Tall Poppy Interview: Elizabeth May, Green Party of Canada Leader
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Tall Poppy Interview: Elizabeth May, Green Party of Canada Leader

2006_09_26_emay2.jpgThe 2006 Federal election was disappointing for the Green Party of Canada. What many felt would be a break-through election for the Greens saw them garner only 4.5% of the vote, a bare increase from 4.3% in the 2004 contest. Pundits placed the blame on a number of things, from strategic voting to exclusion from the televised leaders debates, but the big question was: where would the Greens go from here?
Elizabeth May knows. The long time environmental activist and executive director of the Sierra Club was elected new leader of the Green Party at the Convention held in Ottawa last month, and she’s got big plans. Torontoist caught up with her to find out what they are.


Torontoist: The Green Party didn’t really improve their showing much in the 2006 election. How do you think that you can do better next time?
EM: We are going to do way better next time. The most obvious answer [for why the Greens didn’t do well] is that we were once again excluded from the Federal Leadership debates. That sends a pretty obvious message to the voters, that this isn’t a serious party, because if they were really a serious party, they’d be in the debates. And I’m absolutely convinced I’ll be in the debates next time. For one thing, the media consortium that makes the decision is not following a rulebook of any kind, they’re not following a set of statutes based on Elections Canada laws. They make a decision based on some criteria, and also based on ratings and watchability. There are three criteria that I’ve heard of – one, that you’re a truly national party, which the Green Party is, but the Bloc Quebecois is not. And the Bloc is in the debates, which the Green Party is not, so obviously it’s a sliding criterion. The second is that you have seats in the House of Commons, which the Green Party does not yet, but the Bloc does. But the third criteria, where I believe I can tip the balance, to not have argue my way into the debates complain, or threaten, or cajole, or run a public campaign to get into the debates, is “are you a force in Canadian political life between elections, are you present?” And that’s where we really weren’t. But my commitment is that the Federal election campaign starts now.
T: So where do you think all these votes are going to come from? In the last election, some people blamed the Greens for Harpers’ victory by taking votes from the NDP.
According to a recent poll, around 1/3 of Canadians would vote the Green Party as their first or second choice, and the biggest chunk of Canadians who would have us as their second choice are conservatives. People think that we’re targeting, as they put it, the NDP, and … not really. If you look at where a party has disappeared on the political spectrum, it’s the Progressive Conservatives, many of them aren’t happy. I’ve had people in the Conservative party who’ve ripped up their Conservative membership cards and joined the Green Party to help my campaign.
Despite some of the more recent kind of lefty online columns suggesting that I’m a right wing person, it’s not a matter of (Conservatives) liking me because I represent something right wing. They like the Green Party because they’re completely disenchanted with where Harper has taken the Conservatives, and they can’t vote Liberal or NDP. So they’re going to come to us.
T: But still, there’s a lot of similarities between views of the Greens and the NDP when it comes to things like the environment and social justice. What would you say the difference is?
EM: It’s huge. Any of those left-right labels are really anachronisms and come from a different time. So in terms of the model of left and right, we have the idea of who controls economic production. But the assumption of unlimited growth – that’s implicit whether you’re looking at a socialist model, or a capitalist model. The goal is unlimited growth, and the only question is who’s controlling it. The understanding of Greens is that unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, as David Suzuki says, and what we need to have is sustainable development, living within ecological limits, nurturing communities, using economic activity to improve quality of life, but not destroying the biosphere.
The other big difference between the Green Party and all political parties is that our vision and our goals are by definition long term. Other political parties are responding to what I consider phony issues of the day, some of them quite trivial. Where you can have an entire campaign over a fairly run of the mill, garden variety scandal, that, while significant, is not earth-shaking, The sponsorship scandal doesn’t threaten my daughters future. And it was able to eclipse the real threat to our kids’ future because it had all those qualities that elected politicians jump for – a short term, salacious, scandal, money, it had those elements of being tawdry. Fiscally? A hiccup. Ethically, pretty embarrassing, but not something that the entire future of the country should hang on – what we thought of what the Quebec Liberals did with sponsorship funds. To me that’s a non-issue, compared to the climate crisis, compared to Canada’s place in the world and whether we shift from being peacekeepers to being an adjunct to US military misadventures.
Fundamental questions were never addressed to Stephen Harper, because it’s easy in politics to play the game of short term trivia, and much harder to say, “ok folks, this is a democracy, we have some hard work ahead, because the real threat to our security is that we’re destabilizing our life support system”. So the differentiating factor for Greens is that we think long-term. We’re keeping our eye on the ball, which is planet Earth. Without a functioning, healthy, life support system, nothing else we talk about really matters. Obviously the GP talks about more than survival, and we have a full range of positions and policies on all the issues that other parties talk about. But our footing, our grounding, is to first take care of fixing the drift of our society towards a suicidal course, fix that, realign your economic signals to ecological results, fix the fiscal system so that the incentives towards appropriate behaviour become part of the economic rationality of decision making. We’re always explaining that we’re not right and we’re not left, because people like to put political parties in their convenient boxes with all their ideological bag baggage. And we don’t have any of that baggage; we’re a completely different animal!
