Elizabeth May goes to Ottawa

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Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May at 2011 Toronto Pride. Photo: BarrieGreens/Flickr

In the May 2nd election Elizabeth May became the first Green Party member to be elected to the House of Commons. Murray Dobbin interviewed her for rabble.ca about her experience so far as an MP and how her presence in the House of Commons will change things for the party she leads. The principal interview was conducted before the death of NDP leader Jack Layton and rabble.ca revisited Ms. May in order to ask her a couple of questions reflecting on his passing.

Murray Dobbin: Congratulations, has it sunk in yet or do you feel like an old hand already?

Elizabeth May: I felt like an old hand before I got there because I've had a lot of experience on Parliament Hill. The thing that there's no getting used to is the false majority for Harper.

On election night I was more crushed than happy, although certainly at the victory rally my volunteers expected a happy candidate. It was amazing that Saanich got by and it was a really great result, but overall I was just absolutely devastated. But I remain convinced that we have to figure out a way not to lose four years on all our most important issues.

MD: Describe your most compelling experiences in the House so far.

EM: There are multiple. Not to be unkind to other members of parliament, but I can think of one experience... it's really important to try to break down partisanship and try to make friends across party lines, at least to earn people's respect across party lines because we're going to have to find ways to move forward.  

One take away from the first three weeks of parliament, I think I spoke about, I don't know, about two dozen times, is that I do have opportunities to make a difference. The biggest shock for me in the beginning [...] I didn't know we had elected a Conservative-socialist coalition because almost everything was being done by unanimous consent. That was something I hadn't quite absorbed.

I thought I would be a member of an opposition and the leader of an opposition party in parliament. I thought, well you know, I'll be voting with the opposition party on most everything. The government wanted to put the Libya motion through with one day of debate, to limit the debate to one day. They were seeking unanimous consent and they had the consent of the NDP and the Liberals. I didn't think I would ever be the only one voting no on Libya.

The next striking thing was in terms of a strategy on Canada Post. I don't understand, and I don't want to be unfair, because I'm not privy to the NDP strategy, but if somebody who was part of the filibuster and wanted to stop the backdoor legislation of Bill C-6, I didn't understand, since we could all see that this was going to be coming, why the official opposition didn't hold off on some of the unanimous consent motions to have some chips to negotiate a better deal on Canada Post.

Because by the time we got to Canada Post, suddenly there was an opposition. What was the strategy there? Why was there no opposition to anything for the first umteen days, then holding the line on something when there were no chips left to negotiate?

MD: Now that you're in the House, because you don't have 12 seats you don't get extra funding for researchers so your resources are limited. What sort of initiatives would you like to take?

EM: It turns out that while members of parliament should never spend government resources on partisan activities, it's not the case that an MP is limited to the budget they get from the government in order to do government work. So I'm hoping to recruit -- and I'm happy to have rabble.ca readers know this -- interns who will have access to Parliament Hill, to work with me so that we track all key parliamentary committees.

And frankly, I do have resources on research because the Library of Parliament does research for MPs. Plus I have other resources of the Green Party. So, we're looking at trying to track at least the 12 most important committees as we identify them. I'm not allowed by right to be a member of any committees, but I can sit at the table at any committee meeting. I can't vote on that committee, but I am entitled as a right to table amendments to any legislation at the report stage.

MD: So you can speak but not vote?

EM: I can't even speak without the permission of the Chair. They wanted unanimous consent on the mega-trials bill in the first weeks of Parliament and there's a lot wrong with that bill, and I insisted that there be hearings and there be the potential at least of amendments. That was a shock for me that the NDP and Conservative members of that committee would not allow me to ask questions or speak and they refused to consider amendments. Even when amendments were recommended by the Canadian Bar Association. They pushed that through clause by clause that I think lasted all of 10 minutes to review the mega-trials bill.

