Last Saturday Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, visited Concordia University for a talk hosted by that university’s Green Party Campus Club. Both Ms. May’s personal charm and the party’s sometimes bizarre policies were on full display. Her talk seemed to encapsulate all of the complexities of the Green Party.
One striking factor was how she walked into the room. When Justin Trudeau walked into a talk at McGill a few weeks ago he strutted in with all of the self-confidence and bluster one might expect from a guy winning a popularity contest against an astronaut. Stephané Dion instead stumbles into a room with the meekness of an academic who would rather be reading up on Tocqueville. Elizabeth May, or Elizabeth, as the members of the audience are prone to calling her, just calmly strolls into the room, not humbly or modestly, but not arrogantly either. Her introduction lacks the typical bombast, and when she takes the podium her remarks are informal and colloquial.
Of course, that in no way means that Ms. May’s talk was lacking in rhetoric or partisan sniping. A good part of her speech was devoted to what she considers the evils of our current Prime Minister and federal government. Again and again she referred to Prime Minister Harper as “extremely destructive”, both to the environment and to Canadian democracy itself. Now obviously the leader of an opposition party is not going to say anything positive about an opponent, but her recurring Harper-bashing left some Green supporters in the room saying that the negativity of her remarks detracted from the quality of her talk. And at some points it simply became clear that she had gone too far.
More than once Ms. May compared the environmentalism movement to the anti-slavery movement of the nineteenth-century, saying that just as the American economy in the 1860s had to learn to do without slaves we would have to develop an economy in which fossil fuels did not play a central role. Towards the end of the question and answer period Ms. May also compared environmentalism to the anti-Apartheid struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.
Interestingly, very little of her talk was actually about the environment. Instead of discussing shrinking polar ice caps or the ozone layer Ms. May spent most of her time either disparaging the Prime Minister or else talking about her life as a Member of Parliament, and the ups and downs of being the only MP for her party. The fact that she barely spoke about environmental issues seemed to underscore how mainstream environmentalism has become. Only during the question and answer session did she really discuss Kyoto, Copenhagen or the myriad other international, national or local efforts to create a greener world.
Many of the efforts that Ms. May did discuss, and many of her proposed solutions, were considerably more pragmatic than one might expect. For instance, she stated that she would be in favour of Alberta continuing its current level of oil extraction, approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, if it were to shut down all of its coal-fired electrical generators and process the bitumen into crude locally rather than exporting bitumen. On the topic of carbon pricing Ms. May said that while she personally preferred a revenue-neutral carbon tax, she would be willing to accept any form of carbon pricing so long as the “polluter pays”.
Of course, not all of Ms. May’s proposed policies were necessarily sound. For instance, she favoured the Bank of Canada loaning the government money at zero percent interest in order to pay down our deficit. Needless to say, this would be a terrible economic policy with many dire consequences for our economy.
Ms. May’s rhetoric was soaring while her policies were are grounded. What was most evident from her talk is that Ms. May has the rare ability to not seem like a politician. She has the ability to speak to everyone. Another thing that seemed implicit was that the Green Party’s base appears to be much more radical than Ms. May, a former staffer in the Mulroney government. Should the Green Party elect more MPs, such as in the upcoming by-election in Labrador, this dichotomy might become more pronounced.
– Matthew Cressatti
Photos Credit: Samyoul Kim/The Political Bouillon