The economy, deficit cutting, democratic reform, and more with Elizabeth May

By Angus Gillespie

Founded in 1983, the Green Party of Canada came into existence with a targeted political platform designed to reflect core values relating to ecological well being, social justice, grassroots democracy and a non-violent society. It’s a platform that was steadfastly embraced by the initial core group of members who believed that certain aspects of society weren’t properly being addressed by the three main political parties in Canada, namely the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party.

While the Green Party had lukewarm success in attracting new members during the early formative years of the 1980s, it has garnered far more pronounced attention and popularity since the time Elizabeth May took over as national leader from Jim Harris in 2006, who himself managed to maintain a stable membership base before handing off the torch.

Born in in Hartford, Conn. in 1954, May and her family moved to Nova Scotia when she was 18. Having lived in Canada her entire adult life, she became a Canadian citizen in 1978 at the age of 24 and obtained a Law degree from Dalhousie University in 1983. In May, 2011, she became the first elected Green Party Member of Parliament in Canada, defeating incumbent Conservative MP and cabinet minister, Gary Lunn.

The Canadian Business Journal recently conducted an exclusive interview with Elizabeth May where it quickly became apparent she and the Green Party are aggressively asserting themselves as standing for much more than the single aspect of the environment. There’s by no means an attempt to distance themselves from environmental issues, but rather a desire to have Canadians recognize them as a well-rounded political party with much more breadth of knowledge and expertise in key areas necessary to lead a country, or at least for now, having the opportunity to have a valued voice in how the country is being run by the elected government. Gone are the days when the Green Party merely wanted to create awareness of certain political issues. The growing belief is that they now have the grassroots support to make a far bigger difference in how the country is being run, as evidenced by having seats in the House.

Gaining National Traction

In the second quarter of 2014, financial reports released by Elections Canada revealed that the Green Party raised more than $531,000. That figure represents a colossal 67% increase over the same period in 2013. Conversely, both the Liberals and Conservatives watched their revenues decline relative to the same period in 2013. Between elections a party and its candidates have two ways of determining success with the voters. One is through polling, which can often be less than accurate, but the second is fundraising, which tends to provide a far more accurate barometer of resonating with the public.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” May begins our discussion. “Before I got involved in partisan politics I would never have imaged that fundraising would be considered a sign of how you’re doing overall. But you can take it to the bank – it is reliable.”

May believes the Party as a whole is doing far better in reaching out to the broader community than it had been in earlier years. But now there is an additional fundraising challenge with the removal of the per-vote subsidy. The positive is that the number of new people who never previously gave financial donations to the Green Party has been gaining momentum over the past couple of years.

“I think it’s a pretty clear indication that support for The Green Party is growing,” May asserts.

As proof the Party is deserving of respect and moving closer to mainstream consciousness, it received almost one million votes in the 2008 federal election. Added to that, a recent poll indicated that 31% of the people surveyed said they would consider voting Green in next year’s federal election. So what would it take to actually get the vote, and not just consider it?

“First and foremost people need to know we’re not a one-issue party and not a one-person party,” May firmly states.

There are currently two Green MPs in the House of Commons (May and Bruce Hyer) but May feels that the limited media coverage the Party receives is still far too focused on her as an individual. While that is definitively the case in many instances, May has risen to the position of leader for good reason. In 2012 she was named Parliamentarian of the Year in Ottawa and for two years in a row she has been voted Canada’s Hardest-Working MP in the annual Hill Times Politically Savvy Survey. May also placed third in the Best Constituency MP and Best Public Speaker categories in this year’s survey. Despite those personal accolades touting her accomplishments she realizes that to grow the Party, vastly more attention must be focused on up and coming political talent surrounding her.

“We have great candidates and strength across the country,” she adds. “I think the issue that the Greens kind of own right now – and is the reason people should look at us to be their representative in Parliament – is the democracy issue. We are not a top-down party and will never whip votes and that’s why Bruce Hyer is a Green Party Member of Parliament now. He wanted to be sure he was joining a party that would allow him to work first and foremost for his constituents.”

