Earlier this month Carol and I attended a CFUW meeting at which we heard Elizabeth May speak. She was introduced to her audience as "the smartest woman in Canada." She is an MP, the leader of the Green Party. I was expecting to learn something about the Green Party that evening, but she hardly mentioned it except by implication. The theme of her talk was Canadian democracy. At one point, with an allusion to Monty Python, she called it "a dead parrot."
"My vision comes from paying attention through six decades of living," she told us. We should all do likewise––pay attention, get engaged, get busy. We have a diminished democracy in Canada now, with political parties and their leaders exerting unhealthy amounts of power, so an informed and active citizenry is essential.
Ms. May comes from a family of left wing activists and she grew up on Cape Breton. She describes herself as a single mum who has no undergraduate degree, although she does have a degree in law. She's a grandmother and a vegetarian who has just published her eighth book, Who We Are, the book being part autobiography and part economic theory. It was the content of the book she wanted to talk about.
She told us who we were. The Canadians' good press was undeserved, she said, and in any case, we no longer have that good reputation. Our state now resembles an "elected dictatorship," with most MPs voting as they're told to vote and the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) being "a cancerous growth that needs to be excised." In her opinion, the PMO's budget, now at $10 million, should be slashed to $2 million at most. Her concern is that the electorate has allowed our democratic system to become "presidentialised." She fears that the only check on the abuse of power is self-restraint and reminded us that Mr. Harper the Prime Minister was not actually elected into that role.
20 years ago, she claims, we used to get better quality news. Now what we are allowed to know is far less useful and objective information is harder to obtain. Legislative committees have become politicised and political parties have charitable status, which makes it easy for them to spend, for example (in the case of the conservatives), $10 million in TV adverts. Nor does she like the way parliamentarians behave in the Houses of Parliament. She spoke of "contempt of Parliament on a daily basis" and called Question Period "bad high school theatre"––she says it's actually against the rules to heckle but no one takes any notice of the rules. The politicians also rehearse their answers to the questions, so the whole process is very artificial. She's obviously disgusted by it and pointed out that Flora MacDonald, whom she greatly admires, believes that "they haven't had a good Speaker [in the House of Commons] since 1972."
It's regrettable, thinks Ms. May, that the opposition parties were unwilling to work together in 2006, when the Conservatives began to lead their minority government. As a rule, minority governments have been healthier for democracy, in her opinion.
Anyway, the apathetic or despairing among us must get over the idea that by not voting we are somehow punishing the powers that be. More of the electorate didn't vote, last time round, than voted Conservative. If only they had bothered. But our first-past-the-post voting system in Canada is unfair and antiquated. It needs to be changed.
This was all preaching to the converted, it seemed, because when she finished speaking she got a standing ovation.