T: The Green Party seems to be getting a lot more press since you came into the picture. Why do you think that is?
It’s hard for me to say. The level of press coverage has a lot to do with the fact that the mainstream, the parliamentary press gallery, took me seriously because they know me. When I announced I was running for leader, in the first 2 weeks after I announced, I already had more press than the collective press of 5 of the Liberal contenders who announced in that period. Part of that is excitement on the part of the media that, for one thing, and I hate to say this as if it’s a matter of being better than other candidates, it’s not that. But being a woman added another element. Being a woman who gives good sound bites, they come and talk to me and ask me questions.
So part of the press coverage is about the fact that the national press already knew me, and gave a lot of coverage to the fact that I’d won, and to our convention. So I began a good get for local media too.
What I want to give the Green Party , what I promised to give the party, was a higher profile.
T: So you think media coverage is important?
When the Green Party is in the media a lot, that carries with it “you are successful”. The other thing, though, and why I really want media attention for the Green Party is that we have a message to communicate, and our downfall in the past has been the short span of the Canadian election cycle. We simply don’t have time between when the writ is dropped Nov 28 and people go to the polls Jan 23 to tell all the following: who we are, what we stand for, why our policies make sense, and why people should vote for us. Of the four key points, we’ve got to get 3 of them out of the way before the election – who we are, what we stand for, and why our policies make sense. The fourth, we can convince them after the writ drops, why they wanna vote for us. But you can’t do all four in eight weeks, it’s just impossible.
T: A criticism of the Green Party has been that you don’t have very detailed policies in your platform.
The goals are there, but we simply haven’t got the capacity for the nuts and bolts of every policy area that one could imagine. And so I really want to have much more detailed policies about what the Green Party feels about crime and punishment, much more detailed polices about how we eliminate poverty in Canada, and more detailed policies around health care. It is good to point out that health care is disease care and yes, we need to focus on prevention, but we also need to point out what we’re going to do to reduce wait times and to protect the universality of Canadian health care. So there’s some areas, many, many of them, that we can in the party persuade the public that we are a party of ideas, content driven, that’s innovative in finding solutions. You’ve heard of the Green Party, well this is green plus; whatever you thought about the Green Party before, there’s more.
I’m a policy wonk, I’ve been deep, deep, deep, into policy for decades.
T: Recently Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff came out in favour of a carbon tax, which is something the Greens have been talking about for a long time. How do you feel about that?
EM: I’m happy if people steal our ideas. I’m not going to say “they’re awful; they just took our carbon tax idea. I’m going to say “thank God”, because the issues that Greens care about are far too urgent for some long-term game plan for Green power. We’re about the Green shift, and if we can get the societal shift to happen before we form a majority government, I don’t think any Green Party member is going to complain. So that’s another thing that distinguishes us from other parties, because they play their short term partisan games and forget all about the fact that depending on the party, one hopes they had larger goals than a couple more seats.
It’s much more important to change societal behavior than to win seats. And I hope I don’t frighten you by clarity, but we absolutely must shift how we live on the planet as a species. So the Green Party’s constantly in there taking the day to day trivia of news coverage of political life and clarifying it in the framework of “does this advance our chances of survival or not?”
There’s a craving, much more of society than other political parties understand, a craving for the truth, a craving for a party that tells people what’s really going on and provides solutions. It’s so powerful that I think we can avoid those worst case scenarios – for example, with the CO2 increase where we hit the tipping point, and lose the Gulf Stream, and lose the West Antarctic glaciers, and see 40 foot walls of water hitting all the coastal cities. Those scenarios aren’t empty threats, but they’re not predictions, and they’re not inevitable, and we can avert them.
T: Young people seem to be a natural constituency for the Green Party, and yet they tend to have a very low turnout during elections. How will you engage them?
EM: One of the reasons that young people don’t vote is that if they aren’t voting Green, they’re entirely disillusioned with the whole process. I mean, you look at the same four guys in suits, standing there, mouthing the same platitudes at every meeting, every debate, not engaging with each other on anything that actually matters, not talking about climate change or Kyoto at all, not talking about global issues, or trade deals or inequities in our system, basically choosing their message based on their party’s polling and focus groups and pre-ordained scripts. Well of course these people are feeling disillusioned, and the disillusioned don’t vote. You have to have a sense of empowerment to vote.
And so one of the most exciting things at the convention was the creation of a specific youth caucus called Generation Green, which will not only bring thousands of new members to the Green Party, but will bring voters into the system, it will change the dynamic of elections. And they’ll be creating their own blogs, their own space, their own webpage.
In the sense of previous Green Party decision making, there was the sense that because so many candidates were under 25, so many key players were young, there was no need to ghettoize in a special youth organization. But the message that you send to people in high school or university who aren’t already part of the Green Party and don’t already know that you’ve got a lot of young candidates, is not a good one. So I couldn’t be more thrilled. Youth was one of my key priorities.
I think they will vote, when they’ve got something worth voting for. It’s generation Green – this is our demographic.
