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
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 Like Dorothy in Oz, she pulls aside the curtain to reveal the rottenness behind this country’s devious, pompous, outdated, and viciously fractious political system.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mere background hecklers in an increasingly-rancorous Question Period, while the independence of the civil service has been replaced by subservience to their political masters.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 more fundamental tactics.
Standing up by sitting down
Just how deficient May’s thinking departs from realpolitik is revealed by her secret weapon for restoring order in 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, May would be subject to the same ridicule that has become the norm in Question Period, as she herself so clearly describes in her book. She’d be laughed out of the House and ridiculed in the media. Reinventing democracy and restoring Canada’s parliament will require 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 right-wing, pale green pattern. By nature a 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 in 2008 to anoint disgraced Liberal MP Blair Wilson as Canada’s first Green MP confirmed May as a politician who knows how to play the system and the media. She’s a political insider, 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 real backbone and resolves the democratic deficit in her own Green party, deeper greens are going to lose confidence in Elizabeth May.