Green politics

Exclusive interview: Elizabeth May on why she's staying as Green leader

Her thoughts on electoral reform, TPP and why reversing the BDS vote isn’t anti-democratic
Photo: Canada 2020

Elizabeth May has decided to remain on as Green Party leader, after taking some time off to reflect on her future following the party's vote on a resolution to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. May distanced herself from the vote, questioning the effectiveness of BDS tactics and the wisdom of endorsing an external campaign.

Outside of some members of her party and BDS supporters, who questioned the reversal of a democratic vote, she has also endured criticism from Canadian media and others who saw her position as noncommittal and insufficiently pro-Israel. On Thursday, May spoke with Ricochet from Haliburton, Ontario, about the episode, as well as the Green Party's current status, electoral reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Canada's new military mission in Latvia.

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You've decided to remain on as the Green Party leader. Where is the Green Party right now, as an organization? Where do you see your party after the next election?

Well, of course we were very let down and disappointed by the fact that I'm the only Green Party Member of Parliament. In 2011, when I was first elected, everybody was very excited that we finally had a breakthrough and got a Green elected. It's very hard for Green parties around the world to make a breakthrough in countries that have first-past-the-post voting.

We were very confident that we would have between four and five, and a possibility of as many as 15, MPs in ridings across Canada where we had extremely strong candidates, with really well-run campaigns with proper financing — though not, obviously, the same kind of money that other parties have.

It wasn't our values to take a vote. We need, as a party, to live up to our values and our values are consensus-based.

On the eve of the election, and this tends to happen with [first-past-the-post] voting, people vote strategically and they panic. And according to national pollsters looking at the data, we lost half of our vote in the last week of the campaign. So that's always very disappointing.

But while being disappointed by our election results, we did have the best fundraising year we've ever had. We continue to be strongly supported by our membership through small donations, but many of them. And our membership numbers are the highest they've ever been. Overall, we're feeling quite encouraged by where we are as a party right now.

On the BDS vote, how would you respond to critics who say that as a party leader, maybe you should have either resigned or agreed to support the position voted on by party members?

It wasn't our values to take a vote. We've always worked by consensus. For 33 years we've worked on a consensus decision-making process. And the return to that, fully supported by the federal council of the Green Party, is not to say that we're running top-down — it's up to the members. So we have to have a special meeting of members. Members were very concerned that we had abandoned consensus decision-making.

I had no idea how profoundly it would affect the kind of discussions we had.

That's not something that should've been done as lightly as it was. And I regret that, it's my fault too. I mean, I thought, “Well, we can try Robert's Rules of Order.” I had no idea how profoundly it would affect the kind of discussions we had. So, to me it's a very clear case of departing from our values, not in the substance of the resolutions but the way that they were achieved. We need, as a party, to live up to our values and our values are consensus-based.

We’ve seen comments on social media and elsewhere from Green members who feel that the process underway now to revise the BDS position adopted at your convention is an attempt to reverse the outcome of a democratic vote through backroom procedures. How do you respond to some of your own members who feel the party is acting undemocratically?

You may have seen something like that on social media. I haven't. I'm overwhelmed by the support. I turned on my computer after a week away and was inundated with messages begging me to stay. Very clear messages from across the country from members who agreed that we really should've stuck with our consensus decision-making, including people who'd actually been at convention and voted for the resolution but believed the process was badly flawed and that we needed to revisit all of the resolutions that went by based on an up or down vote instead of trying to find middle ground. We are all people of good will. We can work together.

We can find a consensus on issues that are difficult. That's one of the things that I think of the transparency of the process now. It's anything but behind closed doors. I'm talking to you about it, media knows now — the Green Party's process has become much better known than any other party's process on decision-making. We are very transparent, we are very grassroots. I certainly am overwhelmed by the support that I've been receiving.

Given that your resignation would've been such a blow to the party, is there anything else the party should be doing, short of having MPs, to make its other representatives more visible? And is the media not including them enough? How do you counter the perception that it’s a party of one?

