By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Canadian Press.

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) is wrapping up its panels today, hearing from David McLaughlin, formerly Chief of Staff to Brian Mulroney, in addition to professor Craig Scott and Graham Fox, president of policy think tank, the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP.) From here, the committee will begin its tours across Canada to hear from Canadians. Those consultations are expected to start later this month in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Past interviews:
Francis Scarpaleggia.
Gérard Deltell.
Nathan Cullen.

Capping off our series of interviews, Inside the ERRE, is Green Party leader Elizabeth May. A parliamentarian who needs little introduction, May also represents the riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. She spoke candidly to us about her thoughts leading up to her decision last week to stay on as party leader despite the Green Party’s controversial adoption of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel during a recent party convention. As she explains, her research into electoral systems for her work on the committee gave her new insights into the democratic failings and divisive group decision-making that was plaguing her party internally.

image (11).jpg
Green party leader Elizabeth May (L) with NDP MP Nathan Cullen (R) at a press conference for electoral reform. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.)

Are you satisfied with how the committee is progressing?

Oh yes, I am very honoured to be participating in this work. This is clearly one of the most important parliamentary exercises maybe in a generation in terms of democratic institutions and reform – and the committee structure is certainly innovative, almost unprecedented – I certainly haven’t found an example yet of where a governing party with a majority of the seats in parliament has deliberately structured a committee so that they won’t have a majority on the committee.

I think (the committee) has received a surprising lack of attention in the mainstream media but this committee is working quite diligently and well in a situation where it’s far more non-partisan. It’s more like the old committee process that we used to have – before the last ten years when things became increasingly partisan in committees – this committee is operating in a very non-partisan and respectful way. We’re doing a lot of work and I think we’re making good progress.

Last week, of course, you announced you were staying on as Green Party leader.

How big of a factor was electoral reform and the committee in your decision?

My committee seat wasn’t in any way tied to being leader of the Green Party. It isn’t even tied to being a member of the Green Party. But it was pivotal in my decision because what I realized was that we had quite accidentally as a party – I refer to this in the press conference as a ‘teachable moment’ (laughs) – where, I think, we had accidentally backed a way of running our conventions that really resembles First Past the Post (FPTP). Being that it’s simple, it’s decisive, it’s fast, clear, but it results in policy lurches and bad policy from false majorities and so on.

The leading work on voting systems is from Arend Lijphart, Research Professor Emeritus at the University of California (but originally he was Dutch.) He classifies two major families of voting systems. One he calls majoritarian oppositional, that would be FPTP and ranked ballots, the other he classifies as consensus-based proportional representation. Now what’s interesting is that at our convention we actually moved from consensus-based to majoritarian oppositional. So if I had been in any doubt at all that decision-making is affected by the system you use to arrive at decisions, our convention was a very strong reminder that ‘Green’ values really move to consensus decision-making.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May speaks at the Victoria Conference Centre. October 19, 2015. (Photo: Chad Hipolito, CP.)

So it was factor in an unusual way because as I was away for my week of holiday and reflection, I was also reading a lot of material on these distinctions and I kept thinking, ‘wow, I did not anticipate this unusual, aberrant decision of our members –’ and I was there and I went along with it, I said ‘we’ll try Robert’s Rules of Order one time, sure let’s see how it works’. Well boy, oh boy was that a mistake.

It was also a factor in that I knew one way or the other I had to resolve the issue of whether I was staying or going, because the uncertainty around that would have been a distraction. Obviously now I’m focused entirely on the committee. The Council of the Green Party and the Executive of the Green Party are sorting out the special meeting where we will revisit the decisions that were arrived at without consensus in the past meeting (and there were more than one or two motions.) We’ll revisit those in a special meeting – I hope – before the end of this calendar year to restore our consensus process as a party as I work very hard to achieve a more consensus-based parliament for Canadians.

Speaking on proportional representation, there’s a number of PR systems – how open are you to negotiating the system eventually chosen?

I’m completely open! I’m an agnostic as to what system. I just have two bottom lines: every Canadian should know who their MPs are with some local linkage and two, that we really mean it, as the speech to the throne said, to ensure that every vote counts, 2015 will be the last election held under FPTP. That means proportionality and a local link. Those are the two things I want.

Now within proportionality and local linkage, you have quite a wide range of possibilities, you could pick Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), like Germany and New Zealand, you could pick Single Transferable Vote (STV), like Ireland, or the Australian Senate, or Malta or the Scottish Council elections – there’s lots of examples from around the world where you see MMP or STV used – or perhaps we could move to a hybrid system like the one being proposed by the committee by our former Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley.

