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Losing Confidence In Elizabeth May

By Stuart Hertzog
August 2nd, 2009

Losing Confidence by Elizabeth May

Losing Confidence
power, politics and the crisis in Canadian democracy

By Elizabeth May
McClelland & Stewart 2009
ISBN 978-0-7710-5760-1 (paper)

280 pages $21.00

Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has written an interesting but ultimately politically disappointing book on the precarious and dysfunctional state of Canada’s parliamentary democracy.

Losing Confidence could be a useful lay-person’s guide to the undemocratic political games played in and around Canada’s parliament. But May provides no practical suggestions as to how this mess can be cleaned up and a genuine democracy established. She knows the rules, but fails to grapple with the nature of the game.

Despite her disappointing lack of political analysis, this is undoubtedly Elizabeth May’s best book to date. Writing in a clear, well-researched, and readable style, May lays out just how far we are from having a genuine and functional democracy in Canada. Like Dorothy in Oz, she pulls aside the curtain to reveal the rottenness behind this country’s devious, pompous, outdated, and viciously fractious political system.

Increasingly powerful PMO

The first and possibly most useful chapter of Losing Confidence traces historically how the UK’s Westminster system of parliamentary democracy evolved into today’s political system, first by reigning in the power of the King, and then by raising the power of the people.

But a shift has taken place in all Westminster-style governments. Starting in Canada in 1968 with Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister’s Offices (PMOs) have progressively taken over powers previously held in the Privy Council. Successive prime ministers and their immediate circles of advisors have clawed back all power from cabinet ministers and even the top ranks of the civil service, to become the country’s Sun King.

As a result, the notion of ministerial responsibility has been cast aside. MPs have been reduced to mere background hecklers in an increasingly-rancorous Question Period, while the independence of the civil service has been replaced by subservience to their political masters.

Other chapters of the book deal with the Americanisation of Canadian politics; free speech and the concentration of media; political interference by the RCMP; the decline in political participation; lobbyists and the political influence of money; proportional representation; and coalition governments. May backs up her views with well-researched references.

Plenty of insight but no solutions

Losing Confidence should be required reading for anyone with even flicker of a thought of running for office to become an MP—especially for those naïve Canadian Greens who think that getting even one Green Party MP elected will clear up the mess on Parliament Hill. Unfortunately, that includes May herself, soon to take her third run at getting elected.

Although she lays out clearly exactly what’s wrong with Canada’s parliamentary system, May’s thinking falls short in three vital aspects. First, her strategy for returning order to parliament is simplistic and ineffective; and second, while pointing her finger at elected politicians of other parties, she fails to realise that the same democratic deficit she describes in parliament, exists inside her own political party.

Finally, does Elizabeth May and the federal council of the Green Party of Canada really believe that getting one or two Green MPs elected to a dysfunctional parliament in a far from democratic political system, will fundamentally alter the nature of Canadian politics? If they do, they are collectively dreaming in technicolour. Saving the Earth from the worst aspects of self-centred humanity will require bringing about an eco-centric and not an ego-centric, global culture.

Standing up by sitting down

Just how deficient May’s thinking departs from realpolitik is revealed by her secret weapon for restoring order in parliament’s question period. Should she be elected, she will—wait for it!—sit down. In a recent interview with Island Tides, a BC Gulf Islands newspaper, May explained her strategy:

“My approach would be to have zero-tolerance for heckling. So, when it’s my turn to ask a question, if any MPs are yelling or interrupting, I plan to sit down. The Speaker of the House will probably realize that I am having trouble with the amount of noise round me and he’ll stand up and call for order. If he doesn’t I’ll miss my chance to ask a question. If I miss a couple of times, the media is bound to notice that I am practising something called zero-tolerance for heckling.”

Brilliant! Why didn’t anyone think of that before? More likely, she would be subject to the same ridicule that has become the norm in question period, as she herself so clearly describes in her book. May would be laughed out of the House and pilloried by the media. Reinventing democracy and restoring value and dignity to Canada’s parliament will require much more fundamental tactics.

Just another political party

Green politics was supposed to be different. Instead of the centralised control by the party leader and his or her inner circle, Green parties were set up to offer a grassroots alternative to mainstream politics. But from the start, Canadian Green parties timidly adopted the same top-down, hierarchical structure as the existing conventional political parties.

As a result, apart from an early attempt at consensual decision-making, Canada’s Green parties have morphed into pale green imitations of the mainstream parties. They have drifted away from their grassroots green democratic ideology, making them easy takeover targets for disaffected Liberals, displaced populist Reform conservatives, and Red Tories.

May fits this pale green conservative pattern. By nature a political conservative, in 1986 she worked as an environmental lawyer for Tom McMillan, Brian Mulroney’s Environment minister. Her endorsement of Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale’s “greenest budget ever” in 2005 and her 2006 declaration of Brian Mulroney as “Canada’s greenest prime minister,” undermined her reputation as a purely grassroots environmentalist.

Her attempt to anoint disgraced Liberal MP Blair Wilson as Canada’s first Green MP in 2008 confirmed May as an operator who knows how to play the system. She’s not a reformer—and that’s the weakness of her book. It’s easy enough to point to what’s wrong, but to change a political system that is destroying the Earth takes more than saying: “Just elect me, and everything will be OK.”

