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May Lectures Singh Again, This Time for Not ‘Rushing’ for a Seat

Green leader thinks too many Canadians confuse their system with US ‘popularity contest.’

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 5 Oct 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Federal Green leader Elizabeth May said she wasn’t trying to be snarky when she sent a welcoming tweet to new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh that read more like a scold by a civics teacher.

But when The Tyee asked May to elaborate Wednesday, she fired another shot across Singh’s bow, expressing displeasure that any party leader might not quickly seek a seat in Parliament.

Singh responded, telling The Tyee he is “comfortable” emulating the late NDP leader Jack Layton by serving as party leader without a seat, and he hasn’t fully made up his mind anyway.

May’s first critique came Sunday, in response to Singh’s tweet he was “officially launching” his “campaign to be the next Prime Minister of Canada.”

May’s tweeted response: “I welcome you to federal politics and hope 4 friendship, but Canada does not elect Prime Ministers. #notUSA.”

May was pointing out in Canada Members of Parliament are elected by seats and the leader of the winning party becomes prime minister, something she told The Tyee she once also did for late NDP leader Jack Layton when he made similar comments.

She described parliamentary democracy as the prime minister being first among equals with the rest of MPs and Canadians who are aiming for responsible government.

In Westminster democracy the person with the majority of support across the house is named PM by the governor general, but over time the existence of parties has made it the de facto leader of the winning party.

“It’s important to know that the prime minister of Canada is not an official position the way the president is,” May told The Tyee. “It’s not a constitutionally enshrined position.”

After her Sunday comments to Singh she was quickly overwhelmed by an onslaught of indignation as people called her petty, snarky and one person accused her of “whitesplaining.”

But May maintains she was simply trying to underline a growing problem in Canadian politics; the use of American language in political conversations causing Canada to stray from its Westminster system. Much of it stems from watching too much U.S. political drama, she said.

It’s a problem because it affects Canadians’ understanding of how their system of government works and gives politicians an opening to exploit such misunderstandings, she said.

She used the examples of both Stephen Harper in 2008 and the BC Liberals lead by Christy Clark earlier this year, who both held hung Parliaments, accusing opposition parties of overturning the results of the election through coalitions.

“If you frame that as ‘Christy Clark won and these guys are overturning the results’ then what’s normal and democratic in our Westminster system appears anti-democratic,” May said. “And that’s the danger of adopting U.S. language.”

Such distortion of how the Westminster system actually works makes voters “discombobulated,” she said, when a coalition or hung parliament happens.

It’s also lead to acceptance of top-down leadership in political parties stifling the democratic system in Canada, May said. The media has helped it along by accusing leaders of being weak when one of their MPs speaks out against the party.

Fear of US-style ‘personality contest’

The use of American language has seeped into the Canadian system to the point it’s becoming increasingly “presidentialized,” turning it in to a popularity contest about leaders rather than policy, May said.

A symptom, she implied in her Tyee interview, might be Singh, because he currently does not have a seat in Parliament and said he isn’t likely to seek one in a by-election.

May slapped down voices approving of Singh’s likely strategy of traveling across Canada with the hope of recruiting new NDP party members, workers, candidates and voters in preparation for the 2019 election.

“It would be quite wrong to say, as some media commentators are saying,” that Singh “doesn’t need to rush to get a seat,” May said. “That again is another way of saying it’s a personality contest, [that] doing the work in Parliament doesn’t matter.”

May said Singh needs to demonstrate his abilities on the floor of the House. “I’m sorry, if you want to hold the confidence of the House and you want to elect enough seats to hold the confidence of the House, you’d better have House of Commons experience. You better actually have displayed what you’re going to do in Parliament as an opposition leader in Parliament.”

NDP leader Singh responded to May, telling The Tyee, “I am comfortable not having a seat in the House. Other New Democratic leaders who have been incredibly successful, like Jack Layton, haven’t had a seat and have spent time getting to know Canadians. I have also said that I am open to counsel on this, so I haven’t made a decision, but I am comfortable with this right now.”

Change how PMs are chosen: May

Despite urging Singh to join the Parliamentary fray at the first opportunity, May complained Question Period is a “partisan gong show” rather than a chance for elected officials to really hold the government to account.

MPs are acting as “slavish automatons” parroting their party’s positions, and in so doing shirking their role, she said. The job of an MP not in cabinet is to hold the government to account, even in same party, May said.

Returning to the purpose of her tweeted Sunday lesson, May said she considers it important to explain how Canadian and U.S. political systems differ.

“The prime minister in Canada has more power within our system of government than the president has in the U.S. system of government,” she said. “So it’s really important to understand the limits on that power.”

May said the current supply-confidence agreement in B.C.’s legislature is a good example of how parliamentary democracy should work, saying such an agreement federally would be an ideal scenario for her party.

She advocates for a change championed by University of Quebec Montreal political science and law dean Hugo Cyr, which suggests the prime minister be chosen by a vote in the House of Commons after an election is held.

Cyr recommends the election of the prime minister happen after the house has chosen as speaker and before the first throne speech.

May said such a method would reinforce the notion Canadians do not elect a prime minister directly.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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