T: What do you think of the current relationship between Toronto and the Federal government?
EM: To give credit where credit is due, the new deal for cities is pretty brilliant for Green thinking. They tied the federal gas tax money to the idea that it couldn’t go to the cities unless the goals were sustainable. Now we probably would have defined sustainable differently, but it’s substantial progress.
Things have obviously gone very, very badly since Mr. Harper became Prime Minister. The idea of money for cities is there, but the idea of sustainability is gone. Now the money can go to highways, it can go for anything. On top of that of course, there’s no predictability. We need the sustainability and certainty of knowing you don’t have a 3 year program you have a ten year program, because if you’re going to be investing in major infrastructure to improve mass transit and intermodal connectivity within your cities, you don’t want the uncertainty of knowing your program may only last 3 years.
Clearly the current relationship between the federal government and the cities is not good. Prime Minister Harper is the first prime minister in the history of the country who doesn’t like the role of government. It’s a very fundamental thing. So if the federal government can make life better for the cities – eh, he doesn’t care. The federal government shouldn’t be interfering in provincial jurisdiction, and that gives him the perfect out, he doesn’t want to be there. But that’s not what’s really driving it. What’s really driving it is that the federal government should be limited to such a remarkable degree that it can’t do anything in the lives of anybody, and it certainly isn’t there to reach Kyoto targets. The one thing it may be there for is the military budget and taxation to support the military. So you look at the current relationship and think, boy, this needs fixing.
Now it still needed fixing when the Liberals were in power, and one of the key things that is wrong with the relationship between the three levels of government is that there is a profound disconnect between the policies at the different levels, and there’s a lot of turf protection. And what people want to see is that everyone is pulling in the same direction. So policy alignment is important.
So when you look what’s the problem with relationship between the cities and the federal government, part of it is the ideological problem with Stephen Harper as prime minister. But part of it is an institutional, systemic, long-term problem that’s best summed up by saying everybody’s scared of change. Except the Green Party. And that’s why we’re going to rock politics. We have nothing to lose, everything to gain, and even if we have something to lose, as long as I’m leader, I’m never going to trim our sails, or hedge on the full complete statement of the world as we see it because there’s some fragment of some vote somewhere that we could alienate. The public’s going to smell that a mile away, and I just never will do it. For democracy to work you need at least one party to say, we will speak the truth all the time, even though we don’t know the truth and we’re all searching for the truth, and we can get very philosophical about it , the reality is we should at say what we understand to be the truth.
T: What about gun violence?
EM: I’m against it. I know some people like it, but I’m against it.
T: (makes drum roll and cymbal sound) Seriously.
EM: Seriously? Now that we have the long gun registry is all set, it’s crazy just to get rid of it because it costs too much. Even the police associations want it.
But the more that we restrict access to handguns, long guns, the better. The biggest, most lucrative sector in the world is the arms trade, and it’s also world’s biggest polluter. But this amoral trade in weapons happens all the time, trading to one side, selling to the other. I see an extension of gun violence and the need to have gun control, is that we need to have arms control on a global basis, conventional as well as nuclear, chemical and biological.
T: OK, but what would you say about here and now in Toronto? We can’t pass a law and the get the US to stop selling cluster bombs.
EM: Because we are a truly a global party, in 90 countries, we are raising the issue consistently and clearly of militarism and why…. Put your money where your mouth is. And our platform is good on this, talking about the 26% increase in military spending globally from 1996 to 2006. You don’t get peace by accident, and you especially don’t get peace when the profit is in war. So we really have to name it and have to take it on. So inner city violence, and gun violence need to be addressed with programs to keep young people engaged. I mean, it’s not as simple as every kid should get access to a basketball court. On the other hand every kid should have access to a basketball court, and after school programs that make sense, and programs to engage youth in important community activities.
And every child should feel valued, every child should know they’re the center of the universe for their family, their village, however it’s seen. The commoditization of everything, giving the child a message that they’re basically a meaningless speck in somebody else’s consumer society, the alienation that comes from single serving meals and walking with your Walkman on through the fluorescent lit mall, has to be counteracted really forcefully by one thing, and that’s love. You can’t legislate love, but you can nurture – again back to Jane Jacobs – family, you can nurture community, or you can decide your number one goal in planning the community is the car. We can stop planning our communities around the car and start planning them around the child. And this may sound naïve, but that’s the essence of preventing violence later, is a valued, loved, empowered human being from crawling across the carpet towards a family that loves him to graduating from university. And that is an investment, if you want to put it in economic terms, some people who are really cynical want to reduce everything to an economic equation.
T: So what’s next?
EM: This is going to be really exciting. Tell people on the blog to join the Green Party now, because we are going to have a great ride. We are going to have the most amazing fun in the next cycle before the election, and during the election. We’re picking up steam, and we’re just going to take Canada by storm, and it’s going to be an extremely empowering fun experience. Canada is totally ready for passionate, well reasoned, well researched, principled positions from a party that is going to make a difference. The fun of that is in being part of it. It’s a really good idea to join now.
Remember, you heard it here first. For the latest Green policy release, see here.

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