Our team recently had the chance to sit down for a face-to-face chat with Elizabeth May, the Member of Parliament for the Saanich-Gulf Islands, Order of Canada, and the Leader of the Federal Green Party. After being executive director of Sierra Club Canada for close to two decades, she ran to be leader of the Federal Green Party.
A condensed transcript of the interview is below:
True North Times: Thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s start off with youth voter turnout; it’s depressingly low. What do you offer these couch potatoes to get out and cast a vote?
Elizabeth May: Well, I don’t think people who aren’t voting are necessarily couch potatoes. What I find when I talk to people is that some people have a very high degree of information and it leads them to the wrong conclusions. Somehow, it’s like people who want to shop ethically, they think “Well, I don’t approve of that store, I’m not going in”. Well, democracy isn’t like the store that you don’t go in to protest; the way to protest when you think things aren’t going well is to get out and vote, not to stay home. So, there’s a bunch of different reasons people don’t vote. Some of it is apathy, for sure, but a lot of it is well-informed, particularly young, people who think “I don’t like what I see going on there, and I’m not going to participate”. So there’s an anti-voter, as well as a non-voter, and I think the anti-voters are easier to reach, because they’re already paying attention. It’s not like they’re more entrenched. If somebody really doesn’t notice, then you have to say, it’s an old Trotsky line, “you may not be interested in politics, but politics will get interested in you.” So you’ve got to protect yourself, you’ve got to get out there and practice safe politics.
TNT: Let’s talk about those anti-voters. By nature of our parliamentary system, some voters surely look at their district, see the results overwhelmingly tilted towards one party, and think their vote won’t make an enormous difference on the outcome, especially since the leader isn’t chosen by any popuation proportional percentage.
EM: One of the biggest obstacles there is the first-past-the-post voting system. Just look at all the countries around the world that have proportional representation, which is all modern democracies except Canada, the US, and the UK. Youth voter turnout in the Scandinavian countries and in most of Europe is no different than the voter turnout for the older demographics. So, there’s something happening that’s specific to first-past-the-post. On the other hand, if you look at the 2011 election, the difference between Stephen Harper getting a minority and Stephen Harper getting a majority was a handful of ridings, with whisper, razor-thin voting majority, like the Jay Aspen one with 18 votes I think, someone else, one with 27 votes, a couple hundred votes there, so you end up with 14 ridings with a grand cumulative total of less than 7 thousand votes made the difference between majority and minority. So, it’s too easy to say “it won’t matter if I vote”, you never know if you happen to be in one of those ridings where it’s going to matter a lot if you vote.
TNT: By the time today’s youth get engaged, you’ll probably be retired. What’s the point in going after them, and not the people who matter today?
EM: Well, for democracy to survive. I think democracy in Canada is at risk of becoming that dead parrot from the Monty Python sketch. We are actually at a point where it could go either way. So if youth don’t vote, then there isn’t a democracy. I mean, I may be gone, but my kids aren’t gone. I’m trying to protect a living biosphere on this planet so that there is a livable planet. That may sound too extreme, but if we don’t address the climate crisis, we may not have a civilization to be talking about, now and in the future. So there’s nothing about the things we do as effective citizens, as concerned Canadians, in the year 2014, that isn’t important. There’s nothing about the future that discounts the present, and there’s nothing about the present that’s so important that should discount the future. The actions we take today are going to affect what happens tomorrow, so we absolutely have to engage with youth, whether it’s of any particular benefit to me or the Green Party, the short term is irrelevant. It’s essential for the health of Canadian democracy.
TNT: Young people are, however, known to have strong environmental beliefs. Do you think that the major party consensus on resource extraction is, perhaps, alienating them?
EM: For sure. When you poll, we find a lot of support for climate action among young people, but then there’s that disconnect. The single biggest problem, I think, around, and I should probably have addressed this in the first question, “why are youth not necessarily voting?”, I grew up in an era when the notion of government as an extension of our collective will was how I conceived the government, that it was democracy, it was us. We’ve chosen our government, we want them to do things for us. The right wing, the neo-liberal agenda of the Milton Freidmands and Margaret Thatchers and Ronald Reagans, all of that mantra has contaminated popular understanding of the relationship between citizens and their government. It’s become much more of a consumer culture. We talk about consumers when we talk about citizens, so the notion that government is there to do work for you has been replaced with one that government is sort of a hostile force that’s separate from our lives, and what it does doesn’t matter very much, because, you know, life goes on and we can ignore the government. So, that disconnect is much more profound than just getting people to vote: it’s about reengaging citizenship at a fundamental level, so you have power as a citizen. How many young people are told you have power? The whole conspiracy of consumerist culture is that you don’t have power, your choice is how you spend your money. It’s all about the money; it’s not about citizenship. The collectivity that says “I choose a better future for me and my country, my community, my family,” is so empowering. Every single Canadian needs to understand that they’re not mere automatons on someone else’s game board. We are each individual citizens, powerful.That’s why they don’t want youth to vote, that’s why bill C-23 takes away vouching provisions. It’s not that every party believes their own rhetoric that “we want youth to vote;” they don’t! They’re doing a lot of work to make sure youth don’t vote! So, I think that we can actually rescue democracy soon, I think we can do it by the next election, and the first step is to share the news, because I think it’s news to most people, that every citizen has power.
TNT: When you speak about democracy in Canada, you sometimes say that “Ottawa is a democracy theme park.” Do you want to elaborate on that?
EM: Yeah, James Travers, isn’t that amazing? Ottawa is a democracy theme park, you can take the tour, you can look at the buildings, but that’s not democracy anymore. And he said that in 2009, and it’s so much worse 5 years later. It’s like the Bruce Cockburn quote that “he trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” When you look at what’s happening in our democracy, every time I turn around, people say “that’s how it always was” and then it gets worse. So you can’t accept what’s just happened is the way it is. You have to say, “no, wait a minute, that’s not right”. As soon as you start identifying “this isn’t right; this isn’t normal”, then you have a chance to push back. When you’re complacent, say “yeah, that’s how it always is” or “parties are always like that” or “prime ministers are always doing that kind of thing”, “the system was always corrupt”; maybe it was always a little not-perfect, but what’s happening now is outrageous.
TNT: Do you have a favourite joke about the environment?
EM: Well, my favourite way of putting it, which is kind of humourous, which is “why is it that whenever we destroy something man-made, it’s called vandalism, and whenever we destroy anything God-made, it’s called progress,” but that’s not quite a joke about the environment.
TNT: Lastly, you often speak about the growing power of the Prime Minister. What would a May Prime Minister’s Office look like?
EM: I think it would have a couple of chairs and a desk, going back to what we had under Lester B. Pearson. The Prime Minister is not emperor, the Prime Minister is not a president; the Prime Minister is first among equals in a house of commons that functions as though people are equals .In the old days, the Prime Minister didn’t even have that as a full-time job, most PMs were PM and also Minister of Justice. They had another cabinet portfolio, because being PM was not seen as a full-time job. Now it’s got all the trimmings, basically, of being an emperor, you know. Harper spends $20M a year on personal security. This is a little out of control, this presidentialising of the PM. So, we need to remember: parliament is supreme, not the PM. My PMO would probably have a daycare centre in back, make use of it.
Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Federal Green Party of Canada
Cover Photo adapted from ItzaFineDay