I had the opportunity recently to talk to Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada about her party, its policies, its electoral chances and its place on the political landscape in Canada. As always, Ms. May was articulate, enthusiastic and pretty straight forward about the challenges she faces. When she took over the leadership in August 2006, the Greens had high hopes from the high-energy former head of the Sierra Club.

Her ability to attract media interest, her personal commitment to the environment, her personal appeal, all seemed to hold great promise. But it hasn’t been that simple. Powerful conservative forces still operate within the party creating tensions. Without a presence in the House of Commons you really are off the bus — the media and the other parties ignore you because you aren’t part of the daily calculations preceding question period.

In the next election, the party and May are determined to spend big to get her a seat. It’s their number one priority. But it is still a long shot — money can’t buy you love, or necessarily, votes. Here’s what Elizabeth May had to say:

Murray Dobbin: What has to happen to ensure that the Conservatives do not get a majority in the next election?

Elizabeth May: The solutions lie in some fundamental changes because we are a multi-party society in a two-party voting system. We either have to move to a system of proportional representation or we have to change our attitude towards minority governments and decide we are going to make them work. I still feel that the aborted coalition was a very hopeful thing even to just have had it floated on the political stage. I regret Ignatieff’s decision not to follow through with what had been set out as a workable modus operandi between the Liberals and the NDP to avoid Stephen Harper continuing his government.

In the next election I draw hope in believing that we can shake the 42 per cent of Canadians who chose not to vote in the last election to get engaged and that would change the whole picture. For those who deliberately chose not to vote it had a lot to do with voter disgust and the behaviour and political culture. We have to convince a good chunk of those who chose not to vote that not voting does not punish the people that you find despicable.

MD: Do you think Harper has deliberately set out to discourage people from voting?

EM: Absolutely. People thought that Harper had become more popular between the 2006 and 2008 elections but not so: 170,000 fewer people voted for a Conservative candidate in 2008 than in 2006. His larger seat count is a tribute to his ability to discourage people from voting. The 700,000 fewer people voting for the Liberals did so on the basis of attack ads. None of what the attack ads do is to make people like the Conservatives more — it’s a question of framing, first Stephane Dion and now Michael Ignatieff in the worst possible terms based on the most sophisticated marketing genius of the Karl Rove variety.

All of these things add up. The next best option to proportional representation is to figure out how to — through whatever mobilization, viral, citizen grassroots campaign — to say not only am I going to vote, I am going to make sure that I talk to my friends and neighbours who I don’t usually talk to about politics and make sure they vote — not how they’re going to vote just that they vote.

MD: You once told me that very few environmental organizations really understand political power and only a handful ever even lobby a cabinet minister or politician. Has that changed at all in terms of the role they need to play and could play if they are going to change things?

EM: I have a terrible feeling of a weakening of resolve in the movement though I am not involved much any more as I am doing my environmental advocacy in a different way now. And for good reasons they don’t share things with me for fear of being partisan.

But the environmental movement is changing a lot because there’s the establishment groups which have big infrastructure and tend to be vested in saying that something (like Copenhagen) is a success even if it’s not. But what’s new is the strength of the youth climate movement which doesn’t have that same problem and the 350.org movement which is almost entirely viral and they’re not going to fall for safe targets and not-good-enough positions.

There’s a grassroots movement happening without the benefit of a famous leader or a common manifesto.

MD: One of the persistent features of progressive Canadian politics is the huge divide between party politics and extra-parliamentary politics. It’s almost unique to Canada that movement groups are so rigidly non-partisan when it comes to elections. How do we deal with that?

EM: Well, one of the things that has to happen is that the Revenue Canada rules around charitable status have to change. Look at the David Suzuki Foundation for instance. David is acknowledged as one of the top 10 Canadians. He made a very strong comment about Harper on the CBC’s George Strombolopoulos show. Now his organization as a result of that is having its charitable tax status threatened. He cannot possibly support the Green Party.

But the fact is that you don’t have to tell people how to vote — you just have to tell people to get out and vote. The call is — “Hey people, look at the numbers. Do you think that all those people who stayed at home in 2008 would have voted for Harper if they’d gotten off their duff to vote?”

MD: I wanted to get back to the idea of the coalition. Harper basically forced Ignatieff into a corner last spring and got him to say unequivocally that he would not consider a coalition government with the NDP. Is Ignatieff really unalterably opposed to the idea?

EM: It all depends on what his caucus tells him he should do. He did not follow advice to him in his leader’s office. I thought it was a collective decision not to go with the coalition but apparently it was Ignatieff personally who rejected it. He’s made it very difficult to now support a coalition.

