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Exclusive: Elizabeth May on political reform, climate change and democracy

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Elizabeth May

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It hardly seems necessary to provide an introduction to Elizabeth May. She is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, the leader of the Green Party of Canada, and -- full disclosure -- a close personal friend. But more than that, she has become a Canadian political institution. A lawyer and environmentalist with a sheaf of international awards and honorary degrees under her belt, she is the acme of environmental and parliamentary energy and dedication. A relentless workaholic, she is voluble, engaging, and a nonstop oracle of information, able to draw upon a seemingly bottomless well of facts and place them at her mental fingertips.

Elizabeth MayShe's also honest, direct, and straight talking -- a complete counterpoint to the scripted, talking-point obfuscation of the Harper Conservatives. Agree with her or not, Elizabeth May pulls no punches and levels with you in conversation, an utterly refreshing change from the stuffed-shirt, wooden politician that has multiplied ad nauseum across the land during the Harper era. People believe in her because she is believable. 

I've known Elizabeth for over 30 years; from the time we first worked together on a campaign to stop the aerial spraying of herbicides in Nova Scotia and collaborated as members of the Ecology Action Centre's Forestry Committee (See the film Herbicide Trials).

Elizabeth MayI suspect I was her first publicist, helping to coordinate media after a highly successful advocacy trip to Sweden to lobby Stora Kopperberg to engage in responsible forest management practices. Over those years I've seen her political acumen and environmental dedication grow in leaps and bounds, from her years as a grassroots activist, lawyer, senior policy advisor of Progressive Conservative Environment, Minister Tom McMillan, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, and finally leader of the Green Party.

What has not changed are her kindness, consideration, relentless energy, enthusiasm, and sincere passion for and concern about the environment. As a person of faith who has studied theology, she brings a spiritual dimension to her concerns and the warmth of it radiates through what she says and does. We've not always agreed on issues, but it is impossible not to respect and admire the keen and thoughtful analysis she brings to a seemingly endless number of subjects.

I had a chance to have lunch with her when she was in Halifax on her cross-Canada tour earlier in the election campaign. Here are some points that our discussion touched on. 

Christopher Majka and Elizabeth May

Christopher Majka: I'd like to begin with what I regard as the most important issue -- political reform. I don't know how healthy the Canadian democratic system has been for some time -- you may have a longer view on this from your time as a policy advisor to Tom MacMillian -- but it certainly is the case that Stephen Harper has expanded every previous crack in the system into a yawning chasm. 

There are many interlocking elements of this, from the dysfunctional state of the House of Commons; a degraded Senate packed with failed candidates, party bagmen, and partisan hacks; parliamentary committees that met in camera and whose chairs follow manuals on how to stymie their own functioning; the archaic and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system producing erratic and undemocratic outcomes; the liquidation of the per-vote federal political financing; a bloated PMO that has usurped -- and continues to further encroach upon -- the power and responsibilities of Parliament  -- all of these things have enormously degraded the political fabric of Canadian constitutional democracy, and of Canadian's faith in the democratic system itself.

What structural and other changes do you see that need to be made in order to establish a genuine democratic political system in Canada?

Elizabeth E. May: We need to dismantle the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) brick by brick. It doesn't exist in our Constitution. Until the time of Lester B. Pearson there really was no such entity as a PMO, it was created by Pierre Trudeau. Under Lester Pearson there were only a handful of file clerks and stenographers. Under Pierre Trudeau its function was light management, making sure that Ministers didn't make important announcements on the same day, that kind of thing.

Elizabeth MayWhat it is now, is dangerous. It controls everything. It's made a mockery of the supremacy of Parliament. It's made a mockery of Cabinet -- Ministers don't know anything about what their ministries are doing. It calls the shots for what they say, how they say it, and how both cabinet ministers and backbenchers vote. Its (control) has now extended to muzzling scientists and to crossing what once used to be a real firewall between the Privy Council, which provides evidence and information on public policy to inform the political side. The non-partisan federal civil service was never supposed to manufacture evidence to meet political goals. They are now doing that. So we are going to have to fix a lot of broken elements.