May’s obligation as head of the Green Party is to provide leadership from coast to coast but she too always keeps protective watch over her own local constituency of Saanich-Gulf Islands on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The riding has a population of just less than 120,000 and a median age of 48, making it the riding with the highest median age in Canada.

“Day to day what’s on my mind and what governs how I work is the constituents of Saanich- Gulf Islands,” May responds. “Our approach as Greens is to restore healthy democracy. Respect for Parliamentary institutions is core to what I’ve been trying to do in the House of Commons.”

Of grave concern to May is what she calls the level of toxicity and hyper partisanship within the House. With a bigger voice the hope is to attract more Canadians who have become tired and quite frankly jaded by how politics are played in Canada.

“I want Canadians to think, if that Green Party member were my MP I would have a Member of Parliament who was working for me and not just taking orders for how to vote, what to say and when to say it from a bunch of backroom spin-doctors,” May says.

A major hurdle the Green Party still must clear is getting the message out to the general public that they stand for much more than just the environment. Acquiring face time and discussion with the leaders of the other three main parties is something the Green Party has had to continue to kick and scratch for – sometimes successfully – sometimes not. Being left out of leadership debates is something May wants desperately to see rectified. In 2011, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all decided it was only appropriate that recognized parties in the House of Commons be represented. There were even threats to boycott the televised debates if May were allowed to be part of it. But that was 2011. In 2014, May holds a seat and so it’s expected she will be permitted to be part of the debates next year, although it’s by no means a certainty at this point. Network television isn’t going to hold a debate if either the Conservatives and/or the Liberals threaten to boycott.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be in the next leaders’ debate,” May replies. “In the 2008 leaders’ debate I was the only one who said we were in a recession. We were in a global economic meltdown and somehow everybody else in the other parties wanted to pretend we were not in a recession.”

After the bitter disappointment of being excluded from the leadership debates in 2011, May brought up an excellent point in asking why the separatist Bloc Québécois — which only fields candidates in Quebec — was included, but her party, with candidates in ridings across the country, was shut out. As noted, it’s still not clear if May will be part of the 2015 leaders’ debates. She knows there will be continued opposition to the idea of her participating.

“My goal again will be to try and improve for Canadians the quality of the information that they can glean from that kind of exchange.”

Providing better government for citizens is something all educated voters would love to see. To stop political gamesmanship while trying to score points off one another and instead working together for the better good of the nation would certainly be a welcome change of pace; finding solutions that are healthy for our economy and in turn will improve our standard of living. It’s something we don’t see very often.

“I think we stand to make significant gains in the next election,” May predicts. “Not that we’re going to form a majority government, but I do believe that we can elect enough Green MPs to be a balance of power in the next Parliament.”

Economic Stability

Reaching further in-depth on the topic of the economy, May feels that Canada came through the 2008 economic downturn much better than other western nations due to a strong banking system that was equipped with tight rules and regulations that were forced upon the banking industry by the federal government.

“The changes to make us more stable – thank goodness Paul Martin, when he was Finance Minister, rejected demands from the banks for deregulation. That kept Canadian banks much, much safer and away from the speculative global transactions around derivatives and trading and shoddy paper being hidden in the packages. I don’t know how a firm like Goldman Sachs ended up being willing to cheat its own clients by giving them advice that was bad advice and that Goldman Sachs would make money if their clients listened to them. I mean it’s a level of fraud that is unbelievable from a company that used to be respected; and yet nobody’s gone to jail and there are no changes in the rules of global derivatives trading since 2008.”

May doesn’t believe it’s a matter Canada needing to put in more safeguards against another possible economic downturn, but concurs with the philosophy espoused by some of other G8 leaders who opine it’s time for transaction taxes on the banks and time to make sure they and large corporations maintain funds so that they’ll have their own cash reserves in a time of a global economic meltdown. In other words, bailouts should not be the responsibility of federal governments but rather the individual companies themselves.

“It’s time for the companies that create the problems to have to maintain funds so that they can bail themselves out,” May bluntly states. “We used to have the IMF set currency rates but since that stopped it’s opened the door to speculation around currencies. The Green Party favours bringing in the notion that the late Nobel Prize winning economist James Tobin suggested a minute tax on currency transaction in the order of 0.5%.