MD: The Green Party has been accused of splitting the vote and helping Stephen Harper become prime minister. And before you became Green leader you took the position that the party should not be trying to elect members but should be pushing the other parties on environmental issues. You changed your position and are now running candidates in every riding.

EM: That’s not me. To make it clear the leader of the Greens doesn’t determine the strategy for election campaigns and I don’t have any particular personal allegiance to the idea that we should run a candidate in every riding across the country. I can tell you that the people in the party who make the decisions have a very strong allegiance to that idea. My own view is that the Greens’ primary goal is not gain power — though it is important to have seats in the House of Commons. But I don’t think that the measure of our value in political terms is measured by whether we could ever form government.

MD: You have often said that the GP is neither left nor right but in examining your detailed policies I would to say that since I last examined them in 2007, the Green Party is much more consistently on the left — for example labour policies, international affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the call for a Tobin tax, abrogating NAFTA, social policy, health care, justice issues. Doesn’t this shift to the left put you more in direct competition with the NDP for votes?

EM: In a multi-party system every party splits the vote. Where we have the capacity to get Conservative votes is that we say and mean it that we are fiscally responsible — that we have a better plan to get ourselves out of deficit and it won’t be on the back of workers and small business. Instead of increasing CPP and EI premiums like Flaherty is planning, we would be cutting those. We would also be introducing income splitting which in terms of tax fairness resonates with a lot of people who see themselves as Progressive Conservatives. We would not tax anyone who is making under $20,000 a year and let’s really get on with the agenda of the guaranteed livable income — which is not just a left-wing idea.

MD: I want to explore the persistent controversy around the idea of co-operating with the NDP. It is pretty well established that Jack Layton and the NDP have simply refused to talk to you. Ironically that makes it much easier for you to occupy the moral high ground without actually having to publicly offer anything substantive. So would the Green Party be prepared to leave some ridings uncontested to assist the NDP if the NDP were willing to reciprocate — details aside?

EM: Given that we did so in the leadership courtesy agreement in 2008 with Dion, and did not run a Green against Independent Bill Casey, we have shown a willingness to consider such efforts. I would take any proposal for cooperation to the party council, but, as you point out, first we have to have something to talk about.

MD: In the 2006 election well over half the Green candidates were chosen by party headquarters. How many Green candidates for the next election will actually be chosen by riding associations?

EM: Our political director thinks it will likely be fewer than 70 appointed, but she stresses that our “appointments” are really more “acclamations” as they generally come from a local area, but without an established Electoral District Association. For many reasons, we try to keep the candidate search local and, only very rarely, have what we call a “right to vote Green” candidate (otherwise called a “paper candidate.”)

In the 2006 and 2008 elections there was no strategy that said getting the leader elected was more important than getting any one of a group of 10 or 20 other candidates elected. But in the fall of 2008 and into the spring of 2009 the party decided to ask me to be prepared to move with the idea being we have to put our strongest candidate, which turned out to me as leader, into a riding where the voters are most willing to be somewhat mobile in their allegiance. And that was Saanich-Gulf Islands.

MD: There have been rumours that the party is really struggling financially — will you have the resources to run a national campaign given that your priority is to win your seat? Or will your resources be focused on your strongest ridings?

EM: We, like the other opposition parties, have debt from the 2008 campaign. In the last year, we have paid off more than $1.4 million and have a little less than a million to be repaid. We are trying to accelerate that debt repayment in order to be ready for the next election. We have every intention of running a strong national campaign, focus on winning in Saanich-Gulf Islands, and help in a number of targeted ridings across Canada.

MD: You have said you entered politics because you wanted to help get rid of Stephen Harper. So if someone who shared that goal — who desperately wanted to see Stephen Harper defeated — and they asked you why should I vote Green, what would you say?

EM: If people feel when they go to the polls why should I vote for you, you’re not gong to be government, then my choices are only voting for Harper or voting for Ignatieff. The pressure to vote strategically just reduces voter turn out. If you feel sick when you leave the polling booth you are less likely to come back the next time and vote the right way — or to vote for anyone the next time.

If we ask why should you vote Green, in a system where we are manifestly unhappy with the results and the results are too many elections, too close together, just to get one minority government over another. If that’s the way you feel, and you like our policies and you like the direction we would take the discussion within this country then you ought to vote for what you want.

MD: I wanted to touch on a few of your policies, taken from “Vision Green” — which would have been your election platform had the election been called in the fall. When I look at your tax policies I think they really do fall short in terms of paying for the other things you say you want to do. The country today is short $100 billion a year in revenue due to huge tax cuts by the Liberals and Conservatives — not counting the ones still scheduled. In multiple places in your policy document you talk about a “revenue neutral green tax shift.” That might have worked before these massive cuts took place but the horse has left the barn — a huge chunk of the money is gone. Are you prepared to roll back some of those cuts which benefitted the wealthy and corporations disproportionately.