Sir John A. MacDonald once prorogued the House of Commons to avoid a scandal (see: the Pacific Scandal). Up until Stephen Harper, that was the only example in the British Commonwealth of someone proroguing Parliament to avoid a scandal. So, we need now to put in place laws that control prorogation. We need to ensure that no Prime Minister can prorogue Parliament without a two-thirds vote of the House of Commons. We need to ban the use of omnibus bills for myriads of disconnected pieces of legislation that never get properly studied.  We need to resurrect the power of individuals MPs. And all of this can be done without opening up the Constitution. The Senate creates more problems because then you have to deal with the Constitution.

CGM: Would some of those issues be addressed by making changes to the Standing Orders of Parliament and by measures such as, for instance, allowing committees to select their own chairs?

EEM: Yes. Another item is budgets. The Prime Ministers Office receives $10 million a year for partisan fear-factory work. The Green Party is calling for the PMO's budget to be cut in half to $5 million a year. I'd actually be happy if they had no budget at all. Some people think that the PMO is somehow an essential agency the way that, for example, in the United States the Executive Branch of the White House is. But, the American constitution was developed by people who were highly suspicious of the abuse of power -- they had just had a Revolution about this -- so they put in place checks and balances.

Our system of government in Canada has no such checks and balances. The only real check and balance is the notion of responsible government; that every Member of Parliament who isn't in Cabinet -- including Conservative backbenchers -- is there to hold the government to account. 

So, that's the first order of business. Changing our voting system is also critical.

[Information sidebar: The Green party supports the introduction of proportional representation to replace Canada's dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system. For further information see: 6.1 Democratic renewal and proportional representation.]

Elizabeth MayAnd also reducing the power of political party leaders, for example, getting rid of the requirement for the leader's signature to be on candidate nomination forms. We have to reduce the power of political parties overall because as long as they can whip votes, control MPs, and exert their authority this is power for the sake of power. 

Also, (currently election campaigns are never ending. When an election campaign is over, those of us in Parliament should be working together deciding … public policy goals around which we can develop a political consensus. Because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, and the application by Stephen Harper of Republican-style political tactics, what they are instead always seeking is a "wedge issue." Rather than seeking political consensus (political parties) are seeing an issue on which they will be the only ones to hold a certain position, to nail down and motivate their base. It's toxic politics. We have to deal with this in the next Parliament. 

I don't see much sign that in the caucuses of the opposition parties, the NDP and the Liberals, that either Trudeau of Mulcair will respect the rights of their members to do anything other than what they are told to do.

CGM: You have said that you are in favour of an elected Senate. Why bother with a bicameral legislative system? What's to be gained by having a second elected chamber? If there are two chambers that both have a mandate from the people, which has political precedence? If we are opening up the constitution to make changes, when not just abolish it? 

EEM: You have to have every single province on board in order to abolish the Senate. The reality is, I'm not against abolition as opposed to the status quo. Green Party policy is for an elected Senate selected by proportional representation, which would end up looking more like (the system) they have in Australia. In New Zealand they have a House elected by proportional representation and no Senate. Some in New Zealand say that that actually cost the country historically because there wasn't protection for certain regions. There is a regional representation component to why the Canadian Constitution includes an upper house. In Australia, the Senate is recognized as not having the legitimacy that the elected lower house has even though the Upper House is elected.

Elizabeth MaySo, it's a good question. I'm not averse to abolishing the Senate if that's the direction that Canadians want to go, but as party policy we favour an elected Senate.

The Prime Minister appointed a group of people to the Senate who thought that their priority was working for the Conservative Party rather than the Canadian people. The Senate of old was a better place. Things happened that were non-partisan. The fact that the PMO thought that it had a right to control the votes of Senators, to kill the Climate Change Accountability Act without any hearings -- something like that has never happened before. However, by far the greater priority is to deal with the problems of the House.

[Information Sidebar: The Climate Change Accountability Act has a long and storied history in the Canadian Parliament. It was originally introduced (as Bill 377) in the House of Commons in October 2006 by NDP leader, Jack Layton. It passed third reading with the support of the NDP, the Liberals, and the BQ and went to the Senate for passage but died on the order paper when Stephen Harper dissolved Parliament for the 2008 election.

