Meet the Players
In 1980, a newcomer to the game of politics set out to challenge the powerful, to force those in government to take notice of matters relating to the environment. In the election of that year, Elizabeth May ran for Parliament in the riding of Cape Breton Highlands – Canso.
She earned 272 votes, and it would be 26 years before she would again seek office.
In the meantime, Ms. May – a writer, lawyer and activist – held numerous positions within the environmental movement. She was a founder of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund, held the position of Associate General Council for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and was the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She was even a Senior Policy Advisor in the Mulroney government.
In 2006, she again became an active politician, securing the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. That fall, she ran in the by-election in London North Centre, finishing second with 26% of the vote. Next, she took on Peter MacKay, a senior cabinet minister, in the 2008 election. Again she was the runner-up, this time garnering 32% of the vote.
Come the next federal election, Ms. May will be the Green Party candidate in Saanich-Gulf Islands. Being both friendly and tenacious, Ms. May has the political chops to be a threat to Gary Lunn, Minister of State (Sport) in the current Harper government.
Jonathan McLeod (JM): I would just like to congratulate you on the nomination in Saanich-Gulf Islands.
Elizabeth May (EM): Thank you, although it was really not in doubt. It was only because of the strong support I had in this area that we made the decision as a party that I should move here. I’m a strong believer in living in any community in which you are running for office, other than a bi-election, of course. To make the decision to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands I’d already moved, was living here, so it was something of a surprise that a Green Party member who doesn’t live in the area would decide he wanted to contest the nomination. But you know, fair enough, it does demonstrate that the Greens are very grassroots and that there is no top down decision making, even in the case of the leader’s riding.
JM: Well that’s fantastic. And it is great that you are actually going to be a representative there rather than just a carpet-bagger.
EM: Exactly, and it’s a very exciting move for me. You’re younger, but try to imagine being a 55 year old single woman whose daughter has just gone off to university. It’s kind of a good plan to move to a new place. It’s very encouraging.
JM: Alright, so to begin with my questions: why did you, and why should anyone select the Green Party? Would your talents not be better used within a larger, more established party with similar philosophical underpinnings, like the NDP or the Liberal party?
EM: Well if those other parties had similar philosophical underpinnings, that would be possible. My life in what you might call politics – small-p politics – has been one where I’ve been asked numerous times, because of being well known in the environmental movement. I’ve been flattered to be asked numerous times by various NDP leaders, by the liberal party and even by the Progressive Conservatives, in their day, to be a candidate federally for parliament and often offered something that was supposed to be a safe riding or as a “star candidate”. They’re very good at dazzling you with these types of offers, and whenever it came right down to it, as much as I could see my way clear to working with and liking lots of people in those parties -working with and finding acceptable some of their policies – when it really came down to it, I couldn’t accept these really nice offers for an easy route to Parliament.
So, if I wanted an easy route to Parliament, I wouldn’t have decided that the right thing to do was run for leadership of the Green Party of Canada. What I’ve been desperately concerned about, and more as I’ve gotten older, is to watch the deterioration of civility in Parliament; the abandonment of principles at a moments notice by all the parties in Ottawa right now, with the weird exception, I must say, of the Bloc Quebecois, which has stuck to its guns on climate as an issue in ways that the other parties haven’t. But of what relevance is that when you’re a party that wants to see Quebec sovereign and doesn’t care about the rest of the country? So it’s a very strange political climate right now, and my conclusion at the end of the 2005/2006 election was that none of the existing parties could be relied upon to raise issues consistently.
And injecting respectful discourse and ideas whose time had come – ideas with the power of history behind them – that was not going to come unless there was a new kind of politics and a different voice. So that’s why. I actually think that your question is also flattering, that I have talents and skills that might be used anywhere. The truth of the matter is if I were elected in any of the other parties, I would be squashed by the top down political partisanship system that requires of members of parliament to do what the leader tells you to do. And that would be a situation in which I would be entirely unhappy and likely would resign the first time it happened. So I think I’m better staying with a party whose philosophy I completely embrace and where, as leader, I know that when I have a caucus in the House of Commons, I won’t be squashing anyone – just as we didn’t squash Mr. Hertzog’s attempt to run against me for the nomination. We respect people who come forward and have a view, even if it’s not the official party view. If we have a vote in the House of Commons and we have a caucus of Greens and a member says ‘look my constituents, the people who sent me here, simply will not tolerate it if I vote the party line on this.’ Well, that’s something you have to respect because that’s how democracy should work; that’s how the parliamentary system should work. So I think I would be utterly miserable in any other party.
JM: Well that’s a good reason not to join them. I’ve found dealing with a lot of these politically involved people that they are getting tired of the partisanship.