So I want to put up a good fight against the omnibus crime bill, that's a first priority because we know it's coming up soon in the fall. So we've been consulting with the Elizabeth Frye Society, John Howard Society, we know the reality of the current situation is that Harper has the votes in the House and Harper has the votes in the Senate. But I think it's important to provide deeper discussion and analysis, focus the issue wherever possible so the public sees what's happening. If possible, change the minds of Conservative backbenchers and get them to vote in a different way.

If the dynamic within the Conservative caucus shifts at all, and most of the time that people talk about the Conservative Party caucus they think in terms of Stephen Harper keeping duct tape over the mouths of the MPs. But equally, there are people who are thoughtful and if any of those people begin to feel surely we should begin to at least have some open discussion and debate in caucus, out of public view, that could also change the dynamic of the next four years.

MD: I wanted to shift a bit because Harper has always been completely hostile to government funding of political parties, the $2 per vote subsidy.

EM: Well, yes, but he's never been hostile to the tax rebates that their party gets. Sixty per cent of all the attack ads that Canadians hated -- 60 per cent of them were paid for by tax dollars.

MD: But it does have implications for the Green Party and I've talked to you before about this. It seemed pretty obvious that the reason the Green Party ran in every riding (when if almost no members in half the ridings) was because of the per-vote subsidy. With that strategic motivation is now gone, will the party still run in 308 ridings?

EM: You're quite right. Previous Green Party leader Jim Harris, and I fully credit him for building the kind of party that could allow me to be leader and actually win a seat... I mean the building of the Party from coast to coast was really Jim Harris' creation because he saw the potential of the electoral campaign reform, campaign financial reform of Jean Chretien.

As an individual, I think we've got to figure out greater cooperation and the fact that there's not a per-vote support in each riding means that we should consider where we're running. I've got to say that that's me, by myself, one person that thinks that. It will be a long discussion between now and the next election in our campaign committee. And it's far too soon to say what it will mean in terms of the strategy of running one candidate in every riding across Canada.

What it means to us financially, of course, is that it is challenging. Had we ended this election without me winning the seat of Saanich-Gulf Island, I think that the Party would be in a very difficult situation. I think the quite orchestrated decision to keep me out of the leaders' debate and also kind of air brushes me out the media coverage of the campaign, resulted in a quite significant drop in our votes. But we are in better shape now, even losing the per vote subsidy by having won a seat, than keeping the per vote subsidy and not winning a seat. People get tired of voting for a party that can't win a seat in the House of Commons. We've been doing pretty well on fundraising, we have raised about a million dollars a year from donations,

MD: So, like any party, no leader is popular with everyone in the party, and you've had some of that experience. Do you think that winning your seat gives a boost for party unity?

EM: We'd had a bunch more media attention on a handful of people. I don't want to be disrespectful towards them, they have their views, but it was really interesting for me. We had a leadership review last summer, and it was up to membership to decide. The grand total out of 9,000 plus members who had the opportunity to vote, there were 113 who thought it would be good to move to a leadership race.

MD: Now you mentioned that the Green Party is different than other parties in terms of following the will of the membership. And certainly, if you look at party conventions of other parties, the party caucuses and the leader seem not to feel bound by anything passed at a party convention. There must be some policies in the Green Party that you wouldn't necessarily agree with.

EM: I don't know that ... Other than moving to an elected senate, my personal view was right up until C-311 when we saw an unelected senate kill the Climate Accountability Act, I had not been someone who was against the function of sober second thought in the senate. But really, there's no Green Party policy that I am uncomfortable with.

MD: I just wanted to get a sense of, now that you're in the House, and that strategy of getting you elected has been successful, what is your strategy now for building the party?  

EM: Well, I remember the first time you interviewed me about the Green Party when I wasn't a member. And you made the assumption that the Greens were like the NDP, built on a movement, that the environmental movement saw the Green Party as its party. Which hasn't been the case and still isn't the case. I think the movement of Greens is much broader than environmental NGO backing.

