July 11, 2017 Elizabeth May “Canada at 150”

Elizabeth May is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada and its first elected Member of Parliament, representing Saanich-Gulf Islands in southern Vancouver Island. Elizabeth is an environmentalist, writer, activist and lawyer, who has a long record as a dedicated advocate — for social justice, for the environment, for human rights, and for pragmatic economic solutions.

Born in Connecticut, she moved to Nova Scotia with her family in 1973. Elizabeth grew up working in her family’s small business, a restaurant and gift shop on the Cabot Trail. She first became known in the Canadian media in the mid-1970s, through her leadership as a volunteer in the grassroots movement against proposed aerial insecticide spraying on forests near her home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Her efforts helped prevent aerial insecticide spraying from ever occurring in Nova Scotia.

 

Years later, she and a local group of residents went to court to prevent herbicide spraying. They won a temporary injunction in 1982 to hold off the spray programme, but after two years, the case was eventually lost. In the course of the litigation, her family sacrificed their home and seventy acres of land in an adverse court ruling to Scott Paper. However, by the time the judge ruled the chemicals were safe, the export of dangerous 2,4,5-T herbicides from the U.S had been banned. The forests of Nova Scotia were spared being the last areas in Canada to be sprayed with Agent Orange.

Her early volunteer work also included successful campaigns to prevent approval of uranium mining in Nova Scotia, and extensive work on energy policy issues, primarily opposing nuclear energy.

This is a transcript of Elizabeth May’s talk to the Probus Club:

I’m well aware that the organization is non-partisan so what I was hoping to share with you this morning is, hopefully, non-partisan.

I am, as someone in politics, still uncomfortable with the term “politician.” I love being described as a parliamentarian and whenever someone says I’m a politician I wonder what I did to offend them so I still have trouble with the terminology.

I know that Probus has historically had a link to the Rotary Club and I am a proud Rotarian at my little club in Sidney by the Sea. We have a lot of Rotaries in my riding and even within the community of Sidney you’ve got a choice of a breakfast club, a lunch club or a dinner club and I’m in the breakfast club. If you’re ever in Sidney I’d love for you to join us if any of you are Rotarians as well as members of Probus because I know there’s at least an historical overlap.

We meet at 7 a.m. at the Shoal Centre every Thursday morning.

Peter mentioned how far away I am from the Speaker in Parliament and it’s a great spot because I can see everything and there’s nothing going on behind me.

By quirk of fate I was in the same law school and the same subgroups with Geoff Regan who is the current Speaker. We’ve been quite good friends since September 1980.

By even flukier coincidence Senate Speaker George Furey was also one of our classmates.

Geoff Regan and I figured out some hand signals to help him out. When I can’t hear a single thing even with the earpiece in my ear, I will wave my arms which means I can’t hear a damn thing and he’ll call for order.

It’s helpful to have hand signals because there’s so much noise around him so he doesn’t always know when it’s gone past the point of mild rumble to unbearable bellowing.

I have never heckled since I’ve been a Member of Parliament but I’ve tried to achieve what I call zero tolerance for heckling. When I’m speaking I try to affect the behaviour of MPs around me so when I am being heckled I will sit down. I promised my community I would do that when I was running for Parliament because I thought it would work.

I observed Parliament up close for a long time and I noticed an issue particularly among women where if you try speaking when people are yelling at you there’s a tendency to raise your voice and when you raise your voice as a woman your voice becomes what sounds to many ears as “shrill” or “unbecoming.”

So my goal in Parliament is to emulate Flora MacDonald because she is also a Cape Bretoner although I was born in Connecticut but my parents moved to Cape Brenton when I was a teenager.

I admired Flora MacDonald immensely for years and then to my great joy I got to be a friend of hers. Flora is my role model and if any of you remember Flora she certainly didn’t heckle and she certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly but she stood with that ramrod straight back as a model of dignity.

I try to be Flora MacDonald in the House. I don’t want to be Sheila Copps in the House, not that I don’t like Sheila. She’s great she’s just not my role model.

I wanted to talk today in a non-partisan way about Parliament which I love and about Canada which I love more. I also wanted to reflect on our history at this moment in our sesquicentennial.

I did want to mention one thing about Rotary. As I sit in the House I’ve often thought, “if only we could post the Four-Way Test next to the Speaker’s chair.”

Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

That would cut down conversation substantially.

But I want to talk about Canada at 150. This is an important moment for us as a country. There’s been a lot of reflection on where and what we are as a country, what our real founding nations were and how our history informs our future.

Whenever I think about history I think about Mark Twain’s line that, “the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
This is another way of saying, “history is written by the victors.”

We accept the fact of Canada. We know where our boundaries are, we know the names of our provinces and territories and we think we know who we are but what if indigenous people hadn’t welcomed the first settlers? What if when the first colonial forces, settlers or voyageurs who arrived through the waters by canoe to start the fur trade had been effectively repelled by the indigenous people?

I found a lovely quote from 1996 from a Liberal Member of Parliament named Jack Anawak who was from a riding that we no longer have called Nunatsiaq which is now called Nunavut.