It was reintroduced to the House (as Bill C-311) in February 2009 by then NDP Environment Critic, Bruce Hyer (seconded by Jack Layton). It was again passed by the House in May 2010 with the support of all parties except for the Conservatives. It then went to the Senate where it was defeated on second reading in November 2010.

It was re-introduced yet again to the House (as Bill C-224) by NDP Environment Critic, Megan Leslie. As of the dissolution of Parliament for the 2015 election it still had not passed and hence it died yet again on the order paper. The NDP has pledged to reintroduce it in the 42 Parliament after the 2015 election.]

CGM: On November 30, 41 days after the Canadian election, the 21st Conference of the Parties -- COP-21 -- the United Nations Conference on Climate Change will convene. Many environmentalists view this as the very last chance to put into place a framework convention that might realistically be able to keep global temperature increases to within 2º Celsius by the end of the century. 

EEM: I wouldn't say many; I would say anyone who is paying attention knows that this is the last chance.

CGM: Indeed! In any event, that's a short time after the conclusion of the federal election. However, on the assumption that there might be a federal government of a different political complexion after October 19, what do you think Canada needs to do at COP-21? Is there a constructive role that Canada could play in these negotiations after a decade of being a stumbling block to meaningful action to address climate change?

Elizabeth May in Lima, PeruEEM: Absolutely! I was sitting in the negotiations in Lima, Peru -- as you may know I was the only opposition member of the Canadian Parliament to attend -- and I realized that the negotiations were going badly. The European Union used to be at the forefront of negotiations, but for all sorts of domestic reasons they are no longer showing the same kind of leadership. The United States talks a good game but in the negotiations themselves, the State Department still seems to get instructions from George W. Bush through some sort of time capsule: they're not all that helpful. 

So I was sitting there and it suddenly hit me that the negotiations need leadership. We -- Canadians -- have the potential to be leaders in time for COP-21. But, it doesn't just start when we show up. It starts the minute the election is over. And, although the Liberals and the NDP have not thought about this at all, we need to move fast. I'm hoping that we have enough Green MPs that we can work with Trudeau or Mulcair -- whoever it is, or both of them -- and put together a plan. We need to have a First Ministers meeting before Canada goes to Paris. We need to revise Canada's domestic targets to be as aggressive as possible. We also need to change the negotiating team and bring back negotiators who are respected around the world. We are going to have to do some shuttle diplomacy to make sure that other countries around the world who are like-minded can work with us again, and see if we can hit the ground running in Paris to deliver a really good treaty.

CGM: You recently announced that after this election, no matter what the outcome, that the Green Party would not participate in a coalition. Why not? 

Elizabeth MayEEM: I didn't quite say that. It's not my preference. If that was the only way to make a coalition happen, it's possible. It's not my choice by any means. I don't want to serve as a minister in someone else's government when I don't agree with their policies. It would be much better to serve in opposition, hold a government to account, and ensure that key things are done. Like, climate action. Like repealing Bill C-51. Like getting rid of the first-past-the post electoral system, and reducing the power of the Prime Minister's Office.

CGM: Generally political parties wait until the electoral chips have fallen to survey the resulting political landscape and then make a determination as to whether a coalition is in the offing, and based on the respective strength of the parties, whether they would like to participate and if so under what terms. Why decide even before the ballots have been cast? Wouldn't participating in a government give Green MPs both experience and credibility?

EEM: I don't see any of the leaders of other federal political parties as my colleagues. It's really important that we (the Green Party) stay as a strong, cooperative group.  Besides climate action, repealing Bill C-51, getting rid of first-past-the post, and reducing the power of the PMO, the next thing would be to resurrect parliamentary democracy, return to the principal supremacy of Parliament, return to the principle that the Prime Minister reports to Parliament and not the other way around. So, being an insider in a coalition would probably reduce the sway that the Green Party has to continue to press for change.

CGM: That's so, although in jurisdictions where there are routinely coalitions, within them is where some of the interesting political horse-trading happens.