So I’m wide open to a proportional system that works for Canadians. We’re mindful of things like fair representation for rural Canada, that we don’t get things to focused on urban Canada; we have to be sensitive to the regional nature of Canada – we don’t want a voting system that exacerbates national divides. But actually, I think any form of PR will be better for Canadian unity than FPTP. That was a point made in a really interesting way by Ed Broadbent this week, when he was testifying to the committee that Pierre Trudeau had invited him to the Liberal cabinet even when the Liberals had a majority because they lacked seats in key regions because of FPTP. There’s a really interesting dynamic with how similar the lack of a voice for Western Canada in Pierre Trudeau’s caucus is to the lack of a voice for Atlantic Canada in the current Conservative and NDP caucuses. The regional divide issue is exasperated by winner-takes-all voting systems.

I’ve always favoured proportional representation, well before I joined a political party. I’ve always wanted fair voting. But the more I’m in politics, the more I realize that FPTP is a toxic system because it encourages people in politics to be really hostile to other parties and other party leaders in elections because any cooperation can end up undermining your so-called, ‘loyalty of your party supporters to voting for your party’. Apparently, this is how people feel. Not me, I’ve always been willing to say positive things and congratulate leaders of other parties when they do the right thing. But the reason there’s so much ‘elbows out’, nastiness in politics in Canada is, I think, largely due to FPTP.

The House of Commons Chamber on Parliament Hill. June 29, 2016 (Photo: Brendan Smialowski, AFP.)

Something I’ve learnt from being on the committee is the depth of political science literature on these very topics of what makes FPTP such a bad voting system and why PR is of benefit for far more than getting more women into parliament in larger numbers, getting more indigenous people into parliament in larger numbers, fairness in the proportionality of the electoral results in terms of popular vote reflected in the seat count – those are all things I knew about before – but diving into the literature and hearing experts testify, it’s very interesting to realize something I hadn’t thought of before which is the nature of FPTP resulting in ‘policy lurches’. Particularly in Canadian politics, we go hard left, hard right, hard left, hard right – binary choices – because people act strategically to throw the bums out.

Then you have, after ten years of Harper as prime minister – and quite rightly, the Liberals are trying to undo the damage he did – but the other aspect of Canadian democracy which makes FPTP a particularly dangerous system is that our prime minister, even in a minority government, has extraordinary powers over the executive and the legislature, but in a majority has total control over executive and legislature with nothing like the checks and balances of the French or US system. And Canadians don’t think about this much, but it’s particularly important to make sure that a minority of voters can’t elect a majority in government in a situation where a majority prime minister has essentially unrivaled powers in any democracy around the world.

During the Maclean’s debate last year, some might have been surprised to hear you call vote splitting, a ‘non problem.’ Especially when the Green Party is known to encourage electoral cooperation with other parties in the past.

Is vote splitting a problem with Canada’s FPTP system?

It’s very clear that people vote strategically when they want to throw the bums out and that’s something we understand very clearly. In our own context, in early August, when I was allowed in one debate, the Conservatives and the NDP working together managed to get the major national television debate canceled. With that we would have gotten quite a few Greens elected, even under FPTP, so that was unfortunate.

But it’s not that vote splitting is a problem but the system for voting is so unfair that it encourages people to vote strategically and they do that even in ridings that I didn’t expect, even in ridings where there was no chance of a Conservative winning, because people in their head, don’t think about that – I’m generalizing – but I became much more aware of it during the election campaign that people weren’t thinking ‘I’m electing an MP in my riding and there’s no chance of a Conservative winning here.’

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (left), Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper meet before the Maclean’s leaders’ debate. Aug. 6, 2015. (Photo: Mark Blinch, Reuters.)

What loomed in the heads of people who ended up voting strategically, where they had no real reason to do so, was an imaginary ballot, which exists nowhere, where you could see a ballot with Stephen Harper’s name, Tom Mulcair’s name, Justin Trudeau’s name, my name and Gilles Duceppe – and they’d think, ‘oh my gosh, I don’t want to give my vote to any party other than the one who has the best chance to beat Stephen Harper.’ That’s a non-ballot. That doesn’t exist anywhere.

But there’s no question people voted that way because under FPTP, it was a nightmare and people were very concerned even where it was a irrational concern that if they voted for the candidate they most wanted, they’d help keep in power the party they least wanted.

Is a referendum necessary?

No, a referendum is neither necessary nor desirable. But the more important question is changing our voting system, change that requires a level of legitimacy that is more rigorous than, say, the process the average legislation of parliament goes through? Now, it’s a majority vote and nobody questions the legitimacy of that. Changing our voting system does require something more, that’s why the committee is so unusual; that this committee is not only composed differently, but for the first time ever, a committee is encouraging social media engagement: asking questions that come to us by Twitter and doing it quite deliberately as a way of trying to keep Canadians much more engaged in this process than they’ve ever been before in a legislative committee.

And we’re going across the country to every province and territory. It’s going to be a torture test, I can tell you, on a physical basis. I can’t imagine anything I’m looking forward to less (laughs) than being on airplane every single day for two and a half weeks to make sure we’ve gotten to every province and territory. But it’s essential that public confidence in this process remains strong. That is, if this committee comes to an agreement, which includes, obviously, most of the parties at the table, ideally a consensus, then the recommendation we’ve made will have a lot of legitimacy. And then it’s up to the cabinet to decide if they respect the work done by this parliamentary committee.