He said, “Mr. Speaker, whenever I hear about the two founding nations I think of Christopher Columbus stumbling upon America by mistake thinking he was somewhere else and finding out there were already people here in 1492. Therefore, when I hear about the two foundation nations I think of the Inuit and the Indian people of North America.”

There is something to that and John Ralston Saul wrote a whole book on it called A Fairer Country in which he put forward the proposition that Canada has been substantially impacted in our culture and even our political traditions almost by osmosis from the impact of the nations that were here ahead of us. He particularly pointed to the Iroquois Confederacy which for 900 years operated a system of democracy and governance called the Great Peace.

John Ralston Saul put forward that the 1867 British North America Act, which incorporated the goals of peace, order and good government, was informed by this historical awareness of the Iroquois Confederacy and the relationship that had been built.

So that’s a what-if we don’t have to ponder because we were welcomed. Certainly there were military conflicts and sometimes some nations sided with a nascent Canada and some first nations sided with a nascent U.S. but for the most part we wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for a large degree of hospitality.

In 1776 there was a group of people in Nova Scotia who managed to get a letter dispatched to George Washington to say, “We’d like to join your Revolution because we’re also sick of taxation without representation and we don’t think much of King George III either. Can we join you?”

Through really slow mail George Washington managed to send a response back to Nova Scotia that said, “we’re really sorry but we can’t extend our troops any farther than they are already extended so if you want to rebel you’re on your own because we can’t help you.”

Of course the Maritime Provinces really benefited from the American Revolution because of the Loyalist movement. It’s reported that the entire graduation class of Harvard in 1766 moved to what is now Canada to stay and live.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was originally from Charleston, South Carolina and my dad is British so I got raised in a good way to become Canadian. We had discussions over the dinner table about what was the proper thing from a U.S. perspective in my mom’s case and what was a proper thing from a U.K. perspective in my dad’s case and then they compromised on Cape Breton Island so that worked quite well.

My grandfather was an admiralty lawyer on Wall Street so all of his cases involved ship collisions and he had a client in Saint John, New Brunswick and he thought this would be a great case for a family trip so in 1948 my mom, my grandma and my grandad drove up and when they got to New Brunswick my grandfather was irate.

“Oh my God! There are all these statues to a traitor! Benedict Arnold! They are venerating a traitor!”

Well, who writes your history? Benedict Arnold got to New Brunswick and was a hero to the Loyalist movement. So what would have happened if we hadn’t stayed with King George III? I think it would have been a disaster, thank goodness for our Westminster parliamentary democracy.

And of course what would have happened if the UK versus the US War of 1812 had gone differently?

In any case we are what we are. We are a country. We’ve had national sovereignty and boundaries that one could say, “This is Canada” for the last 150 years and our Confederation is what we celebrate.

But the fact of Canada is remarkable because leaving aside for a moment the issue of indigenous people, we had to form ourselves in the midst of some fairly heavy tides or centrifugal force around the orbits of much larger powers. Particularly the U.K. from which we got our system of governance, our system of Westminster parliamentary democracy, and of course where our head of state resides as well as the U.S. with its larger economic and cultural impact on our lives and in a very substantial way by osmosis its impact on our political culture.

A political scientist referred to Canadian parliamentary democracy as having “presidentialized” and we have. Our media covers elections almost as though we are electing a prime minister. The conversation sounds like we are electing a prime minister but that’s not what we are doing at all. We elect the MPs in the House of Commons and the Constitution of this country doesn’t mention the existence of political parties so it’s certainly not important to our system of government to know who is the leader of what party.

In theory and under our Constitution after the 2015 election us 338 MPs could have gone to Ottawa and looked around the room and asked, “Who among us would be a good prime minister? Who among us is good with working with others, good with finding political consensus, hardworking and has a low ego?”

Last year I was on The House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform so I spent all of last summer in Ottawa even though Parliament wasn’t in session as we were holding hearings.

We really had the crème de la crème of political scientists from Canada and around the world including Hugo Cyr, a professor from Quebec who offered us advice as Peter Russell, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Toronto and one of my personal heroes.

They offered advice that extended beyond changing our voting system and one of the pieces of advice that Hugo Cyr offered was that after an election just pro forma we should elect a prime minister in the House of Commons to reinforce this point to the media that after an election we haven’t elected a prime minister. Of course as British Columbians realize from real life and really recent events we don’t elect a premier either. We elect MLAs and we elect MPs and from among us in a representative system of government we choose a prime minister or a premier.

The reason it’s never open to question is because and this is an aspect of the “presidentialization” of our system that has taken place without any formal decision-making. We didn’t realize we were changing our system of Westminster parliamentary democracy from the practice that’s used everywhere else in the Commonwealth but we have and we did.

One of the ways in which we did this was by having political parties with political party rules choose a leader and then, as a foregone conclusion, if that if that party wins more seats than other parties that party is going to form government and the leader of that party is going to be prime minister.