The idea behind such a mandate is that it would not affect currency transactions that were for legitimate purposes but for the kind of speculative transactions when billions of dollars are moved around with benefit of the markets going up and down.

“Taking reasonable measures to ensure that the availability of speculative transactions that do not create value for anyone, but essentially gambling globally, creating big bubbles which have the risk of very big bursts is something that we ought to be paying attention to.”

The Canadian government opposed the idea of a bank transaction tax when it was being suggested by Germany. It’s another area where May and the Green Party differ from Stephen Harper and the federal government.

“I think we ought to be looking at anything we can do to make our global economy bulletproof against the kind of thing that happened in 2008 – we haven’t done that yet.”
Within our own territorial boundaries, May also believes it’s critical to be closely examining our employment practices and determine just how it came to be that Canada is so dependent on temporary foreign workers when there is persistent unemployment, especially amongst our youth.

“Fourteen per cent unemployment among young Canadians is not acceptable and yet we (Canada) decided there are skills shortages and we tried to find the empirical evidence for the skills shortage by region. I think we need to actually spend some time figuring out how we move to an economy that is capable of employing more Canadians before bringing in temporary foreign workers and we also need to make sure that we create the conditions where companies, particularly small and medium-size enterprises, can succeed.”

A noteworthy productivity gap exists between the U.S. and Canadian economies. Manufacturing is much better at investing in research and development than many other industries, such as raw bitumen, for example. May would like to see an economy-wide analysis on how best to address the productivity gap and encourage more R&D and ensure we have more value chains from more successful and more profitable Canadian companies.

“Public policy has an important role in that, as does the taxation regime, but so does private capital,” May remarks. “When you talk to someone like Jim Balsillie he’ll say the experience he had at BlackBerry tore up him. Canadian corporations that try to succeed globally are very, very vulnerable because we haven’t done enough to improve our IP regime, so we need Intellectual Property protection for Canadian companies as they scale up and become multi-billion dollar companies.”

A concern for May, and much of the general population including business enterprise, is whether or not enough has been done to prevent such potential catastrophic economic events from being repeated again in the future.

“If we don’t fix the rules for the global casino capitalism, the global casino is still operating. I find it mind boggling as we are still rebuilding from the 2008 global financial collapse that steps haven’t been taken to prevent it from happening again.”

Deficit-Cutting Plan

There are a number of risks associated with increasing federal government debt levels. As the economy grows and unemployment is elevated, there is risk that a budget deficit will be too small. When the private sector is unable to grow the economy at the desired rate on its own, government spending can step in and make up for the shortfall, although it increases the deficit and debt, so in other words there is always a price to pay.

It was not that long ago when the Green Party tabled its own comprehensive deficit cutting plan. Allocation of additional spending to stimulate the economy is most often viewed as a necessary response from government, especially in the aftermath of a recessionary period. But prudent fiscal responsibility is a balance that must be maintained.
“We believe very strongly in balanced budgets,” May begins. “Now we do understand that in situations like the global financial collapse we needed stimulus spending and going into deficit was the only way to do it because were already in deficit. Had Stephen Harper not cut the GST – and that may be very popular – and cut a number of tax areas, particularly corporate tax rates and at the same time was spending more. This is how you create a structural deficit.”

There are certain times when it’s known that spending will go on the rise, and the run-up to elections is a prime example of it, with political parties offering up their ideas on how to best tackle the economic challenges facing the nation.

“By the 2015 budget I think we can expect to see more traditional pre-election binge spending,” May says. “A huge priority for us is municipal infrastructure. A crumbling infrastructure is basically just taking the deficit off the books of the Canadian general revenues and moving it to physical infrastructure. If physical infrastructure is crumbing, you’ve still got a deficit and it’s quite critical.”