There are many roads and ‘decision tree moments’ that lie ahead, but if an all party committee of five parties, where the liberals don’t have a majority, were to come to an agreement with a consensus that includes most of the parties around the table, then that level of legitimacy following public hearings across the country, MP town halls across the country, electronically sending us responses to an E-questionnaire that’s now online – those levels of legitimacy – I think, surpass and overcome the objection that ‘you haven’t consulted with Canadians, so you can’t do this.’

I think the government has a mandate to do it, we had 63% of Canadians vote for candidates whose parties who had said prominently in campaign platforms that we were going to get rid of FPTP. That’s a mandate. I don’t want to see the Liberals try to wiggle out of that. That’s a mandate. But where we have uncertainty in that mandate is what replaces FPTP. In my view it has to be something proportional, because that’s what gets us to 63%. You take the Liberal commitment (with 39% voting for) that 2015 will be the last election held under FPTP, with the NDP’s votes which say ‘and we will use MMP’ – I don’t think we’re wedded to use MMP, it could be some form of PR and still meet that test and certainly the NDP are much more flexible to other voting systems than they were during the election and we’re wide open to the voting system, provided it’s proportional.

So that’s a mandate. But it’s clear that legitimacy is a big question for Canadians and, look, my argument is we’ve had citizenship assemblies in Canada recently, one in Ontario, one in BC, we’ve had the 2004 Law Commission. The first time a parliamentary committee took up the issue of FPTP voting as antiquated and unfair and whether should we change to PR, was in 1921. Parliament is the right place to make this decision. But it will take more than the average bill and it will take passing the test of legitimacy. A lot of that legitimacy will come from the fact that if we recommend a fair voting system for PR, that will disadvantage the Liberals and the Conservatives by preventing the possibility of ever again having a majority of the seats coming from a minority of the voters – and that is such a stunning possibility of acting in the public interest opposed to self-interested dealings by political parties that, I think, Canadians will have trust in that.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand speaks to Elizabeth May as he appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill on July 7, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.)

In other words, the more we as committee members are not wearing our ‘party hats’ and are actually absorbing this evidence as we go across the country to listen to Canadians, the more that process is non-partisan and in the public interest, the greater we pass that legitimacy threshold. The less that applies, for instance, if the Liberals came up with their own plan and no other parties agree with it, the more the process lacks legitimacy and then the referendum issue comes up again. But if the promise holds and we have legitimacy in being consensus-based across parties with a substantial outreach over the coming months – and you know, I think we’re meeting Marc Mayrand’s deadline of what he needs to make sure Elections Canada is ready – that will give us a solid two years.

And this a key thing for me: in the two years between when legislation is first put before parliament and when we next vote, there must be a significant allocation for public education, conversation, maybe even tweeting along the line, but surely there has got to be a substantial effort to educate voters about the ballot – the ballot may be exactly the same, in which case the education level never goes down – but still even if it’s a different system and the ballot looks the same, we’ve got the time required to make sure Canadians know how this is going to result in a fairer parliament where the popular vote is reflected in the number of seats.

Do you have an opinion on mandatory and online voting?

I’ve actually suggested we should be clearer with Canadians because at this time, Marc Mayrand – I mean he is outgoing as head of Elections Canada – but basically I think the advice will hold that any substantial online voting opportunity is not right for 2019 and mostly we’re talking about some pilot projects.

For instances, we could try it in a by-election to make it easier for people with disabilities to vote. We are certainly getting a lot of proposals on online voting, but I’m just mindful of the fact that there are concerns with how to ensure there isn’t hacking of the vote. So I think where we’re going on online voting is about appropriate. We don’t want to overstate it as a key issue for us to determine because the reality is we’re not going to have a lot of online voting by 2019. But it is something looming in many minds – all democracies around the world are looking at it.

Estonia is actually the first country to have an election with online voting. Some level of online voting will be coming to Canada. So it’s good we’re consulting on it. But it’s not going to be in wide use by 2019. The other piece, mandatory voting pops up with our witnesses. In my polling of my riding, it’s not popular with voters in my riding although voters there overwhelmingly want to see the end of FPTP and some form of proportional representation. So we’ll see where the issues take us. Something I’m also interested in, since we’re getting (relatively) a lot of commentary on it is changing the voting age to 16 which wasn’t in our specific mandate from the minister. But it is coming up, so I’m interested in hearing what Canadians think about that as we travel the country.

Do you believe the parties will reach a compromise on electoral reform in the final committee report?

I believe we will achieve a broad consensus. If not everybody, almost everybody.

I wish you good luck with your work, Ms May on the special committee. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on electoral reform and the committee. It’s been a pleasure.

The following interview was held 31/08/2016. Edited and condensed.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes


3 thoughts on “Elizabeth May shares her hopes for a consensus-based parliament: Interview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s