It’s quite different from any other Commonwealth country as you know. Margaret Thatcher, for example, ceased to be prime minister when she was ousted by the Conservative caucus and not by the electorate of the U.K. The Conservative caucus decided that they had enough of Margaret Thatcher and replaced her with John Major. The same thing happened much more recently in Australia where the Labor caucus decided they didn’t want to continue to have Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and replaced him with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and just as she was going into an election they reversed it again and put Rudd in instead of Gillard.

In Canada the caucus around a prime minister can’t decide that they’ve had it with the prime minister and replace him or her with someone else inside of their caucus. It’s interesting that there has never been a piece of legislation to make this happen it’s just by convention over time as well as the political parties’ own internal rules that have created a situation where you can’t choose a different leader unless you have a leadership review which could lead to a convention and so on.

In this constant push and pull of gravitational forces of our origins, and I know we always say our founding nations were of French and English influence, but our governance structure federally is the British Commonwealth system, it’s Westminster parliamentary democracy, but we’ve morphed quite a lot more towards the forces that came from south of the border through this “presidentialization” of the office of prime minister. Thank heavens we still have the Monarchy. It may surprise some of you that I feel so strongly about it but one of the reasons I do is that when you allow a head of government to also be head of state there’s a natural enough tendency to take the family of a head of state and convert them to Monarchy. Hence, in the U.S. the American public has a fascination with the first lady, the first family and the first dog. I know the names of dogs of U.S. Presidents and I’m sure some of you do as well. Franklin Roosevelt, Fala. Richard Nixon, Checkers. Why do we know the names of the dogs of U.S. Presidents? Well, because they didn’t have a monarch and you weren’t paying attention to the corgis as every sensible country should!

I think it’s an important principle in a democracy that we not get lulled into a fascination with the power of a head of government. They work for us, they are not above and that’s a really big risk that we’ve avoided as a country for the most part because our head of state is Her Majesty the Queen and her representative in Canada is our Governor General and her representative in the province is the lieutenant governor.

We’re a mix of both cultures politically. So here we are in 2017 with a chance not just to ask the what-if questions about our history but to ask some what-if questions about our future.

What if in the next decades—and it will decades—we focus on living the reality of truth and reconciliation and justice with indigenous people including First Nations, Métis and Inuit? The three different communities have their own structures and their own culture and there are literally hundreds of First Nations in BC alone as well as languages that are disappearing fast.

What if we took that on as a central challenge knowing that we came from these foundational principles of Westminster parliamentary tradition, a bit of Civil or Napoleonic Code particularly for Quebec and a very significant role of indigenous peoples in the lives of Canadians for the last 150 years including searing injustice from the residential school system which was an inter-generational abuse with inter-generational impacts to this day?

It will take a lot of work to actually come to reconciliation and justice around those issues.

But I want to focus on another big what-if. What if we were able to actually improve the health of Canadian democracy and restore some of what was lost without even thinking about it in terms of representative democracy and how our Parliament is supposed to work?
I brought this book with me to show you briefly.

It’s called Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy. It’s published by Douglas & McIntyre and the co-editors are from the NDP, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party but the idea was Kennedy Stewart’s. He’s the MP for Burnaby South and he was a university professor and academic before going into a politics. He is a thoughtful guy.

He recruited Scott Simms a Liberal from Newfoundland and Labrador who was the Liberal Party’s democratic reform critic in the 41st Parliament. He’s a great guy and I was heartbroken that he was not one of the people put on the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform. And of course from the Conservative Party it was Michael Chong.

There were three co-editors as well as a number of other authors including: Anita Vandenbeld, another Liberal; Nikki Ashton, another NDPer; Michael Cooper, a really thoughtful new member of the Conservative caucus with introductions and forwards from Ed Broadbent, Preston Manning and Bob Rae.

We all worked together on this and that’s good in itself but what’s astonishing were the themes that emerged about how we want to improve parliamentary democracy and that’s what I wanted to talk about because these things should be relatively easy to do it just takes doing.

I put as a central culprit in the diminishing decor and the diminishing role of the individual Member of Parliament to stand up and speak for his or her constituents and not just do what they are told.

It’s depressing.

Nathan Cullen has a chapter in this book that speaks to how bad the speeches are. The usual term is “canned speeches.” I’ve never given a canned speech in my life but I have friends in other caucuses who tell me that the backroom guys write a 10 minute speech and sometimes with 15 minutes notice hand it to an MP and say, “you’re giving this in 15 minutes.”

Some of them tell me, and I believe them, that they flip through it and say, “I’m not giving this.” But they are not rewarded for that.

If you’re an insomniac and you watch CPAC for more than Question Period…

Question Period is the most horrible part of my day. People say, “How can you stand being in Parliament? It’s so awful with people shouting all the time.” But that’s only an hour a day. The reality is that most of the time I have the place to myself.

Most of the time we barely have quorum because most MPs are told where to be during the day by their party backrooms and those who are in the House are there because they have received what is called House duty which is to make sure that the House has quorum. Twenty-four is quorum and the people participating in the debates are often the ones told to show up and they are often unaware of the topic being debated that day.

If you’re watching this in some insomniac moment you’ll notice a couple of things in the background.