Bioregional democratic structure

The fact that Elizabeth May is a political conservative and that some of her reformist tactics fall short of the mark, is not the main problem. I actually believe that May is an intelligent person who unfortunately is listening to the wrong advisors. There is no reason why conservatives should not be in the Green Party, as long as they can learn about and adopt green political values.

Unfortunately, green political philosophy is not being taught, discussed, or even practised in Canada’s Green parties. The talk is only of policy, as if by finding the right words sufficient people can be persuaded to vote Green. But policy without a strong philosophic foundation is simply empty rhetoric—isn’t that what is turning people away from joining political parties and even from voting?

I believe it comes down to structure. Canadian Green parties must turn away from ‘top-down’ politics and reinvent themselves along bioregional lines. The hierarchy of power must be flattened and decision-making returned to the local regions. Bioregionalism makes for strong, self-sufficient, local economies—truly sustainable economies—that link to and protect environment and ecosystems.

I spoke to May about this recently, when she North Saanich in preparation for her moving here to run in Saanich North and the Islands in the next election. She did seem to understand the concept of bioregionalism, but her parachuting into this riding by decision of the federal Green council and her lack of response to my offer to discuss the idea of restructuring, do not fill me with hope.

Canadians may be losing confidence in their parliament, but unless she shows some backbone and tackles the democratic deficit of her own Green Party, many more disappointed greens are going to lose confidence in Elizabeth May.


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5 Responses

  1. John Ogilvie Says:

    I have worked with Elizabeth on GPC federal council. I am sure she considers me her most public opponent.

    Your article is perceptive. For a politician, criticism of the status quo is just the first step. The next step is proposing sensible, voter-comprehensible changes.

    Elizabeth – coming out of decades at the Sierra Club – is good at the criticism part. But she has never had the chance to develop the political skill to build broad support for an alternative vision.

    So she is looking for shortcuts and quick fixes: “Make me leader and the world changes.” “Put me in the debates and the world changes.” “Elect me in Central Nova and the world changes.” Etc.

  2. Ian Whyte Says:

    I approach politics from a Left Biocentric perspective.

    Many who hold this perspective (that the Earth, Her ecology and Her needs are of paramount importance, and that human needs, social justice and otherwise, must be molded to fit within the requirements of this first priority) believe that there is no point in engaging in electoral politics, as that arena is incapable of creating or adopting any worthwhile change in he area that matters most; ensureing that Gaia thrives, and will continue to be able to support all Her species, including humankind.

    Unfortunately, really, this review more or less confirms this viewpoint. For a couple of decades I’ve worked within the Green Parties in Canada, only to despair as they’ve compromised value after value in the name of not rocking the boat, of not telling it like it is, of ignoring all the pressing vital problems for fear of alienating some portion of the electorate, all for the stated purpose of getting someone elected. Someone who, if elected will have no mandate for anything. Greens are emasculating themselves

    It’s too bad that May’s book did not acknowledge, and that she refuses to see, this undercurrent in Green politics; it’s there, for those who will observe.

  3. John Hague Says:

    Elizabeth May has something no other Federal political party leader has and this is “TRUST”.

    The first task in problem solving, as it is in conflict resolution, is to correctly identify the problem.

    In this case, I trust Elizabeth to get it right with regard to identifying the problem, and she has done that in her book. The next step is “COMMUNICATION”, that is, feedback whether it be criticism or praise. A dialogue on the relevant issues is essential fuel for citizen activism and without grass roots awareness and motivation to change, nothing will change.

    One example of “communication” is the political blog. And mine is at: http://greenparty.ca/blog/14696 Please visit and consider the ideas presented and debated there.

    Prior to any commitment to action we must “UNDERSTAND” the needs, values and non-negotiables involved with the essential players that must be addressed within any viable solution. We need to “talk this out” before policy is created.

    Finally, and this is where political parties have the key role to play, we need well crafted policy and goals, objectives and plans and the will to advocate solutions in the face of a distorted democracy and concentration of power unlike anything Canadians have ever seen in our history.

    This is one small step in a long and arduous journey to restore democratic governance to Canada.

  4. michael Says:

    John you sound like a cult zombie with your simplistic jingoism-ish buzz words “trust” “communication”…well buddy how about a little trust and communication and present your wonderful ideas here instead of pushing us to go to a no doubt May-inspired bit of political-blog theatre over at an “official” Green site – the anti-thesis of grass roots, local leadership versus Queen May and her royal me me me ethos.

  5. John Hague Says:

    Interestingly, the “Trust, Communicate, Understand, Resolve” framework is something this group has difficulty with. You might recognize it as “Attention, Interest, Desire, Action”. Both of these and many more variants of this have been around since civilized man could be recognized as such.

    If anything is the antithesis of Green it is the careless, thoughtless and mean mindedness that characterizes this group’s stated attitude. Heaven help us if your version of green should ever prevail.

    Why not help us build on the theme “Nature, People and Business, in Harmony”? We simply cannot get there from where this group is coming from.

    It is sad, by the way, that our justice system is being abused by bogus complaints. Dont be surprised if the Judge throws the whole thing out right at the start. And dont be surprised if the Court orders costs against the party who is wasting its time. However, this does highlight a weakness in our interpretation of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in that it is not explicit enough in its prime purpose of achieving equitable balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the commons. Perhaps your case will result in a helpful interpretation and improvement in our application of the Charter.

    Some good may yet come out of this discord.

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