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Election 2019
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Federal Politics

Elizabeth May on Tyee Readers’ Big Questions, a ‘Dispiriting’ Campaign and Her Approach to Minority Government

A question and answer with the Green leader.

Andrew MacLeod 18 Oct 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says the election campaign she’s experiencing doesn’t look anything like the one reflected in news stories, social media and polls.

“We’re in striking distance and in winning position for seats from the Maritimes, through Ontario, Quebec,” May said in a phone interview. “And certainly, Vancouver Island is ground zero for electing Greens, but so is the Lower Mainland.”

We spoke with May on the Friday morning after the French language debate. She was a passenger in a Tesla driving from Ottawa to Montreal for another campaign event, the fall colours vivid enough to merit mention.

The Greens are polling at about eight to 10 per cent across the country, and as high as 16 per cent in British Columbia, where they are strongest. May said the Greens’ numbers are better than ever, but still don’t capture the energy of the crowds at campaign rallies.

The polls also fail to reflect the views of millennial voters, who are more difficult for pollsters to reach, and the many undecideds who may be leaning her way, May said.

“I hope Canadians who are focused on wild salmon and climate policy and reconciliation will realize we better vote Green, not worry about strategic voting, or at least decide the strategic vote is Green,” she said.

“If everyone who wants to vote for their future decides now, ‘OK, even though I don’t usually vote, I’m now going to vote, I’m going to go out and vote Green,’ we’ll be surprising the pundits, which will be a very nice feeling indeed.”

The Tyee sought all four leaders of Canada’s main political parties to participate in interviews and May was the first to accept.

In the interview, May answered questions from Tyee readers on the climate emergency, transitioning the economy, fair taxation, First Nations’ housing and water, pharmacare and dental care. She also discussed the persistence of sexism in politics, the “dispiriting” narrowness of the political debate during the campaign, and what role Greens might play in a minority government.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Tyee: Your platform compares tackling the climate emergency to fighting fascism in the Second World War. Why is that a good comparison and what actions will your party take?

Elizabeth May: It’s not original to me or the Green party to recognize that the last time human society, particularly Canada, confronted an existential threat and transformed our society, transformed our economy, and did it over a relatively short period of time, was the Second World War. The mechanisms that were put in place I think are essential now, particularly the climate equivalent of a war cabinet. It was David Suzuki who made this point to me years ago that we weren’t making progress fighting the climate crisis specifically because of the short-term focus of politicians on figuring out how to win an election while doing as little as possible about the issue. Partisanship is as much an obstacle to progress as the lobbying of big oil, and they do kind of merge.

How do we transition to a green economy without causing mass unemployment and upheaval?

Our problem in Canada isn’t too many workers and too few jobs. Our problem is too many jobs and too few workers. We, as a party, focus on workers. I’ll note parenthetically that I find politicians who talk about “jobs” usually are talking about corporate profits. Our focus is on workers in a very individual way.

It starts with a foundational principle that workers are engaged and fossil fuel-dependent communities are engaged from the beginning. Under our transition plan for Mission Possible, the oil sands will cease production by 2030 and, of course, ramp down every year until we get there. In that period of time we have to ensure workers — they’re all skilled workers with transferable skills — have the comfort and support to know where they are going in a green economy.

The other aspect is that we always talk about this in terms of what it’s going to cost to address the crisis, instead of saying, “What’s its cost if we fail to do this?” Nor do we look at the emerging economic opportunities in new technology, new sectors of the economy. We need more workers for retrofitting our buildings to ensure energy efficiency and, to the greatest extent possible, democratizing electricity production so that individual buildings, homes, individual communities are creating their own energy through solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal and district energy, which combined with maximum energy efficiency will mean the infrastructure is not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, which is a really cool goal.

How fair is the tax system now and what, if anything, would you do to make it more fair?