What I'm finding is that people are writing the Greens and writing our website and writing me messages that they're excited to hear someone speak who seems not to be scripted. My number one goal in the next however long we have until an election is to conduct myself in parliament in a way that makes Canadians who have been turned off politics, find access through me to feel "Gee, I'm kind of interested in what that woman's doing."

So, if I treat the next four years of my time as an MP as a teachable set of moments in which I invite a lot of Canadians who have not been particularly political in their lives before to get involved, I think that's how we build a party. If we would have had 75 per cent voter turnout, we would not have the government we have. Politics itself is feeding cynicism and skepticism from the public so that even people who used to care about politics just can't take it any more.

MD: Well, in the U.S. it's called voter suppression. It's a deliberate.

EM: The Conservative views and tactics are voter suppression, no question about it. We've been the victims of tactics like attack ads that are voter suppression. And being the victims of voter suppression without knowing it leaves people to think that they are making a personal choice. They're deciding not to vote as a way of protesting. And they've actually just rewarded the most cynical, skeptical, and manipulative politics we have ever seen. By choosing ... they did not choose not to vote, they were manipulated not to vote.

MD: So take me four years forward to the next election and you're still Green Party. What do you think Canadian politics will look like and what do you hope it to look like? It could be the same, I suppose.

EM: I think anybody who makes predictions is bound to be wrong because politics is so unpredictable. And I don't think I know much about what the future holds in politics in Canada. The only thing I cling to is how do we engage Canadians so that in the next election more people vote because we know if more people vote, particularly if the youth vote, we will have a different outcome.

On the climate crisis we don't have the four years it takes to replace the Harper government. So I have to find some way to try, and I know it's not going to happen by running at them with bills that they refuse to pass. It only is going to happen if we can, in the way that the asbestos issue is giving me some little glimmer of hope, that some of their MPs may begin to judge issues on their own and start differing from the party line and start taking that forward in caucus.

MD: This government is contemptuous of science in general, and in particular, it is contemptuous of climate science. You mentioned earlier that the environmental movement does not see the Green Party as its party. How do you see forces aligning to accomplish exactly what you are talking about?

EM: I think it's clearest that Stephen Harper is ideologically wedded to opposing any action on the climate crisis and completely committed to the expansion of the tar sands. If you were looking at one operating goal that envelops every decision that they make, it would be that. So, where is there any hope at all? It comes in trying to breakdown the power of the leader over his whole caucus. If I could convince even a substantial chunk of that caucus of what climate science really looks like right now, they could shift.

The horrible reality of a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate is that the great opportunities we had when it was a minority government are gone. We didn't need an election. Members of Parliament have the right as members, as a House, to expel an individual member. Instead of bringing down the Harper government in March, they could have expelled Stephen Harper as an individual member of parliament for contempt. We then would have had the auditor general's support in April, that told us about using funds earmarked for border infrastructure grants to reduce congestion at the border for $50 million worth of beautification in Tony Clements' riding. I mean the scale of what was possible just a few months ago versus the cards we're dealt with now is agonizingly painful.

But we have the cards we're dealt with now and I'm quite a pragmatist. I've got to hope that the fact that a lot of those members of parliament on the Conservative backbenches, and even in the cabinet, they're not bad people. They've got kids and grandkids, if they could be reached at a level that propels them to take a stand, even behind closed doors, even in that caucus.

MD: Is there a role for social movements in there as well?

EM: Absolutely. When I met with the Climate Action Network, they had a climate gathering for members of parliament and each of the parties was allowed to say a few words and I was very candid, particularly considering there were Conservative MPs in the room, and I said to my former colleagues in the movement -- don't leave any stone unturned here. Don't make a single assumption about any Conservative. So who knows whether I've had some dent on Peter Kent so far, but I've sat down next to him and said "Do you mind if I explain runaway global warming?"

MD: Would he say no?

