Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Event: Elizabeth May and How Not to Lose Confidence in Canadian Politics

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At the Event: Elizabeth May and How Not to Lose Confidence in Canadian Politics

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

The launch for Elizabeth May’s latest book, Losing Confidence, (McClelland & Stewart, 2009), took place last week, hosted at Ben McNally Books. May is the current leader of the Green Party of Canada, and was the Executive Director of the Sierra Club for seventeen years.

May entered the Green Party of Canada’s leadership race in 2006 after resigning from the Sierra Club and has gone on to garner unprecedented support for the party, with one million Green votes in the 2008 federal election. Monday’s event was the first public launch of Losing Confidence, and the audience was comprised of a lively mix of Green supporters, journalists, curious Torontonians and book lovers. Ben McNally introduced May and jokingly encouraged the crowd to force everyone they know to read her book. May, an animated and engaging figure, balanced her discussion of sober political issues with a very humorous and anecdotal style of speaking.

Losing Confidence, May’s seventh book, is her manifesto for change in Canadian politics and it builds on the environmental themes of her earlier works, including Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal (HarperCollins, 2000), How to Save the World in Your Spare Time (Key Porter Books, 2006) and Global Warming for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008). One of the main tenets of Losing Confidence is the hypothesis that Canadians no longer have a functioning democracy, but merely the vestiges of one.

During her talk at the launch, May cited rampant partisanship as one of the major causes of the breakdown of the democratic system, providing clear examples of campaign attack ads running for the first time outside of the election cycle in Canada as well as the overwhelming use of filibusters in the House of Commons. She discussed the new face of Canadian politics — what she sees to be a presidential-style Prime Minister lacking the checks and balances of both the Canadian and US systems, and a hostile House of Commons featuring deadlocked committees.

May proposed a shift to proportional representation in Canada as one solution to the current democratic crisis. Proportional representation, an alternate electoral system to Canada’s “first past the post” system, is used in a wide range of countries, including Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Denmark, Ireland, Bolivia, Sweden and Mexico. She suggested looking to New Zealand, which is also a constitutional monarchy, as a model for Canada. New Zealanders, following two national referendums in the 1990s, adopted a mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system. The result has been a change from single party majority governments to coalition governments, which has seen the smooth and timely passing of budgets; greater consultation between parties; and increased representation of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori peoples, women and visible minorities. May described the current first past the post electoral system as archaic, explaining that the only three countries still employing it — Canada, England and the United States — also share the lowest voter turnouts. She feels a move to proportional representation would require the increased cooperation and sharing of goals that are currently missing in today’s partisan political climate.

May also addressed the need for increased public awareness of the problems affecting Canada and cited the record lows of the 2008 elections for emphasis: only 58% of Canadians voted. “Despite the parliamentary crisis of November 2008,” May writes in Losing Confidence, “Canadians are not particularly aware that the essence of our democracy is at risk. The essential elements of a functional democracy are a free and independent media, a well-informed and engaged electorate, and high levels of participation on voting day.”

During the launch, May made the interesting point that the reason why campaign attack ads are effective is by purposely making voters feel disenchanted and not want to participate in the electoral process. She proposed turning the tactic of attack ads on its head by voting actively for politicians who refuse to employ them and no longer trying to express political disapproval through non-participation.

“We could have greater levels of participation in elections. We need to set aside aggressive, combative politics to allow the public to believe there are people and policies worth voting for. We could reform our voting system to allow proportional representation…We could engage in a respectful discourse. And, fundamentally, we could reverse the dangerous trends that are allowing our parliamentary democracy to warp into the worst of all worlds — an imperial prime ministerial rule in the absence of the checks and balances placed on U.S. presidential powers. Our democracy is precious. It is worth fighting for.” (Losing Confidence, McClelland & Stewart)

May concluded by proposing a move toward a government that strives to represent the collective will and power of Canadian citizens, with a genuine commitment to public service and serving the common good. She briefly outlined her “habits of effective citizenship,” which include an active engagement in politics, becoming a citizen watchdog and expressing public support on issues through letters to editors of major newspapers and radio shows. The launch concluded with May by taking questions from the crowd on topics that ranged from Al Gore’s stance on nuclear power to her difficulties trying to negotiate a Green and NDP coalition in 2008. She listened carefully to each audience member’s question and provided energetic and thoughtful responses, sharing anecdotes of being snubbed by Layton at a charity dinner and detailing her disappointment in the environmental policies of the Liberal, Conservative and NDP parties. The event, which wrapped up with May continuing to chat and sign books, offered a preview of the original political insights of Losing Confidence and was also a unique opportunity to listen to one of Canada’s foremost politicians speak candidly on today’s issues.

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