Regarding healthcare spending, May is of the belief that keeping it sustainable is the primary objective. The Green Party brought forth a national pharma-care plan because the biggest source of increased costs in our healthcare system is increased pricing in pharmaceutical drugs. Bulk buying would decrease the prices and be provided to the provinces at a considerably lower amount than they currently are paying. According to May, it’s about meeting the priorities Canadians want, and that includes retaining a close watch on environmental issues.

“Canadians want a healthy economy, secure long-term healthcare and a sustainable environment,” May offers. “We also have to be sure not to be creating such a significantly eroded environment that our kids don’t have a future and it’s essential we have a meaningful energy strategy. We (Canada) don’t have an energy plan that looks at the whole country and we don’t have a climate plan. If we do those things right, they are also an economic stimulus.”

Doing more with cleantech and ensuring Canada is prepared for the transition is an area the Green Party is most noticeably positioning itself towards. When carbon prices start adjusting around the world, May says it will be crucial that Canada be ready with the necessary technologies while encouraging those innovative companies. A concern is that many companies are moving to other countries where they can commercialize renewable and cleantech technologies.

Carbon Footprint

Where economics hits a crossroads with the environment there is no doubt a constantly growing number of Canadians who are becoming increasingly interested in wanting to see our society become less reliant on the traditional fossil fuels and move towards renewable energy methodologies. While great strides have been made in the advancement of green technologies there still remains many more years of research and development. It needs to be unveiled with a comprehensive and sensible strategy. It simply cannot happen overnight.

“The important thing is to have a plan,” May states. “We’ve had governments in the past pick targets and not put in a plan. Stephen Harper went to Copenhagen and made a global commitment – picked a number and said ‘that’s our target.’ We’re not going to even approach getting within shooting distance of it because although greenhouse gases dropped quite a lot during the recession they’ve been climbing ever since. You need to have a real plan and work towards a transition of being less carbon intensive economy. A less carbon intensive economy can be profitable and successful as other countries have shown.”

As Cleantech expert Tom Rand notes in his feature article in this issue of The Canadian Business Journal, the good news is that our modern global market economy – backed by unprecedented levels of capital, powered by increasing rates of technological innovation, and in command of the largest manufacturing capacity in human history is fully capable of responding to the climate crisis. The market economy is the most powerful social force in human history. We can’t avoid the Anthropocene, but we might engineer a soft landing.

As the economy improves, so too does the carbon footprint – and that’s a concern for everyone. Levels are anticipated to be at 734 megatons by 2020.
“Stephen Harper’s target was to go to 17% below 2005 levels, which was 737 megatons, so a 3 megaton drop instead of a 130-megaton drop is a sign of large failure,” May points out. “We could have gotten to Kyoto targets had we stayed with the plan that was in place in 2005.”

Shutting down coal-fired energy plants, as the province of Ontario has undertaken, is an action May applauds. Coal is an intensive greenhouse gas producing activity. Improving the transportation sector is another area she would like to see promoted, including the ability to have safe, efficient alternate means of getting from one place to another without having to rely solely on our own vehicles to get us moving.

“A lot of people my age and older no longer enjoy driving at night,” May remarks. “Even in the most populated areas there really aren’t a lot of good alternatives other than calling a cab. There’s a lot we can do to improve quality of life and infrastructure, which is much less greenhouse gas intensive than individual driving.”
New office buildings and homes can now be constructed with far better energy saving techniques, which May feels could stand to use greater investment whether it be residential, institutional, industrial or commercial. It also creates many good paying local jobs in the trades industry.

“There are a number of solutions and I haven’t even touched on renewable energy or the new high-tech areas of clean technology. All of those taken together in a plan, with federal and provincial cooperation, are a framework for a healthier economy. We still waste more than half the energy we use in Canada.”

In practical terms, it simply comes down to having an effective well thought out plan that is realistic and sticking to the targets and goals from start to finish; anything less means greater ground to cover in the future. It becomes much more manageable when advancements occur in smaller bite-sized chunks and avoidance of nonsensical hysteria.

“Nobody is suggesting we take every car off the road,” May chuckles. “You have to have a practical approach and be prepared to say where are we reducing greenhouse gas emissions and how is it affecting the economy.”