EM: Well, I at least have a nice personal relationship where I can sit down and talk and he doesn't seem to bristle, and he could tell me to get lost, I'm busy now. He could say that. I'm at least, I hope, in a position to make the case to him of why Canada's position should change. Now, we all know that this has been the most top-down, controlled-by-one-person government in the history of the country. I don't want to exaggerate the little glimmers of hope I get from the fact that a number of Conservative members of parliament don't agree with the asbestos position.

So I think we should not, as a movement, whether the environmental movement or social justice movements in Canada, assume that you can write off every single Conservative MP and not try to educate. We may be wasting our breath, but we don't know.

MD: So, you've talked a bit about the Conservatives, do you think that the Liberals can recover from what seems to be a really devastating election?

EM: I think it is far too soon to tell. Certainly, Bob Rae is an experienced hand. I've got to say, sitting in Parliament, it's refreshing to see that he has liberated Stephan Dion. Dion was in parliament all that time under Mike Ignatieff and I don't think he ever said anything in Question Period. Whether they can rebuild, I have no idea.

I talk to Bob Rae a lot. I am so impressed with all the new NDP members of parliament. Very kind, conscientious and of course, very bright. That Ève Péclet, people better keep their eyes on her, she's very bright. She just finished her law degree, and she was off to graduate school at Harvard and her education was interrupted by becoming an MP. But she's got passion, she's articulate. I shouldn't pick one more than the others. Their caucus is great, but the leadership of the NDP, you know, the gatekeeper people, have been a bit elbows out about we're the official opposition now, little tiny things, like is there room for the Green Party leader to have a seat in the opposition lobby?

The lobby is kind of a long, narrow living room where opposition members gather. They said no, no seat for you. You know, no chair. Fortunately for me, it's awkward, but the Liberals made room for me to have a chair, but I'm stuck in their section. So, it's kind of awkward because I'd like to spend more time having the same kind of access to the NDP.

MD: Jack Layton's sudden passing has had a huge impact not only on the NDP but on Canadians and perhaps even Canadian politics. What was your reaction and what do you think is the political significance of the outpouring of sadness and admiration for Jack Layton?

EM: My reaction was a complex swirl of emotions -- having known Jack since the mid-1990s, having been a huge fan, and then friends -- but a friendship which then faltered. We had differences in 2005 over climate policy when I was still at the Sierra Club. Our relationship after that had moments that approached the friendship we once had.

There was one memorable moment after the unpleasant episode of Jack and Stephen Harper objecting to me being in the 2008 leaders debate. When the debate was over, he stopped and we had a long hug and he said "You did a really great job." That meant the world to me and I hoped we could continue as friends. What I hate about politics is that we didn't. But for all the differences, I never stopped caring about him. I loved talking to him about his baby granddaughter. I knew the quickest way to bring a smile to his face was to ask to look at the most recent picture of Beatrice on his iPhone.

The political meaning of the outpouring of grief and love for Jack is a question that speaks to something larger than the loss of one man. I experienced it as an inspiring manifestation of a deep and widespread desire for something better in our lives. It was a palpable expression of Canadians' wish for something wholly different from the Harper agenda, for a politics of hope. The significance will lie in our collective ability to keep that dream and spirit for a better world alive.

MD: You tried in the past to talk to Jack Layton about co-operating to defeat the Harper Conservatives without much success. Now with Jack's passing there is even talk about a merger between the Liberals and NDP. Do you think there is now more space opening for co-operation between the position parties to defeat Harper?

EM: I remain committed to collaborative politics. We must find ways to talk across party lines. Before the next election, we need to engage in cross-party conversations -- NDP, Liberals and Greens. Perhaps nothing can come of it. I do not have the authority in my party to make any arrangements with any party without an extensive engagement of our grassroots. But, perhaps we can find ways to work on issues.

To get to proportional representation. To find some way, despite Harper's false majority, to get to meaningful climate action. If there is no hope to talk across party lines, we have to go back and read Jack's letter again. Didn't it at least mean that we should try?

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column.

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