Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Elizabeth May: Political Amnesiac

Green Party leader has peculiar notions of what is "anti-democratic"

According to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Canadians suffer from a "collective amnesia". Often enough, she's oddly correct -- but in ways that are ironically lost on her.

Her recent book Losing Confidence continues to gain traction in the news media, as various outlets continue to weigh her claims that Canadian democracy is in some kind of trouble.

Yet Elizabeth May herself indulges herself in politically-motivated forgetfulness. She forgets that it was the Canadian citizenry that rejected the coalition. She also forgets that Canadian citizens have different expectations about government than countries where coalition governments are commonplace.

Elizabeth May's biggest problem is that she continues to evaluate Canadian democracy against various European counterpart -- Germany may be the most pertinent example -- without ever taking into account that Canada's political culture and, with it, citizens' expectations of democracy.

"Never in the history of modern parliamentary democracy anywhere in the world had a prime minister sought to shut down the government to avoid losing a confidence vote," she writes.

May continues to complain that she feels the progrogation of Parliament was "breathtakingly anti-democratic".

Yet a clear majority of Canadians had already rejected the proposed Liberal/NDP coalition government. The option of an election -- the traditional political route after a minority Parliament's defeat -- was an election, not the coalition, which was supported by just over a third of Canadians.

Yet an election had just taken place weeks previous. And considering the levels of support the Conservatives enjoyed immediately following the coalition proposal -- careening into majority government territory -- it's unlikely that May would have supported an election.

On that note it's hard to overlook the extent to which May is being politically self-indulgent. As Tom Flanagan noted in a Globe and Mail column, Canadian political culture demands that Canadians decide the government, not the Governor General.

If the Liberals and NDP had run on a coalition government during the 2008 federal election, that would be one thing entirely. But then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion had explicitly ruled that prospect out during the election. So to step up after the election and take the first opportunity to attempt to supplant the government with a coalition that had previously been treated as out of the question was another thing entirely.

Canadians should also never forget that the precipitating event for this coalition was a government move to cut subsidies for political parties. At a time of fiscal crisis, this was the right move to make, but the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois (whom may describes simply as "democratically elected" without mentioning the contextual fact that their purpose is to separate Quebec from the rest of the country) wouldn't stand for the revokation of their entitlements.

Never before, in a democratic state, has an appointed official been called upon to make a decision on whether or not to replace the duly-elected government with a political monstrosity so out-of-step with the citizens' expectations of democracy.

May's attitude clearly indicates that she believes democracy is something to be managed by elites. The rules set clearly advantage elites in decisions regarding who will and will not govern. If Michaelle Jean had been less respectful of Canada's political culture, Elizabeth May could very well have gotten her way -- and an unstable coalition replete with the Canadian government mortgaged to a separatist party founded on a racial ideology.

Only in the mind of a virulently fervent ideologue could such an option, evaulated according to the entirety of its significance, seem appealing. Especially when one considers that it would undermine Canada's citizen-oriented political culture.

Oddly enough, May forgets that her party has no leadership review process. Although rumblings continue that the rank-and-file Green Party membership has no confidence in Elizabeth May's leadership -- and really, who could blame them? -- May continues to enjoy a very comfortable position her party.

But only because the party's rules allow for this -- not because of the democratic will of her party membership.

To Elizabeth May, only the formal rules matter. That's the biggest difference between May and Governor General Michaelle Jean -- Jean understands that the democratic will of the people matter, and May does not.

It's a good reason why Michaelle Jean deserves an opportunity to utilize her talents beyond the meagre venue of the Governor General's office, and Elizabeth May doesn't deserve to ever be elected.


  1. Patrick Ross wrote:
    "Canadians should also never forget that the precipitating event for this coalition was a government move to cut subsidies for political parties. At a time of fiscal crisis, this was the right move to make, but the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois...wouldn't stand for the revokation of their entitlements."I'll have to disagree with you that cutting subsidies for political parties was the right move to make, even considering the current economic situation.

    Don't forget that a primary reason that the subsidizations were introduced in the first place was to limit the amount of money that individuals and corporations could donate to a political party in a given year.

    This was meant to cut down the ability of the wealthy to exert a greater influence on MPs and parties through large donations of money (donations that might disappear if the party didn't keep their benefactors happy).

    Subsidizations work to level the playing field amongst the political parties and help better ensure the interests of all Canadians (not just the wealthy minority) are looked after.