The cameras in Parliament haven’t wrecked everything but I think what doesn’t help is that the cameras are not wide-angle. For instance you don’t know the place is empty and you also can’t see the bad behaviour of members when they are out of camera range. If you saw your own MP acting like a bully on camera there would be repercussions for that person but nobody sees it except for those of us in the room.

So if you want to be really observant you’ll see a bunch of MPs around the person who is speaking and being that they are in their own party they try and look adoringly at the person who is speaking.

You’ll notice that when that person finishes speaking and sits down the next time the speaker from that side of the House rises to speak the same five or six people cluster behind the next person because they get up and move as props to make sure that nobody is caught speaking in a corner where there’s absolutely no-one behind them.

I’m there all the time and there’s a good practical reason I’m there all the time. Number one, I think it’s my job. Number two, I do have a Parliament Hill office and it’s great. I have the same size office as any other low-ranking MP and it’s perfectly adequate for four people but to keep up with my workload I have eight people in that office which means I don’t have room for a desk so I work from my desk in Parliament which is very practical and efficient.

I read every bill and I’m at my desk all the time except if I’m meeting constituents just outside of the Hill chamber. I try to stay in Centre Block so I don’t miss anything because that’s another thing that’s important. You don’t have a lot of power when you’re one MP representing a party across Canada but you do if someone wants unanimous consent. Unanimous consent actually means unanimous so if you say “no” they don’t like it.

I stay there working at my desk but that means I hear all these speeches because I’m paying attention and I want to ask questions. I’m lucky because I’m good at multi-tasking so I will hear the speeches in one ear and I’ll also be handling correspondence on my laptop. I can pay attention to the speeches enough to jot down the questions I want to ask and that’s how I know paragraphs appear verbatim in the speeches over and over again.

So the people in the backrooms who are preparing these speeches and cutting and pasting and handing it to some poor MP who has to stand up and deliver it figure that nobody will notice because nobody is paying attention. I try to bring this to the attention of MPs who have had this happen because they don’t know that they were given a speech that had entire paragraphs that were the same as uttered an hour earlier.

Also, I found the same thing in speeches when I was doing a point of order to try to convince the Speaker at the time, who is now Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, that the omnibus budget Bill C-38 which came forward in Spring 2012 wasn’t in its proper form and hadn’t been properly studied.

When I went through all the speeches including those of ministers I found the same paragraph in a speech from Environment Minister Peter Kent as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. Big chunks of verbatim text were the same.

It’s a rule in the Standing Orders of Parliament that no-one is allowed to read a written speech. That’s a rule in the Palace of Westminster. Our current book of parliamentary rules and procedures says is that this is a rule but it’s no longer observed. But it could be and I think that would massively improve the quality of the debate and it would ensure that anyone who is giving a speech would actually have to know the subject.

If you are watching CPAC again in your insomniac moments it’s a dead give-away when an MP is reading a speech and can’t pronounce the words. That happens more often than you think.

The same nonsense of canned or written speeches applies to Question Period which is another place where we can improve things dramatically. In Question Period we are only given 30 seconds to pose a question.

Now this is another secret that’s let out of the bag in this book and it’s let out of the bag by the MPs from the bigger parties but I always suspected it. They actually have to get their questions approved ahead of time by the party brass.

So if you are watching Question Period you might ask, “That question was already asked and answered. Can’t they change up the question at least a little bit so it’s a follow-up?”

The reason that individual MPs don’t, of course they could, but their party whip has already had them practice their question word-for-word. The word-for-word question has been approved by the party. That has nothing to do with representing your constituents but it’s approved by the party so they don’t want to change it.
They get through this 30 second question and then it gets lobbed over to the Government side where they flip through their canned answers for one that seems like it’s on point. It may not be an actual response.

That being said, I’ve never heard a Liberal cabinet minister give an answer to a question that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic area of the question but that happened frequently in the previous Parliament with Conservative ministers.

It was especially egregious with Paul Calandra who was the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister. He tended to answer questions about Afghan detainees or the budget with anecdotes about what his family did when they ran a pizza business. One time he ran into me in the hallway outside and said, “I’m really sorry that I couldn’t answer your question Elizabeth but you know how it is.” I said, “Yeah Paul, I’m sorry.”

I always give my question ahead of time to the prime minister or a minister. People sometimes ask me if the Government members know the question they are going to get ahead of time and no, they don’t. They have a fair idea given the predictability of partisan politics and have written answers ready. I am trying to get better answers so I always tell Justin Trudeau, Carolyn Bennett or Catherine McKenna what question I’m going to ask ahead of time. If I want to get a really good answer I tell them about my question two or three days ahead of time. In order to get us to do the right thing on certain issues I start explaining it early and checking to see what the answer might be and queue up the questions as best I can.

About two years ago I had a funny conversation with Andrew Weaver when he enthusiastically told me, “I give my questions ahead of time to the Liberal government so I can get a better answer” and I said, “I do that too!”

Forget about the party stripe, if your MPs were allowed to do what they want to do they’d do a better job for you and they would rather do it so here’s the really big question. How do we improve Canadian democracy by reducing the power of political parties over the actions and activities within Parliament? How do we get the political party strategists to go away after the electoral campaign is over?