EM: In our updated platform documents in terms of how do we get out of the current deficit situation and not increase taxes on EI and CPP or on individuals the only way to do that is through cancelling the upcoming, scheduled corporate tax breaks — we don’t have to roll back the existing corporate tax cuts in order to deliver on this.

MD: When you say you would lower taxes “on individuals” that includes everyone, including very high income earners. We used to have 10 tax brackets — taxing the last dollar earned by many wealthy people at over 80 per cent. Would you consider returning to a more multi-tiered personal income tax system — which is still the fairest of all taxes?

EM: I wouldn’t say “no” at all. We are always debating — within our shadow cabinet — whether we’ve got it right on exactly how the carbon tax is applied, on top of that how the cap and trade will work. We may not have it exactly right yet. We are always willing to take ideas from elsewhere because we want to have the fairest possible highest level of social justice and lowest gap between the wealthy and the poor.

MD: I wanted to talk about your party’s economic policy partly because of the financial crisis but also because so much rests on what kind of economy we build. Your Vision Green document states: “The central driving principle of Green Economic Policy is maximizing efficiency.” That really surprised me because it is such a core principle in the neo-liberal approach to the economy. Knowing you as I do, I wonder why the party does not have as its guiding economic principle equity and justice?

EM: The language that makes sense to Greens in that sentence comes from the assessment of consumer society as inherently wasteful and wasteful of human lives and the human spirit and community. It’s not a neo-liberal statement.

MD: Why wouldn’t you then say our central driving principle is equity and justice because that captures much more than just energy efficiency?

EM: In writing about creating a green economy we get preoccupied with that but in terms of the guiding global green principles we are committed to all of them: social justice, respect for human rights, grassroots democracy, seeking a culture of peace and non-violence and environmental sustainability — those are all green principles that imbue the entire range of our policies

MD: In looking at your detailed economic policy it seems pretty conventional given that you are the party which stakes out the ground on the environment, climate change and the depletion of the earth’s resources. There is a new economic movement developing in Europe characterized by the notion of “prosperity without growth.” Is there any place in the party for this concept — developed explicitly to respond to the economic and climate crises?

EM: We’re looking at as much as possible localizing access to venture capital, localizing the economy, support for the family farm, local food support for local industry and that comes through in a couple of different strands of economic policy. One is a commitment that we assure municipalities have a committed sources of funds because we know of all revenue collected by governments only eight per cent goes to municipalities. There are also green transit initiatives. There’s the idea that we should be directing RRSP investments to municipal bonds.

MD: I wanted to explore the whole question of how we protect the environment or more broadly how we control the behaviour of corporations in the public interest. I am struck by a lack of reference in the policy document to really strong regulation — and by that I mean enhanced inspection and really punitive fines for violations. Why not, for example, have a forensic accountant determine how much money a corporation saved by breaking the law and fine them 50 times that amount?

EM: We want regulation and we want market mechanisms. Where you have regulation is to make sure you have a bottom line where no one falls below it. I am convinced that a company that wants to exceed all expectations will move faster and will innovate the technological solutions that others can grab.

It’s never all about regulation but it certainly isn’t about the “invisible green hand of the marketplace and that’s all you need.” That is not sensible. On the ground in Germany the Greens brought in major regulatory instruments to make sure that renewables would take off in Germany. They used a combination of regulations and market mechanisms. The Swedish Greens did the same.

We need to make it very clear that we are not afraid as a society, that when a corporate entity so egregiously violates its social contract with us that this unnatural (corporate) life is terminated. We have to shift the relationship between society and economy so that the economy’s purpose is supporting healthy communities.

MD: Lastly, there is almost no prospect of the current configuration of political parties agreeing to implement proportional representation. By your own assessment the media and other political parties seem content to essentially ignore you without a seat in the House. You are accustomed to having major influence on the environmental debate, so if you do not win your seat in the next election will you be content to continue in your present situation — sidelined in the struggle for the environment?

EM: I have learned my lesson in politics and no longer answer hypothetical questions! I do plan on winning the seat. And I would have been entirely sidelined as ED of Sierra Club of Canada. As long as Stephen Harper is prime minister, work within the environmental movement is totally sidelined. I think I can do more good in this scenario as leader of the Greens.

Alex Samur

Alex Samur

Alexandra Samur was rabble.ca’s managing editor from 2010 to 2012, books and blogs editor from 2007 to 2012. Alex’s career in independent media spans more than a decade and includes stints...


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was rabble.ca's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...