EM: Yes, it’s gotten to the level that it actually is corrosive to the functioning of democracy and to the health of government. So, our constitution calls for Peace, Order and Good Government, and we’ve got… well thank goodness we’ve got some peace, but we’re also apparently at war in Afghanistan; and we have order but it’s of a stultifying Nixon-era like order; and we have absolutely putrid government, so this is not good and something needs to fix this. And I think that the presence of Greens in the house will be a tonic to the whole system and to other MPs who feel the way I do, who would like to say, ‘yes let’s form a non-partisan caucus on climate; let’s form a non-partisan caucus to address issues of poverty or what we do about immigration – how we should respond to refugees on our shores.’ These are issues that really matter, and there are bright engaged committed people in all the other parties, but they can’t break out of this partisan straightjacket which really is the enemy of democracy. We have to face it and reduce the power of organized political parties, because five of them can run rough shod during an election, but once their MPs have formed government, that political party structure should back off and let MPs work together to come up with the best possible solutions.
JM: Now moving on to the political game, if you will, I read that in 1980 you ran for the Small Party.
EM: Yes, I started it. It is worth noting that I started it not because I want credit, but I paid dearly for it, because it was the days before internet and to find twelve candidates to run in six provinces, we tried to get a candidate in every province… anyway, to make a long story short, at the end of the campaign, I had this horrific telephone bill for long distance calls which prompted me to sell my car to pay my phone bill. Which made a very good decision in changing my life and I didn’t end up owning a car between 1980 and 2007, so that was a good outcome of starting the small party.
JM: But in the race you were against Allan MacEachen who was a very decorated politician.
EM: Yes, he was Deputy Prime Minister at the time.
JM: And I think he held other cabinet posts throughout his career. It must have been a real learning experience.
EM: Well it was great. One of the things that was a surprise for me was – and I really admired Allan MacEachen for lots of reasons: the fact that the agenda for decent social programs in those days; he made a real difference in terms of pensions, and unemployment insurance schemes, and all kinds of things that improved, the health care system, which came in during the era of his time in parliament – there was a lot to admire about him, but he didn’t have any notion that environment mattered, and the Trudeau government was busy building up the nuclear enterprise in Canada, and we wanted to make sure those were issues. So the big surprise for me was that there were no all candidates meetings. There wasn’t a single all candidates meeting. So I never did get to debate him on any issues, and he wouldn’t go into any communities in the riding unless they’d raised a minimum amount of money for the liberal party. But where I did know that I affected him was that I spoke in a lot of schools, and high school teachers would tell me that when McEachen would come, if all the questions were on environment and nuclear, he’d say to them, somewhat testily, ‘was Elizabeth here already?’ It was the only time he got any hard questions.
But we’ve remained friends over the years. And I didn’t expect to win; the point was to raise issues and change the tenor of the election campaign.
JM: Speaking of important issues, and poverty being a big one these days, going through the Green Party’s web site, I noticed that your party supports going towards a Guaranteed Annual Income.
JM: Now some of our readers might be interested to know that this is a position that was also supported by the noted University of Chicago economist, Milton Friedman.
EM: Was it?
JM: Yes, he supported doing it more through a progressive income tax system, but he supported some sort of Guaranteed Annual Income.
EM: Well, I don’t think that Milton Friedman’s approach looks anything like ours. The person we quote in our policy document is Martin Luther King. Milton Friedman’s approach is so antithetical to Green Party values that even if he supported what we wanted and were alive to say so, I would reject his support. A more relevant example is Senator Hugh Segal, who is a Conservative, but comes from the last – well I don’t think he’s part of Harper’s circle – part of that caucus who actually represents something of a Red Tory. But his view and my view aren’t that far different, and the party did a lot of policy research on it. We actually called it a Guaranteed Liveable Income, because it’s very important that the amount people receive is actually something on which you could live, but which would impel you to want to live better so that you could actually earn more money on top of your Guaranteed Liveable Income cheque; there wouldn’t be a clawback. We could eliminate all of the shame-based poverty programs, whether we’re talking about disability payments, welfare or EI… or even minimal pension programs – all could be replaced with this one simple plan, administered through the tax system. There are a lot of savings to be accrued through it, but I’d have to go back and look to see what Milton Friedman’s approach was, because, given his vision of an economy, this can’t be the same program.
JM: It is often surprising where viewpoints overlap for people at different points on the political spectrum, and why it is worthwhile not to just get caught up in your own partisan circle. That being said, if you were to form the government next time, what three people outside of the Green Party would you seek for guidance?