Elizabeth MayEEM: That's one of the reasons that I don't want to do it. Talking with my friends in European Green parties who have been in coalitions, they have then had these these horrible moments of crisis where the coalition does something that the Greens can't support, and then there is this rupture, where they have to withdraw from Cabinet. A friend of mine who was Minister of the Environment in Finland -- the Finnish Greens were in a coalition -- and the government then decided to build a nuclear power plant, and they had to resign. Overall, it would have been better for all parties to have had the Greens stay on the outside, because it is a rupture when you lose a member of Cabinet who is popular. So, unless I was quite certain that the government that wanted me to serve with them was likely to be compatible on all issues … I'd rather not be implicated in decisions that I can't support.

CGM: An important aspect of Canada's relations with the world are trade treaties. Not long ago the Harper Government concluded a ghastly abomination called the Canada-China Investment Treaty, it recently has concluded Canada's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and has eagerly been negotiating to try and conclude CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, a treaty with the European Union.

In a report for the Canadian International Council (now OpenCanada.org), The 9 habits of highly effective resource economies: Lessons for Canada, Madeline Drohan examined trade agreements and concluded that, in general, in bilateral agreements with economic behemoths like the USA in NAFTA, the European Union in CETA, and China in the Canada-China FIPPA, Canada's interests generally get steamrollered because we are a small economy relative to these huge economic units, and we have limited leverage with which to negotiate. Her view was that Canada's interests are much better served by broad agreements with a large number of partners within the context of a multilateral agreement. [See: Resource capitulation: FIPPA, fibs, and Canadian sellouts for more information on this topic.]

We know that equitable and fair trade can enrich people and their societies and bring prosperity and stability, but that poorly conceived, unfairly structured, inadequately regulated, and inequitably distributed trade can ruin the environment, squander resources, destabilize the climate, undermine social structures, and enrich the power elites and transnational corporations at the expense of the other 99 per cent of humanity.

How should Canada approach trade agreements?

EEM: The first thing we need to do is distinguish between investor state agreements and trade agreements. The worst thing that the Stephen Harper did during the last ten years was (to conclude) the Canada China Investment Treaty. It has no trade elements. It's not a trade treaty. And we are locked into it until 2045. After the next election we need to be prepared to immediately pass laws in Parliament that any complaints made by the People's Republic of China under this agreement are made public immediately. Right now it's all in secret.  I'm very worried about regulatory chill where we will voluntary withdraw our laws, or not bring them in (because of this) and Canadians will never know. 

CGM: We are a sovereign country: can we simply not abrogate this treaty?

EEM: No. This is a treaty. If we violate it the People's Republic of China will invoke an arbitration, which is what the treaty does. The arbitrators will accept jurisdiction and we'll lose. If we were to abrogate the entire treaty they would probably find billions of dollars in damages. And then that judgment is enforceable in a hundred countries around the world.

Tom Duck and Elizabeth May

People need to read the book on this treaty by Gus Van Harten, Sold Down the Yangtze: Canada's Lopsided Investment Deal with China. The legal procedure to exit the Canada China Investment Treaty is that first you have to wait for fifteen years after the treaty comes into force. Then you are allowed to give one year written notice, and after that you are out, except that any existing investments with the People's Republic of China are protected for a further fifteen years. That takes us to 2045. It's a huge loss of sovereignty.

We can repair all the legislative damage that Stephen Harper did. We can bring back all the laws: the Fisheries Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, etc. We can repeal the laws that are horrific. But, if we start bringing back the Fisheries Act and the People's Republic of China complains, we might have a situation where, before Canadians even know what is happening, Canada has told China privately, "O.K., we'll modify it" or "We'll weaken it" or "We won't do it at all."

The thing about these investor state agreements is that they are, as my friend Steve Shrybman says, "fundamentally corrosive to democracy." And that's exactly what they are. And we have a lot of them. Mostly we are the big player doing real damage to smaller countries. In this case we are going to be the small country and we are going to be run roughshod by the People's Republic of China. They can't force us to repeal our own laws, but they can make us pay for keeping them. So, we may have to be prepared to write a cheque to Beijing to get back our Fisheries Act -- no matter what it costs. Our national sovereignty has been, as Gus Van Harten says, sold down the Yangtze by Stephen Harper. To get it back we have to be prepared to write a cheque, to fight, and to make the whole process transparent and public.