What they do now is devise strategies for Parliament in order to create an issue to use later as opposed to approaching problems of the Canadian people in Parliament with the goal of getting a better decision.

The Trudeau administration spent several millions of dollars on a survey that revealed 70 per cent of Canadians would rather have many parties work together to come up with a solution by consensus rather than one big party making all of the decisions even if the consensus approach among many parties takes more time.

But we don’t see it in Parliament and I’ll give you one example from the 41st Parliament when Stephen Harper was prime minister.

The long gun registry was a difficult issue that aroused passions all over the place. I agreed with many friends in the hunting and First Nations communities that there were problems with the way the long gun registry was designed and I also agreed with the late Jack Layton that there was a solution that would solve the problem of legal gun owners feeling that they were being disrespected and had additional paperwork burdens. They had reasonable complaints about the long gun registry.

Why wasn’t there a compromise on this? Jack Layton put the idea forward that we could compromise and improve the long gun registry but it was the Conservative backroom strategists who did not want that issue solved because it represented the Holy Grail in our modern politics which is called the wedge issue. This is where you get one issue to get your base to the polls to deprive the other party of seats.

The Conservative majority in 2011, which was 39 percent of the popular votes but a majority of the seats, was accomplished by using the long gun registry as a wedge issue to defeat Derek Wells, a Liberal MP on the South Shore of Nova Scotia and Larry Bagnell, a Liberal MP in the Yukon.

You can trace it and see the communities where the long gun registry became the reason that a Conservative MP and got in and a Liberal or NDP MP lost.

To me that’s just offensive on its face. If Parliament can solve an issue with a common-sense approach in which all voices around the table are heard that’s preferable to storing up the grievances in order to have something to take into an election campaign.

So how can we accomplish that? There’s a couple of things. Political parties aren’t mentioned in our Constitution. They don’t have special rights over Parliament and they shouldn’t have them. In 1970 the Elections Act was changed to add the party affiliation to election ballot. Up until the 1974 election Canadian electors who went to the polls got a ballot with the names of the candidates but no party affiliations were mentioned.

So that did a couple of things. You actually had to know who you wanted to vote for as your representative in Parliament and not just the brand name spokesperson for the leader somewhere else.

I’m not sure if this is apocryphal but these are the stories I heard about why they made this change in the early ‘70s.

One was that you had candidates with the same names running in the same in some ridings. Apparently this was a big problem in Quebec. Another problem was that you had ridings and populations that got bigger and not everyone knew the names of outstanding community leaders the way they knew them in the 1930s. When you saw their name on the ballot you’d know something about that person because if they were running for Parliament chances were that they were already an upstanding member of the community.

So once that change was made Elections Canada said, “If we’re going to put the name of the party on the ballot we’ll need a way to verify that John Smith really is representing the Liberal Party.” So they made a change that required every candidate to get their nomination papers signed by the leader of the party. The unintended consequence gave the leader of a party in Canada powers that a leader of a party anywhere else in the Commonwealth doesn’t have.

It gave the leader of a party the ability to threaten and punish both candidates for office and MPs once they were in the House. “If you vote against me on this I won’t sign your nomination papers in the next campaign, you can count on it.”

It gave a party leader real clout to threaten and cajole. We could change that, there’s no need and Michael Chong tried with his reform bill but the Conservatives in the committee where his bill was presented made so many changes that they gutted it.

It would be good to have a situation where the electoral district association members of any party can nominate and stand by a candidate without the party leader having the ability to say, “You can’t run that guy because I don’t like him.”

I’m in a party that has changed things with its own bylaws so if I don’t like the cut of someone’s jib I can’t refuse to sign their nomination papers. I need to take it to the federal council, which is an elected group of members, and they have to agree with me with a three-quarters votes.

I’ve done that so rarely and it’s never been a controversial question. It was a situation where someone was manifestly unsuited to be a candidate.

The other thing that would improve our civility and provide opportunities to work across party lines after an election would be the elimination of the first-past-the-post voting system. Like our Westminster parliamentary democracy we inherited first-past-the-post from Great Britain.

In 1867 the British North America Act said that the people of Canada shall vote using the system currently in use in the United Kingdom until such time as their Parliament chooses their own system. So it was clear from 1867 that our Parliament has the right, ability and mandate to change our voting system it’s just that we never have. We’re basically still wearing Queen Victoria’s hand-me-downs.

The first parliamentary question to study whether or not first-past-the-post suited Canadian democracy was in 1921. Since the 1920s we already had a system of many parties but the study found that first-past-the-post doesn’t reflect the popular will in any country where you have more than two parties or candidates. They concluded that first-past-the-post was not a good system for our democracy but they didn’t take the next step to say what would be a good system.

Our parliamentary committee took that next step and wrote a majority report that included the Conservatives, New Democrats, the Bloc Quebecois and me for the Green Party. We all agreed that we should replace first-past-the-post with proportional representation after holding a referendum.