EM: Can I just say, first of all that I’m not delusional, and that we’re not going to form government at the end of the next election. Where we will be useful, immediately at the end of the next election because I will be a member of parliament and I hope other Greens will be there with me, is that we can advance ideas and advance a co-operative approach to solutions immediately. I see the Greens in a political evolution as being about where Tommy Douglas was at the point that Canada embraced universal health care. He didn’t wait to become Prime Minister to bring about an idea that was critically needed and for which all Canadians are deeply grateful.
That said, what three people outside of the party would I consult regularly? That is a very interesting question. Peter Victor comes to mind, because I think his most recent book – he’s a professor of economics in Toronto – Steady State Economy by Disaster or Design is an extremely useful guide to how one could re-invent an economy in such a way that it both was more resilient and not as prone to bubbles that burst as the wildly speculative financial markets that got us into the current recession. So I think Peter Victor would be someone. I do consult him now, as it is.
Another person I consult now actually is Jim McNeil. You may not know his name but Jim McNeill is one of Canada’s leading international diplomats. He is retired. He worked with Tommy Douglas, actually. He worked with the Saskatchewan government, and was one of the national figures in the CCF in his day. He then went to Ottawa and became a deputy minister. He then led a number of U.N. summits, including the Habitat Conference in Vancouver, and then went to the OECD and ended up being the Secretary-General to the Commission on Environment and Development. Jim McNeil is actually the author of the Brundtland Report: Our Common Future. I find on almost every issue that we end up discussing together, he has the most clear eyed, realistic assessment of where we are on the planet and what needs to be done. And he doesn’t get fooled by political rhetoric, so he’s been a really important political advisor for me.
And the third person, if that covers economy and sustainability, I think Gro Harlem Brundtland, actually. I’d like to talk to another woman who’s been Prime Minister, who brought in a carbon tax, who made it work, who was head of the World Health Organization so could advise me on health issues, and who I know will answer my call. So that would be it. If I could get advice from the former Prime Minister of Norway and from Jim McNeil and from Peter Victor, I’d be getting really good advice.
JM: That’d be a pretty strong team to have helping you out. Do you have a couple more minutes for what we call our lightning round?
EM: Oh sure.
JM: BlackBerry or iPhone?
EM: Blackberry. Canadian technology, please.
JM: Facebook or Myspace? Or Twitter?
EM: Facebook, and Twitter, I do both.
JM: Mac of PC?
EM: Oh, here’s the ideological rift. I’m a PC person and I try not to fight with my Mac friends.
JM: Less filling or tastes great?
EM: Tastes great.
JM: Favourite band?
EM: It’s still The Beatles.
JM: The Great One or Sid the Kid?
EM: Sid the Kid, I mean I’m from Nova Scotia.
JM: But you’re out west now…
EM: Yeah, but I’m not in Edmonton, so I don’t have to abandon Sidney Crosbey.
JM: But you might have to go with Roberto Luongo, now.
EM: I really like Steve Nash. Different sport, but way impressive, and impressive politically.
JM: Really, I’m not actually aware of his political views.
EM: Well he wore an anti-Iraq War t-shirt in a workout with his team, I think in Houston TX, a few years back. And I thought, “now I’m proud; I’m proud of that young Canadian lad.” I don’t know anything about him except that he’s the Most Valuable Player. I think you’re the Most Valuable Player when you’re willing to put yourself out in any way out there like that in Texas. I can’t remember what the slogan was, but it was pretty explicit and he wore it in front of media at a workout in Texas.
And he’s from Victoria.
JM: Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory or Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Social Forces or do you care either way?
EM: I don’t believe in either. It’s not The Great Man theory and it’s not social forces. It’s a combination of both and it’s a large dose of serendipity. Often it’s people who aren’t the so-called Great Man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I think the fact that both of those theories come from men might explain the fact that they missed the effects of networks, serendipity.
I’m more in the school of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory, that is a bit of both. I’m much more of that school of thought of what makes change.
JM: Who is the real Captain Canada: Steve Yzerman or David Suzuki?
EM: David Suzuki
JM: Who’s the greatest Canadian?
EM: Tommy Douglas.
JM: And who’s the greatest Prime Minister?
EM: Tommy Douglas, though we never had him. I’m going to go with Sir John A. Macdonald, for what he did, for what he pulled off. He came from a coalition. It was the great coalition and to pull together a country and make all the regional divisions work and to have the vision of a national train – which we need again; we need high speed rail coast to coast. The mediocrity of recent leadership; the failure to see any bold vision for the country makes me kind of nostalgic for Sir John A. Macdonald.
That, and that he was a leader who ran in Victoria for a seat when he couldn’t win at home.
JM: Well, yes, that’s definitely a good thing.
Meet the Players: Interviews with Political Strategists and Candidates