It's very difficult, obviously. I have two very strong deputy leaders, Daniel Green, who's a long-standing Quebec environmentalist, and Bruce Hyer, the former MP for Thunder Bay—Superior North. Both Bruce and Daniel do a lot of public events. They do a lot of media. Within the Quebec media, I think we're actually getting more coverage than we've ever had before thanks to Daniel's work. But that doesn't really carry across the country.

It's very hard to get past the perception that I'm the only spokesperson for the Green party.

You know, it's very hard to get past the perception that I'm the only spokesperson for the Green party. When we put forward other spokespeople and other prominent Greens to do interviews, the media say, “Well, if it isn't Elizabeth, we don't want to do the interview.” So for our press secretary it's very challenging. We keep trying to make it clear that the last thing in the world we are is a party of one.

And when we use the term “resignation” — it wouldn't have been a full resignation in the sense that I was very, very close to stepping down as leader, but I was never going to leave the Green party. I would've remained as the Green party's only MP. That's still something that may happen before the 2019 election. That would certainly be the surest way to make it clear to people [that it isn’t a party of one] before 2019—would be to have a strong leader as my replacement before the next election. That's a possibility. But it depends on the right person or people stepping up for a leadership race, where it would be very clear to the media that this is a credible transition.

They were very quick to start writing the party's obituary, I think too quick, when I was struggling with whether I should stay on or not in my immediate future. That's quite wrong. The Green party has a lot of bench strength. I'm not going to be leader forever. Nobody is. My goal is to pass the torch with a sense of momentum and a positive transition. Obviously, this last period of time of wouldn't have been that, and that's the primary reason that I decided to continue as leader.

Coming back to the BDS vote for a moment, would you have been able to support a resolution that (a) expressed openness towards BDS tactics instead of endorsing a BDS movement and (b) focused only on the occupied territories instead of Israel?

If anyone goes to our website and goes to Vision Green, which is the state of our policies as we went into the last election — if anyone wants to look, you'll see much more balance and also a detailed set of foreign policies on virtually every hot spot in the world. We are the only federal party that has a clear willingness to be a critic of things done by the government of Israel on specific issues. We don't shy away from that.

Green Party policies, as written currently in Vision Green, are very close to what the so-called BDS movement would want to see from a political party.

Now, the question of tactics and what might work? I think the issue for me is that at our convention, for the first time ever, we abandoned something that Green parties around the world do and we've always done it in Canada: to seek to find consensus. Our own convention stepped away from consensus decision-making for the first time in 33 years and adopted majoritarian voting for our policies. Even with Robert's Rules of Order, you can try to seek consensus first. Well, that just did not happen at this meeting.

So, I can't tell you as we talk now whether, if this were adapted or that was adapted, where we would meet in the middle. But it's very clear that the Green Party policies, as written currently in Vision Green, are very close to what the so-called BDS movement would want to see from a political party. The question is, for me, why would we as a party attach ourselves to a set of slogans and tactics that are outside of what we can control?

In the same way I'm very supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it wouldn't make sense for the party to say “we endorse Black Lives Matter” because it's a social movement outside of our party which could take different directions. And then, what do we do? Revisit our own resolutions to take ourselves away from that movement? In other words, I don't think it was a basis for policy for a political party.

On Israel-Palestine, Canada frequently casts nearly lone negative votes with the U.S. and Israel at the UN, including since the Liberals took power. If it was up to, say, a Green government, would that change?

Yes, absolutely. I was very unhappy with former prime minister Stephen Harper's placing Canada even to the right of the U.S. government in terms of being willing to be critical of things that Netanyahu has done.

I'm pretty optimistic that we can provide the people of Canada with a recommendation [on electoral reform]. And then we'll provide that to government and hope that they deliver.