Our committee wasn’t the first that said we should get rid of first-past-the-post, we were just the first to say what should happen next.

There’s only one Westminster parliamentary democracy that has made the leap from first-past-the-post to get out of Queen Victoria’s hand-me-downs into a modern system and that’s New Zealand. They adopted a mixed-member proportional system after two referendums in the ‘90s. Their new system was similar to what they had in Germany but with New Zealand in mind. They have had a significant change in political culture. There is less partisanship.

The idea of a wedge issue works in a first-past-the-post because you form government a government not based on your popular vote but riding-by-riding seat counts. This is broken down quite brilliantly in terms of how political culture has been informed by an increased targeting at certain segments of a population and legal voter suppression which includes attack ads as well as increasing the vote for your base which is sometimes called dog whistle politics but it’s almost always around a wedge issue.

That’s why politics is so nasty in Canada. We have imported without meaning to some of the nastiest elements of US politics into a system of first-past-the-post where cooperation is punished and elbows-out aggression is rewarded.

It’s been more than two decades since New Zealand changed their voting system. The New Zealand Greens are going into a fall election and before the election campaign has really gotten underway they sat down with the New Zealand Labour Party and put out a joint statement that said, “If we have the right seat counts when the election is over we are prepared to govern together.”

In the meantime they are separate parties and they are fighting their fights and going riding by riding to win their seats but the political culture has changed to one where cooperation is not punished and working across party lines doesn’t you hurt you later on at the polls.

In our next 150 years I really hope we can accomplish this because if we get democracy right everything else falls into place, I firmly believe that. If we get our voting system so that the popular will of the Canadian public is reflected in the seat count of the House of Commons I’d worry less about other issues that occupy my mind like climate change or our economic future. If we govern ourselves in a way that reflects a healthy modern democracy we’ll get better government and over time perhaps I won’t be rejecting the term “politician” but will think it carries some public esteem as opposed to derision.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

 

  1. Who are the background characters you mentioned and how would you characterize them?  A. I sometimes describe them as people who need social skills and therapy. They are not people you would vote for.There’s a particular skill set of people who are in political campaigns with a will to win but not a single clue why or what you do when you get there.

They are people who work for political parties.

 

The Prime Minister’s Office was an institution created by Pierre Trudeau.

I had the great honour to know Tom Kent who was principal secretary to Lester B. Pearson and he described the prime minister’s office as a handful of file clerks and stenographers. It was not an institution that was a power base but it’s now a major power base.

In constitutional monarchies any prime minister with a majority government controls the executive and the legislative functions of government. As we look south of the border at Trump we can be so grateful that there was a revolution and they decided that the executive powers were limited and the legislative powers were separate.

The backroom people are political strategist who are often lifers. They are often young but they age in the party and stay there. Sometimes they change parties but they largely have a story that goes, “I started volunteering for so-and-so at the age of 14 and I really liked politics and got the bug and I got a job at headquarters.”

They are Machiavellian, they are interested in power and they are interested in winning. Susan Delacourt’s book Shopping for Power also talks about this, Justin Trudeau has restored more real cabinet government than we’ve seen in a number of cycles of prime ministers but the PMO still has tremendous power.

 

The political party backroom still has power. It’s true for the people who surround Tom Mulcair as well as the people who surround Andrew Scheer that those people are making the decisions on which caucus members get to ask the questions during Question Period. It’s very easy to punish an MP.

 

I know MPs who don’t know what they did wrong but their party does not let them sit on any committees or speak in Question Period. They don’t know why, exactly but they are probably too independent-minded.

 

  1. Tell us a post-script of your committee on electoral reform. The prime minister set up that committee with an unequivocal comment about first-past-the-post and then announced later on that there was no consensus with the public. Tell us what happened there and why we didn’t get somewhere with that.

 

  1. I was named to the special committee on electoral reform. It was a promise repeated I think some 1,200 times by Justin Trudeau personally as well as his Liberal candidates during the last campaign that in order to make sure every vote counts 2015 will be the last election held under first-past-the-post. This is also in the speech from the throne that came out in December 2015. I think that’s one of the reasons we hear rumours of prorogation, to shut down this Parliament and restart, is to get rid of that promise in the speech from the throne because he’s now withdrawn it from the mandate letter of Karina Gould, the new minister of democratic institutions.Maryam Monsef who was the first minister of democratic institutions was the one who structured the committee and I’m sure the PMO had a hand in it but I don’t know the details there if they did or didn’t.

    The structure of the committee was very unusual in that the Liberals voluntarily surrendered their majority on the committee. I don’t think that’s ever happened before where a party with a majority surrendered their majority on a committee. There were five Liberals, one of whom became a chair. Francis Scarpaleggia who was the chair of the committee was a fantastic guy. Of the five Liberals in the committee he was the only Liberal who had been in Parliament before the 2015 election. There were also three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one Bloc and me.

    We worked really hard to get our committee report in on deadline. They told us they needed it by December 1. It’s no exaggeration to say we pretty much killed ourselves from early July. We did 31,000 km of travelling to 17 locations in every province and territory as well as lots of hearings in Ottawa and came to this majority report. Weirdly on the day we tabled our report Maryam Monsef said it was a shame that we didn’t do the work and eventually apologized for saying.