These aren't trade agreements, and that's why I was so upset that the only two Canadians Members of Parliament to vote against the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement were Bruce Hyer and I. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and CETA both contain investor state agreements, and as bad as the trade elements of those treaties are, the reason that it's so controversial in the European Union to enter into CETA is that it would be the first investor state agreement adopted by the European Union.

Green Party Rally

CGM: Here's a question about a subject that I actually don't want to talk about -- but I'll ask you anyway -- deficits.

I'm not an economist but I talk with many economists, virtually all of whom are of the opinion that -- in the main -- deficits are a red herring. Of course, it is generally a desirable objective to balance the books and not to run a deficit, better even if you can run a surplus, but this is the wrong economic metric to pay attention to. What is consequential is to make strategic stimulus investments in the economy when required, salt away a surplus when conditions prevail, pay attention to the debt to GDP ratio to make sure that the debt you are carrying is sustainable, and not obsess about a deficit if it is required. 

And particularly so in these times when interest rates are at historic lows (overnight rates are at 0.5 per cent and bank rates at 0.75 per cent). With inflation at about 1.7 per cent this means that governments can essentially borrow money for free.

So, even though a concern with deficits may be a red herring, discussions of this fish have dominated the political airwaves. Andrew Coyne summed up the political discussion nicely saying: "NDP: we'd get rid of the deficit. Liberals: we'd keep the deficit. Tories: what deficit?"

So, for the record, what is the Green party position on budget deficits?

EEM: Yes. I made this point in the McLean's debate. A one or two billion-dollar deficit in a two trillion dollar economy is not a big deal. Stephen Harper postponed the budget until April 21 in order to book the sale of the General Motors shares in fiscal 2015-2016 to make it look like a balanced budget. It's smoke and mirrors. When you are in a recession, which we are in now, it is absolutely the wrong time to practice austerity or to have any kind of ideological rigidity around deficits. So, I'm much closer to where Trudeau is at rather than where Mulcair or Harper are. The Green Party happens to be putting forward a budget that balances, but it's much more important to stimulate the economy. If we ran a slight deficit because our calculations were off I wouldn't worry about it. The point is to stimulate the economy so we can get out of recession.

Elizabeth May & Green candidates

Closing Arguments

Elizabeth May has been pivotal in the development of the Green Party in Canada -- the proverbial little party that could. Sometimes ignored by the media she finds opportunities to turn every snub into an opportunity; tweeting her way into debates she has not been invited to; drawing attention in the media to the lack of media attention the Green Party has been receiving, and consequently leveraging media attention -- May is indefatigable.

Vision GreenAs our conversation illustrates, she has a plethora of ideas on a multitude of subjects, and under her helm the Green Party has developed a fulsome and well-considered platform, Vision Green, that touches on a broad range of environmental, social, political, and economic issues and, moreover, comes fully costed. Now a platform and budget are one thing; having a party with the political wherewithal and gravitas to realize it is another matter. However, articulating a detailed vision of where you want to go is an indispensable element of laying the groundwork for how you might actually get there.

In this respect, the antiquated and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system has done a brutal disservice to the Green Party. In the 2011 election the Green Party received 3.91 per cent of the vote, which in a system of proportional representation would have given them 12 seats in the 41st Canadian Parliament, just enough representation to sit as an official party. Instead, they managed to win one seat, May's own (a second MP, Bruce Hyer, later left the NDP and joined the Green Party).

At present, CBC's Poll Tracker shows the Green Party with the support of 4.4 per cent of the Canadian public, which if it translates into commensurate results on election day would give the Green Party -- under a proportional representation electoral system -- 15 parliamentary representatives. Instead, Poll Tracker forecasts that they will win just one. 

Whether you support the Green Party or not, anyone who believes in democratic values will roundly deplore this situation. Consequently, we must dedicate ourselves to the achievement of electoral reform and proportional representation. As my recent analysis Interest in electoral reform spikes dramatically indicates, engagement in this topic is increasing exponentially in Canada. The time is ripe for change to create a parliamentary democracy that is fairly representative of the views of all Canadians, and where a caucus of Green MPs can make their proportionate contribution to Canadian political culture.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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