatives bonded around one concept — the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, the strangest bedfellows in Canadian history snuggled up, proving the aphorism that politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.

The toxin in our electoral system is that, unlike virtually all other modern democracies, Canada has a voting system that discounts all the votes from each district for anyone other than the winning candidate — riding by riding. This system, invented when people thought the earth was flat, is called First Past the Post. Among modern industrialized countries, only the U.S., the U.K., and Canada still run elections this way. Even though the majority of voters clearly did not want Stephen Harper and his party to form government, all it took was a minority of votes in riding after riding to vote Conservative for Stephen Harper to form a minority government in 2006. With partisanship trumping common sense, it seemed the NDP would continue to help increase the number of Conservative seats, even if the Conservative vote remained stagnant. Meanwhile, the Liberals would attack the NDP and ignore rare openings for co-operation.

The predictable and dismal dynamic of federal politics needed to change. Things needed to be shaken up. The best idea I could come up with was to become the leader of the Green Party. Clearly, if that was my best idea, there were not a lot of good ones from which to choose.

If I were concerned about vote splitting between the Liberals and NDP, it might seem counterintuitive that my solution was to devote my energies to electing Green MPs. But I was not concerned about “vote-splitting,” a term I loathe. Votes don’t split and parties don’t “own” a vote. A party has no pre-determined right to the votes they earned in the previous election. Voting blocks are not chess pieces to be moved around on a board. Democracy is not a game.

My concern was that, because of the perverse impacts of First Past the Post, no party would ever admit another party had a good idea. Rather, to hold onto their vote, a party would launch blistering salvos at another party with policies potentially more acceptable to its own base. The First Past the Post system creates the intensity of hyper-partisan venom in Canadian politics. It is the parties who have the most in common who will attack each other most viciously.

It is only because of the First Past the Post voting system that progressive voters are lured to the demon “strategic voting.” NDP or Green voters might hold their noses and vote Liberal, thinking their vote could block a Conservative win, though sometimes they guess wrong and help the Conservatives. Voting out of fear simply cannot be a good idea.

 

Something was needed to change the dynamic. Somehow I convinced myself that a political leader who told the truth all the time, even if it meant defending people in other political parties, might just be the wild card that restored public faith in Canadian politics. Reading over the Green Party policies, I was pleased to find a solid foundation in issues of social justice and international policies, in addition to the expected environmental planks. Running for leader of the Green Party began to take shape in my mind as a way to re-awaken interest in politics among the disillusioned. …

I was very sure was that Stephen Harper, unlike any previous prime minister, would not accept the imperative for climate action. Had I believed he was open to persuasion, I would have stayed with Sierra Club. Through my work in Ottawa, as well as occasional overlaps in our children’s school activities, I had known Stephen Harper for years. Ever since he had become leader of the Alliance Party, I had tried to reach him directly, relying on a number of Alliance MPs with whom I worked on issues where Sierra Club policies aligned with theirs, primarily opposition to nuclear power. Stephen Harper and I had met often, but briefly. Once when MP Monte Solberg had managed to organize a meeting for a number of environmental groups with the Alliance caucus, Harper bolted for the door within the first five minutes.

One of his environment critics, a Conservative MP, once told me that “Stephen will never accept Kyoto. He’ll always see it as one of those UN things.” ...

My days as a non-partisan environmental lawyer and activist were over. I had to jump into the partisan world of politics with both feet or watch from the sidelines as the first prime minister in history to actively loathe the environmental movement and all it cared about reversed our halting, limited environmental progress.

The way change had happened in the past and the ability to influence governments of various stripes were gone. Protecting the environment through the steady and time-worn methods of building a case, launching a campaign, getting public support, and persuading people in power to change bad plans into good ones had become a Monty Python sketch. It was a Dead Parrot. …

 

As in the Monty Python sketch, Canadian democracy was nailed to its little perch in hopes the public would not notice the resemblance to a dead parrot. Something drastic was required to revive it. The first step was surely to point out what democracy, specifically a Westminster parliamentary democracy, looks like. In a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister serves at the pleasure of Parliament, not the other way around.

Our system is not supposed to look like a dictatorship. It does not involve central control by a prime minister’s office. It does not involve non-stop partisan campaigning in a permanent state of heightened electoral warfare in the absence of governing. Democracy should look a lot like the people who elected their government.

 

Excerpted from Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada by Elizabeth May, Greystone Books, 2014.

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