 

They then announced this Vox Pop poll that cost over $2.5 million to send postcards to every Canadian asking them to go online.

I thought it was odd but I wasn’t as suspicious as many of my friends like Nathan Cullen who said, “Obviously it means they are not going to do it” and I said, “Maybe they are spending millions of dollars because they are going to do it. Why would they spend millions of dollars if they were not going to do it?”

On February 1 Karina Gould was sent up to the microphone as the new minister of democratic institutions to say that bringing about a new system to replace first-past-the-post was no longer in her mandate so it was removed from the mandate letter of the minister.

 

We had no clear explanation until Justin Trudeau’s end-of-year interview at the end of June in which he said the fault lies with opposition parties because we weren’t willing to compromise. He wanted to bring in a system of ranked ballots or preferential votes.

I stay calm most of the time but I nearly lost it at that. I like Justin Trudeau, I probably still love him. He’s been a nice seat mate and we got to know each other years ago. But honestly, someone either sold him a line, I don’t like to say someone is lying, but what he said wasn’t true. Nobody ever put ranked ballots on the table and asked anyone to compromise. All the expert witnesses we had before our committee said the one system worse than first-past-the-post if you wanted to make sure every vote counted was ranked ballots.

 

I didn’t know that going into the committee. I might have been persuaded to go with ranked ballots as a sort of incremental improvement of some kind but all the evidence was against it. I can’t tell you what happened in the in-camera meetings because they are all in-camera but I can tell you that when you look at the minority report written by the Liberals who dissented from the rest of us they don’t promote ranked ballot.

It’s not the position of the Liberal Party to support ranked ballots, it isn’t argued by the Liberal members of the committee in their dissent, it isn’t supported by the evidence we had before the committee. I don’t doubt for one minute that it came do the fact that Justin Trudeau liked ranked ballots more than proportional representation.

 

But that’s not the process we were promised.

 

We were promised that the Liberals would have an open mind, that the evidence would come forward and if the committee could agree the committee should write the report. They never said we’ll only do it if we can achieve consensus first. That’d be a very odd way to go about it because they didn’t give us the funding or the mandate to try and see if there was consensus.

 

I’m not giving up.

The fact of that promise and the fact that they campaigned on that promise means that a lot of Liberal MPs who got elected feel very vulnerable. They promised their electorate something and then just walked away from it with as thin a non-explanation as what we’ve been given.

I’m hoping that the fact that British Columbians will be going to the polls in our municipal elections in the Fall of 2018. Things could still go wrong but I think right now the odds are that British Columbia will vote to get rid of first-past-the-post in a referendum associated with the day that we are going to the polls anyways.

 

This means that it will not be possible for Liberal MPs to say nobody is talking about electoral reform anymore. It’s going to be in the public discourse, it’s going to be on peoples’ minds and I don’t think they can politically afford to abandon it.

It’s a very far fall-back position from where I was a year ago but I’m trying to tell the Liberal MPs and I’ve said it to a few people in the media, at least keep your promise alive. If you don’t think there’s public support then put it on the ballot for 2019. We’re going to the polls anyway. A standalone referendum, by the way, would cost over $300 million so I wasn’t keen on a standalone referendum.

But if we’re going to the polls in 2019 why not have a question that asks, “Would you like to get rid of first-past-the-post and move to a fairer system of voting?” Even if we don’t come to the full answer there. That’s one answer and maybe it could be on the next question after that. We need a road-map to getting to a fairing voting system.

You can’t just say 2015 is the last election under first-past-the-post and then say, “Oh sorry, we didn’t mean it.” I don’t think that’s acceptable.

 

  1. Would you be prepared to comment on the Senate?

 

The Senate is an institution of course that we also get from the UK and our Commonwealth traditions. Interestingly enough New Zealand is the only Commonwealth country that abolished their upper house. So what is our Senate is the House of Lords in the UK.

The Senate of Canada can perform a useful function. I’m not an abolitionist in terms of the structure of government. The notion of sober second thought is not a bad idea.

Over history I’ve seen the Senate do some very useful things. Before I was ever associated with the Green Party I spent 17 years as the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada and one of the issues I was working on was concern about the government giving a license to Monsanto to sell bovine growth hormones in Canada. The dairy community was very much against it because they had no problem with lactation deficits.

We had lot of milk here we didn’t want and if bovine growth hormones were in the market they would have to use it because their competition would be using it. There were a lot of researchers within Health Canada that didn’t want it licensed because of health issues.
To make a long story short Allan Rock who was minister of health already told Monsanto that we were going to license it and Monsanto as a thank you was going to give Health Canada $10 million but it wasn’t a bribe it was just to help with research. This is all true, you can check this out on the Fifth Estate. They actually nailed them on the question of the $10 million.