    Despite the economic hardships facing our country, subsidizations do play a valuable role in ensuring the spirit of democracy is kept on track.

  2. Government didn't need to introduce the subsidies in order to limit the amount that individuals or corporations could donate. All they needed to do was introduce the limits.

    The subsidies were introduced in order to compensate the parties who were going to lose funding because they can't mobilize fundraising from their grassroots. There were two side to this.

    The Liberals have traditionally neglected their grassroots supporters, and have long undermined their ability to convince their base to financially support the party. They're only now starting to figure out how badly this has cost them.

    The other side of this, of course, is the NDP. Many NDP supporters don't have the money to support a political party.

    Then again, a significant portion of the NDP's supporters are urban professionals, particularly those who consider themselves part of the "intellectual class". It still intrigues me that these particular individuals have so often failed to put their money where their mouths are.

  3. Fair enough, Patrick. It's hard to disagree with your assessment.

    The CBC wrote:
    "...the Conservatives have such a strong fundraising base, their subsidy represents only 37 per cent of the party's total revenues.

    By comparison, the subsidy amounts to 63 per cent of the Liberals' funding, 86 per cent of the Bloc's, 57 per cent of the NDP's and 65 per cent of the Greens'."
    The Conservatives certainly do have a knack for fundraising that the other parties either lack or are unwilling to utilize.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. This is just a sidenote, Patrick, but I'd like to note something very interesting about Tom Flanagan's thesis.

    Flanagan is very right when he notes the expectations and unwritten rules that have come with the evolution of our democracy, including the fact that coalitions don't fit our political culture. But what he and many other Blue Tory supporters either don't seem to realize (or perhaps don't want to admit) is that this argument cuts both ways.

    Many of Flanagan's intellectual ilk have lamented such things as national standards implemented by the federal government in social transfers, claiming that these things are a violation of the Constitution, and that the letter of the Constitution should be respected.

    Of course, if we were to do that, then technically Ottawa would have the power to reserve and even abolish provincial legislation as it sees fit, as these powers are still technically part of the Constitution. The likes of Trudeau or Chretien could have overridden a lot of our provincial decisions, and they would have been adhering to the letter of the Constitution.

    Similarly, the provinces would have to shut down their ministries relating to Aboriginal peoples, close their international officers and recall their foreign trade representatives, since international relations and affairs relating to Native peoples are very clearly within federal jurisdiction, and provinces who have their own international relations or dealing directly with Aboriginals are in fact trespassing on federal jurisdiction.

    What bothers me about the type of open federalism the Harper government practices is that it seems as if while Ottawa cannot intervene in provincial affairs, the provinces are free to intrude in federal jurisdiction as much as they like. Hell, if he wanted to, Harper could simply unilaterally force the provinces to take down their trade barriers by invoking (if I recall correctly) Section 121 of the British North America Act, which gives Ottawa power to do exactly that. If Harper or Ignatieff did that, they could just as easily say they were respecting the Constitution, which is entirely true.

    Flanagan is quite right in noting how the evolution of our political culture has established various conventions and unwritten rules-indeed, that was one of the reasons I opposed the coalition myself. But these conventions have also allowed for the provinces and federal government to intervene in each others' jurisdictions if they're accepted by the public-and aside from Quebec, I can't see most ordinary Canadians in the rest of the country really objecting to a federal role in social policy.

    This is just a side observation, mind you.

    By the way, have you been getting my emails?

  6. "Fair enough, Patrick. It's hard to disagree with your assessment."

    It's an objective assessment, not a normative one.

    I fully respect the views of people who support political subsidies. Not based on the Liberal case for them, but rather based on the NDP case.

    I disagree, but I respect that view.

    ...And Jared, you're in error. The powers of Reservation and abolition were written out of the 1982 Constitution.

  7. ...And Jared, you're in error. The powers of Reservation and abolition were written out of the 1982 Constitution.Where did you get that? According to all my sources, the powers are still there, they're just not used anymore according to constitutional convention. I'm certain I read about how they would have been abolished in the Charlottetown Accord, but with that accord's failure, they're still in place.

    According to Wikipedia, the powers are in fact still in place, with the ministers having decided not to remove them in the 1982 patriation:


  8. Dammit, that should be:


    Copy and paste the whole thing in one sentence into your browser.

  9. Hmmmm. OK. I was in error. Normally I distrust wikipedia as a reliable source, but the source sited within the article is extremely reliable.


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