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Elizabeth May talks federal politics, the state of Canadian democracy and ISIS

By Chris Adams, November 6 2014 —

Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has plenty of political experience. Moving to Nova Scotia from Connecticut in 1972, she quickly took an interest in Canadian identity and environmental politics.

She became leader of the Green Party in 2006 after leaving environmental advocacy organization Sierra Club. But her history in politics extends back further, having worked as a policy advisor for former Progressive Conservative minister of environment Tom McMillan.

Her new book, Who We Are, dissects Canadian culture, the “commodification of everything” and the state of party politics in Canada.

The Gauntlet: How have Canadian politics shifted since you got involved with the Green Party?

Elizabeth May: Politics have changed a lot in the last 10–20 years, particularly since Stephen Harper became prime minister. Ever since Pierre Trudeau created this idea of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), there’s been a steady increase in centralization of power. Stephen Harper has taken it off the charts.

In Parliament we have an abomination that not only controls what Conservatives can do and say, but what scientists can do and say. Now, in a remarkably illegitimate fashion, they control government reports that get put out by bureaucrats, making sure they’re aligned to meet the Conservative Party message.

It isn’t overnight that the erosion of healthy democracy has happened in Canada, but it’s accelerated rapidly since Stephen Harper first formed minority government in 2006.

What can we do to reign in this centralization?

The first thing is to know that it’s happening. We need to know our history. We need to know our system. Historically, there has been no PMO. Historically, the prime minister of Canada didn’t regard the job as full time. For quite a long time they were also serving as another cabinet portfolio, usually minister of justice.

The invention of the PMO happened under Pierre Trudeau. It has morphed and grown and now it is monstrous. It is not part of our constitution. It’s actually offensive to our basic system of government in which the prime minister is responsible and accountable to Parliament, not the other way around.

You talk about the state of Canadian democracy in your book calling it a “blood sport.” Can you expand on that?

The way in which political party bosses want to see it managed is an endless round of partisan sniping. It’s no holds barred and extremely unhealthy. We should reduce the level of partisanism, particularly when we’re outside of an election. Some people might think that’s unrealistic but that’s the way things used to be.

The idea that anyone these days would consult favourably and treat any other party with respect has been replaced by a real nastiness. It contaminates this place for sure. There are lovely MPs in all parties.

There is no question that the way in which politics is perceived, in these blood sport terms, turns Canadians off of the whole project. It makes a lot of people think that it’s not important to vote and that somehow voting encourages bad behaviour. In fact, the opposite is true.

You mention the “commodification of everything” and the shallowness of our society. How does that play into our Canadian identity?

The neoliberalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era has created this impression that big government is bad government. That we should deregulate, liberalize everything in terms of reducing regulations and privatize everything because the corporate sector does everything better than the government.

Well, that is simply not true. You’re not going to have a corporate sector run fire departments or police departments. It wouldn’t make any sense.

We’ve diminished government in our lives. We celebrated and exaggerated the role of the private sector. We’ve allowed just about everything in our lives to be viewed through the lens of “what good is it for the economy?”

In terms of a prosperous economy, yes of course we want it, but we also want an educated population and we want social well-being. The more egalitarian a society is, the healthier it is and the more resilient it is. There’s a lot to be discussed in what has happened over my lifetime which is the commodification of everything in an agenda that has featured corporate rule.

You voted against bombing ISIS sites in Iraq. Isn’t weakening their capability reason enough to enter the conflict?

The current bombing campaigns appear to be illegal under international law. However, there are things we should do and must do.

ISIS is appalling, but the reality is the reason ISIS is getting our attention is because unlike Saudi Arabia where beheadings are private, they are taking innocent people, particularly Westerners, and placing their beheadings on YouTube.

They do this because they want to draw us into a bombing campaign. There is a reason they are trying to provoke the response they are now getting. We can do something smarter and better and not play into their hands by doing the things on the ground that would really make a difference. A bombing campaign is unlikely to have the effect that we want and is clearly what ISIS wants us to do.

Interview edited and condensed for print

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