 

I found out it was about to happen before it was public so I called Mira Spivak who was a senator from Winnipeg and she called Eugene Whelan who was a senator and a former agriculture minister. On their own initiative the two of them convened an emergency Senate committee to study bovine growth hormones and they subpoenaed the researchers who were lab-tech people inside Health Canada who were worried about the health impacts of bovine growth hormones but afraid to speak out. In the course of the Senate hearing with media coverage, forget it. They didn’t register it.

 

So I’m grateful for the Senate functions that most people don’t see. There are other good examples.

Herb Sparrow in the 1970s wrote a report on soil in Canada.

 

The Senate gets contaminated when there’s too much control on the political party side again. Stephen Harper’s PMO thought it could control speeches by senators but that’s unconstitutional. The House and the Senate are different places and the PMO is not supposed to control what the senators do. The more that we have partisanship in the Senate the worse it is as a place and an institution. It does do good work.

I do think what Trudeau has done to improve the caliber of people being appointed to Senate is a marked improvement. Some very stunning people with long records of public service are now entering the Senate as independents.

 

So the Senate is working better and the majority of senators are now independent who understand their role.

Sometimes we play ping-pong where the opposition will try to amend a bill in the House but the government won’t accept our amendments. It then goes to the Senate and the Senate will say, “Those were good amendments so we’re putting them back in.” Sometimes the government will then accept the amendments that come from the Senate side but other times the government comes back and says, “sorry but we in the House are rejecting the Senate amendments” so it goes back to the Senate. At that point in every instance so far the Senate has said, “It’s not our place to thwart the democratically elected side of the institution of Parliament, we were just trying to improve things.”
I think things are working better in the Senate but the changes that Trudeau has made are not in any kind of permanent state. Any future prime minister could change that.
Unlike changing our voting system which Parliament can do on the House side with a piece of legislation that the Senate would have to approve changing the Senate in any fundamental requires opening the Constitution.

Abolishing it requires all provincial governments supporting that and changing it in any substantial way such as making it elected requires most provinces joining in so there’s a lot of political capital that would be used up over many years to do anything fundamental to change the nature of our Senate.

 

I was talking to a lot of my constituents at a lot of town hall meetings during the peak of the Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy scandal which all took place at once. I knew the mood of my constituents and I voted with the NDP motion to abolish the Senate but as a practical reality it’s very hard to abolish the Senate and at its best it can actually do some good things but at its worst… oy!

  1. Could we or should we reserve some seats in Parliament for our aboriginal people?

 

  1. For quite a long time the New Zealand Parliament has had Maori seats where only Maori electors are able to elect Maori representatives. I think it’s currently as many as seven seats but what’s interesting is that with the advent of mixed-member proportional representation Maori MPs are also being elected in the regular population. So the co-leader of the New Zealand Greens Metiria Turei is a Maori woman. So New Zealand is the only country in the world where the proportion of the members of Parliament who are indigenous exactly mirrors the proportion of the population that is indigenous so it’s quite a success.

 

They still have the dedicated Maori seats but they also have Maori MPs as a result of mixed member proportional.

 

We talked about it in our electoral reform committee. Some First Nations recommended it. One of the things that makes it relatively easy in New Zealand is that you have one indigenous group only, the Maori. So how do we structure it in Canada? If we had dedicated seats for indigenous peoples we’d need to work that out ahead of time with indigenous people who fall in the category of First Nations as well as Métis and Inuit.

 

I don’t rule it out. There’s a lot of ways we can improve the way our Parliament functions. Certainly more diversity and more indigenous people being represented makes sense. We have 338 MPs and only 10 of them are indigenous people which includes First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

For me it’s an open question. I think it’s worth really considering whether that’s part of the path of truth and reconciliation. Another suggestion was for many more people in the Senate to be indigenous to provide sober second thought. The piece that I really liked that we were promoting in the election as Greens was mirrored on something in Australia. They have a council of governments, plural. One of the missing pieces of good government is recognition of the increasingly important role played by the municipal order of government and under our Constitution municipalities are treated almost as children or lesser beings under the authority of provinces.

The mayor of Toronto or the mayor of Vancouver has a much more complicated and difficult job than being premier of Prince Edward Island. I say this with all due respect to my former law school buddy Wade MacLauchlan who is premier of Prince Edward Island.

 

The case answers itself, running Vancouver or running PEI.

The need to represent municipalities in decision-making I think is really critical. Australia has a council of governments where there are seats at the table for representative grouping of municipal governments as well as state and federal governments.

What we propose is to broaden that out and include seats for indigenous representation for First Nations, Métis and Inuit at a table with municipalities, the provincial governments and the feds. They wouldn’t meet all the time but on big issues like what kind of policy would suit us?

 

One of my frustrations is that we don’t really think like a country, we have more inter-provincial trade barriers than the EU. What would suit us as nation when we think about education? What would suit us as a nation when we talk about energy?

We don’t have those conversations. If the conversations including indigenous peoples, municipal, provincial and federal representatives then maybe we could say, “that’s what we are shooting for” and within our different layers and systems of governments we could work for policy alignment and work together for the same goal.

 

If we were all pulling in the same direction that would certainly achieve a lot of efficiencies and we could actually achieve some policy goals as a country instead of appearing to be warring factions.

 


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