A Canadian solider working at the UN observation station was killed, and nationals were killed from countries from around the world in that Israeli bombing. And it was a very, very disturbing incident in that the UN observation station was in direct radio contact with the Israeli military saying, “Here are our coordinates, you're shelling very near us, you can see us, we're marked on a map, stop bombing here.” And even with that direct radio contact and sending coordiates, every UN observer in that station was killed. And Canada was the only country that didn't even file a diplomatic letter of protest. And Stephen Harper's only comment was “we have a lot of questions why the UN had a station there.” That, to me, is a disturbing place to put Canada.

We still, officially, even through all the 10 years of Conservative rule, have a policy at the government of Canada to support a two-state solution. Well, you can't have a two-state solution without a Palestinian state.

Moving to electoral reform, you've been busy with the electoral reform committee. What do you think the outcome of that committee will be and what have you thought of the whole process?

Well, it's far too soon to predict an outcome in terms of the specifics.

The individual MPs are good people. We have a good working relationship as individuals. I think that really counts for a lot. So it's been a very impressive process. In this this first phase, the hearings have focused primarily on academic experts. We've had video links with some of the world's leading experts.

I am very committed to stopping the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What we haven't heard is the diversity of voices we want to hear from Canadians. We will get to every province and territory with not just hearings in the traditional sense, we're also going to have public sessions with an open mic. So right now, I'm pretty optimistic that we can provide the people of Canada with a recommendation of what we should do. And then we'll provide that to government and hope that they deliver so that 2015 will be the last election held under first past the post.

The TPP public comment period has been extended until the end of October. But the whole issue, unlike in the U.S., seems to have faded from public consciousness. What are your expectations on when a ratification vote will come and whether there is still hope to stop that ratification?

I am very committed to stopping the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think you're right: it hasn't gotten the same level of attention it has in the U.S.

Some very prominent voices that would be influential to Hillary Clinton are saying “no way,” including Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz. They are very committed to stopping the TPP. And by the way, Stiglitz is also very influential and a mentor of our minister of trade, Chrystia Freeland. So I'm not in the school of thought that this is by any means a done deal, even within the Trudeau cabinet. I think there are a lot of people who have deep doubts about the way this was negotiated.

Canada [should] as a government become much more engaged on the need for nuclear disarmament.

We've gotten a lousy deal even on trade terms. The U.S. automakers protect themselves for decades from competition from Korean auto makers. Not Canada! This is a deal that even has big car manufacturers against it. So I think there's a lot of strong voices opposed to this that go beyond voices like mine or Maude Barlow's, what you might call the usual suspects — those of us who will always oppose a deal that includes an investor-state agreement, for example.

I was very disappointed in the last Parliament, to see the NDP that at least, on paper, opposes investor-state agreements, vote for two of them. Terrible decision. But we need to stop the TPP, and I'm optimistic that we will.

Canada intends to deploy hundreds troops to Latvia. Many people believe the NATO-Russia border confrontation is seriously increasing the risk of nuclear war. In August 2015 the former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, told Spiegel Online that he was “very worried” when asked about the prospect of nuclear war. Clinton's defence secretary, William Perry, has a book out saying that the current risk of “nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War.” Stephen F. Cohen, a prominent New York University specialist on Russian-American relations said on CNN recently that we're “approaching a Cuban missile crisis nuclear confrontation with Russia.”

There seems to be little scrutiny from the media or parliamentarians. What is your position on Canada's participation?

I am very concerned and have been stalwart on the issue of nuclear disarmament. The Greens are — that's one of the founding issues going back 33 years. I have raised this in the House, and I continue to.

I'm very committed to seeing Canada as a government become much more engaged on the need for nuclear disarmament. And much more engaged in building bridges and not throwing — as we were doing under our previous government — out rhetoric around Putin that isn't helpful.

In the 21st century, it is outrageous that we are going back to Cold War rhetoric. It is not helpful and it is dangerous. We need to form much closer partnerships. We need to resolve conflicts through peaceful solutions. I'm very concerned about ramping up Cold War rhetoric and ignoring the nuclear threat.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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