Our platform calls for a tax commission to assess the current approach, because we have an extremely dense, complicated, impenetrable tax code with layer upon layer of boutique tax cuts and loopholes. We haven’t had a tax commission in this country since the 1960s to actually take it apart and figure out: “Is this progressive? Is this tax system fair?”

Immediate steps we can take and that we do take in our program are to close the stock-option loophole, reduce the corporate write-offs for entertainment and meals. We also have to go after the offshore tax havens. We want to ensure that people pay their fair share. Of course, we eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. We eliminate the capital gains loophole that allows people to count only half their capital gains as taxable income.

We also go after the one-per-cent tax on wealth — that is to say accumulated wealth of $20 million will have a one-per-cent tax. We also are increasing the corporate tax rate to 21 per cent, imposing a Tobin tax on the financial sector of 0.5 per cent, and capturing revenue from the e-commerce giants that currently pay little or no tax at all. We maintain the current [corporate income tax on small business], by the way, we don’t change the nine per cent for small and medium size enterprises.

When we go through all of the elements that we’ve already committed to do, taxation should be fairer because those who are at the highest end of our income bracket now pay relatively less in taxes. It’s clear that the numbers of people who are increasing in wealth are the one per cent, and the people who are having trouble affording their homes or the general cost of living, that gap is widening. We also address that gap of course through social programs, like pharmacare, childcare, low income dental and working towards eliminating poverty through a Guaranteed Livable Income.

What’s your approach on pharmacare?

We had 24 of our platform planks reviewed by the parliamentary budget office. There was a certain amount of sticker shock on the cost of our pharmacare proposal; we believe it could be implemented for less than the parliamentary budget office thinks. We’ve taken their numbers and found the revenue that offsets it. So, our approach is universal, single-payer pharmacare, with a federal agency to bulk buy the drugs.

We’re concerned that people are over-medicated and over-prescribed. We want to make sure every Canadian can afford the medications they need, and we also want to ride hard on big pharma to make sure that we’re not registering drugs that kill more people than they help.

The delivery is still provincial, but we will be bringing down the price of drugs enormously. We’re quite confident that overall we’ll save the Canadian economy in the billions of dollars a year and ensure Canadians have safe and accessible drugs that are part of our health care system and essentially free.

On dental care?

We’re promising dental care for low-income Canadians, anyone earning less than $70,000 a year, that will cost, initially, $3.3 billion.* It’s really essential [that] coverage is provided for medically necessary dental care. I’d love to be able to say we could do universal dental care for all Canadians, but we costed that and it’s just prohibitively expensive. But it’s essential that everyone have access to dental care, particularly kids and low-income families. Dental care is an aspect of health care and I think Canadians understand that.

[Editor’s note, added Oct. 18 at 12:40 p.m.: The Green proposal vetted by the Parliamentary Budget Office was to provide dental care for everyone earning less than $30,000 a year, not $70,000 as May stated in this interview, at an initial annual cost of $3.3 billion. A Green spokesperson confirmed that $30,000 is the correct figure]

What would you do in the next 36 months to improve housing in and provide potable water to remote First Nations communities?

I think we have to start with the structure of our laws. I think we need to heed the finding of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that the structure of our laws constitutes structural violence.

The current structure of how housing is delivered to Indigenous communities is part of the problem. It’s not just money, it’s who owns the houses, who gets to decide what kind of house, what building materials we use, what make sense in a community. Those decisions when they’re imposed, even with the notion of “Here’s your housing, here you go,” are often housing that promotes the creation of mould, that is inappropriate in the ecosystems in which it’s delivered. So, the first thing to do is bring in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and reform our fabric of laws to meet those commitments on rights.

Yes, of course more funding will be needed.

The same thing that’s said about housing applies to potable water, but we must ensure every community has drinkable water with, ideally, an infrastructure that’s owned by the Indigenous community, with appropriate maintenance and upkeep — that also being part of a self-government arrangement.

What would be your conditions for supporting another party in a minority government?