Senate Reform

The topic of Senate reform – or its outright abolition as some would prefer – has been a hot topic in Ottawa for quite some time. It’s only gotten more negative attention following the disgraceful scandals that enveloped Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. There are no doubt many other indiscretions that the general public never hears about.

What might come as a surprise is that the Green Party’s official party position is somewhat different than Elizabeth May’s personal feelings on the topic. A resolution passed by members favours an elected Senate based on proportional representation. It’s also the model you would find in Australia. May, on the other hand, views it from a different perspective.

“At the point the Senate illegitimately without even sending a Bill past the House of Commons to a committee for study – and this was Bill C-311, which was Bruce Hyer’s Bill for climate plan – when the Conservatives were still in a minority and the Conservative Senators defeated it in the Senate without sending it for study, I became more concerned the Senate had the potential for extremely anti-democratic actions when a part of them were dictating that all Conservative Senators should look for a chance to defeat a climate bill.”

“The most egregious misuse of the Senate was the defeat of Bill C-311 on climate policy so since then I’ve personally become more sympathetic to the abolition point of view,” May tells us. “All that said, we can’t change anything in the Senate without the support of the provinces. It’s opening up the Constitution to change and I think the greater priority is that we focus on fixing the House of Commons because that can be done without opening the Constitution.”

There would be an opportunity to bring in proportional representation with a simple vote in the House. May feels that would enhance Canadian democracy by eliminating the risk of having a minority of the voters electing the majority of the seats.

“In the past, the Senate was useful. But when you don’t have the quality of Senators and it’s left in its current form, I think it’s hard to justify reforming it, so even although the Green Party favours an elected Senate I’m leaning more to what happened in New Zealand where they got rid of the Senate altogether and have the House of Commons elected by proportional representation. Senate reform is an ideal political football because nobody can do anything about it.”

What’s in a Name?

As the Green Party continues to gain political traction there are some who wonder aloud whether the name Green is actually serving as more of a hindrance to greater success. Rightly or wrongly, talk with the average person and most will associate the word Green with environment – and not much else, unless it’s naivety, but that’s even worse for a political party looking to gain inroads with voters. Changing the name would not be an easy thing to do, but May admits the thought has crossed her mind. But on the other hand, she quickly notes the many positives the name provides.

“One of the reasons I love the name is that it’s truly international,” she says. “There are Greens all around the world in Parliaments in government. The Green Party of Germany has made a tremendous difference to politics in that country not just environmentally but economically. Greens are also popular in Sweden, Australia and New Zealand to name just a few.”

So, what if it were possible to give the official party name a facelift?

“I would love to be the Green Democratic Party because democracy is our big issue but that would be too close to the NDP (New Democratic Party),” May reveals. “It certainly is appealing to me to figure out some way to have Canadians know that we’re much more than a party about the environment. We are a full party with a comprehensive approach from the economy to foreign policy.”

In speaking with May, a noticeable trait to her personality is the willingness to be completely open and honest about where things stand, be it within her own party or the current state of affairs in Canada as a whole. It’s a common sense and level of practicality that deserves a voice in Canadian politics, if for no other reason than to keep things on the up and up. She’s also very realistic about what can and cannot be achieved over a certain time period, and that in itself leads to a stronger base of legitimacy.
“I’m not saying we will be forming government anytime soon, but to be credible we’re the only party that submitted our 2011 budget that went with our platform prior to the election based on available micro and macro economic figures,” May proudly states. “It was submitted to the Parliamentary Budget Office for review. Kevin Page and his team reviewed the document and said the budget would work. Money was built in for deficit reduction, and infrastructure spending. I think that’s the least the Canadian voter should expect from candidates who are saying please pick me and this is what we would do if we form government. I think we could be a big influencer in Parliament.”

May would like to see a higher voter turnouts and a greater level of engagement in the political process from the general public and more respectful discourse between political parties, be it in Parliament, through the media or during public debates. She believes it’s a reasonable goal to have anywhere from 12 to 15 MPs coming out of the 2015 election. If that’s the case, the government and the other two main political parties need to keep a close eye on their rear-view mirrors.