Just to be clear, and I know it’s not very likely, but just on the math, if all the millennial voters turn out and vote Green because they want to preserve a livable world for themselves and their kids, then I’ll be prime minister and the question will be very different.

Let’s just say that in a minority Parliament, Greens have a strong commitment to finding the best possible government given the cards that we’re dealt. We don’t know now what the seat count will be. My biggest fear is people are going to do their usual fear-based panicked stampede to vote Liberal to stop Andrew Scheer, which would be right now a dreadful error, because Scheer is not going to become prime minister in this election. People need to make sure we hold the Liberals to a minority. A majority Liberal government will be a disaster. For voters who are worried that “maybe this time I should hold my nose again,” don’t. Breathe deeply. Breathe through your nose as you wish while voting. And vote Green, because that’s the surest way to get better government.

You’ve been quoted saying climate, electoral reform and reconciliation would be the three key issues if you hold the balance of power after the results are in. Is that correct?

Yes. But we make the mistake quite often, and I think NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh just made it, of negotiating in public. Lowering cellphone rates is apparently as important to him as climate action. He probably didn’t mean to suggest that, but that’s how his press release reads. You don’t negotiate in a hypothetical world, and the range of possibilities in a minority government include everything from a full-on coalition with cabinet seats, all the way through a loose alliance that never actually is concretized. I’d lean more towards that than to a concrete agreement that says we are always going to be giving you support on confidence votes as long as you do the following things.

It’s striking in 2019 to see you on stage with five men as the only female leader of a national party. What difference would having more women leading parties make?

The more women who are involved in politics — it’s transformational for how our little girls see the world. I think it’s very important to have more women elected, and it’s one of those things that’s a chicken-and-egg problem. One reason more women aren’t elected is that it’s so clearly a male-dominated world, and the culture is so male. Did you see the coverage before the debates? Pictures of Justin Trudeau boxing and Jagmeet Singh, what was he doing, kickboxing? Everybody’s doing macho activities.

It’s such a testosterone-soaked environment, it is hard to step up and say, “I’d like to get a word in edgewise, please.” Parliament right now has got to be, I hope it is, Canada’s only workplace where routine bullying is considered not only normal but a sign that you are actually a good leader. I don’t find it acceptable, and I know most women would rather work in an atmosphere where you see progress as you make it and operate in a respectful environment.

The more women who are involved, the more women lead, the better it will be. I lament the fact that in the 13 years I’ve been leader of the Green Party, the only female leadership I’ve experienced in other parties has been interim leaders. It’s appalling to me that I’m still the only federal party leader who’s a woman, and it’s more appalling to me that men who claim to support women’s rights, like Mr. Singh and Mr. Trudeau, participated in the TVA debate that kept us out. I found that appalling. Fighting for a spot on the stage in a leaders’ debate even after having elected Greens in Parliament, even after polling strongly in all parts of the country, it’s further evidence that sexism is as rampant as racism in this country.

How well would you say the campaign period has helped Canadians understand the choice before them?

What I hear when I’m knocking on doors is also how I feel, which is that this is a dispiriting campaign. We claim to be talking about climate, and we’re still in a situation where most of the journalists asking me questions don’t understand the difference between the commitments that we signed onto in the Paris agreement and our current target, which people loosely call the Paris target. It’s really the Harper target, and it’s completely incompatible with our Paris goals. So I find the campaign dispiriting.

The whole context of this election campaign has been more on sizzle than steak. Canadians actually want to know what your platform says. They want to know what are you going to do for affordability? We’re the only party calling for abolishing tuition and investing in postsecondary education, but how many Canadians know that?

Because people are much more interested in asking you about why someone on our staff unbeknownst to me decided to take a perfectly green compostable cup and cover it up with another cup. I have no idea why that happened, but I have to say, I’ve spent more time on that than explaining climate science and why Mission Possible will work.  [Tyee]

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