One morning this session, at the start of parliamentary business, Elizabeth May and Liberal MP Frank Valeriote ran into each other in the House of Commons. They had both been there late the night before for a debate. Valeriote apparently assumed that May had had the misfortune to be assigned a morning shift in the House. “He looked at me and he was so tired he forgot that I didn’t have somebody ordering me around,” May recalls. “He said, ‘Oh jeez, did you get House duty again?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, my leader’s such a bitch.’ ”
The joke, of course, is that Elizabeth May is her own leader. And the truth is that Elizabeth May doesn’t have House duty. Because, rather than putting in periodic shifts in the House of Commons, May is rarely anywhere else. The House of Commons is her office. “By the time you look at all the things that it’s possible to do as a right as an individual MP, I think the question isn’t why do I spend so much time in the House,” she says, “it’s why don’t other MPs spend time in the House?”
A week after the American presidential election—a massive undertaking of money and technology that Barack Obama won with the assistance of behavioural scientists—Elizabeth May has just finished standing on a street corner in Victoria, waving at motorists as they drive to work. “It’s a nice, friendly thing to do,” she says. Plus there’s not much else a campaign can do between 7 and 9am.
She is being driven to another street corner, where she will wave at more cars, while she tries to explain why she is otherwise almost always found in her seat in the far left corner of the House of Commons. “Well, it’s the logical thing to do,” she says. “Everybody else calls it House duty and I just call it work.”
She had assumed that last year’s election would result in another minority parliament and had been thinking about what influence she could have in that circumstance as a lone Green MP. She was hoping she could advance the discussion of a coalition government. But then election night came and the television networks heralded the arrival of a majority government. “At that point I began rethinking everything. And that’s when I read O’Brien and Bosc cover to cover and began to consider what will be the pivot points from which one seat can create a lot of leverage,” she says. “And that means being in the House. Because your opportunity, for instance, to be heard, to speak on issues, to ensure that no bill goes by where the Green party view is not expressed in Hansard. I get one question a week in Question Period, but essentially there’s no limit on the numbers of time I can stand to speak in debates on legislation.”
Her officially allotted office, located in the Confederation Building at the foot of Parliament Hill, has been turned over to four staff members and 20 interns. She periodically steps out of the office to take a meeting or conduct an interview, but her seat near the translators is her base of operations. And that there is now a near-constant presence in Seat 309—like a human mace when the House is in session—compels her colleagues to take her into account, even if just in the smallest of ways: House leaders, she says, now make sure to run upcoming requests for unanimous consent by her before presenting them to the Speaker. “It was reinforced for me that I have to be in there as much as possible when there were some unanimous consent efforts that nearly slipped past me, where I really didn’t want to give consent,” she says. “And if I’m going to get the other parties to take seriously that they need to consult the Green party before they assume they have unanimous consent it has to be a plausible threat: that I’m actually there all the time and you’re not likely to slip by a unanimous consent motion.”
If, when she stands to speak, she is heckled, she returns to her seat and waits for the noise to stop. This fall she has risen to contribute to debates about free trade with Panana, a foreign investment deal with China, the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, oil spill prevention in the Arctic, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the military justice system, immigration law and food inspection, while also introducing C-454, An Act respecting an All Buffleheads Day and beseeching the Speaker to rule on the parameters around the 15 minutes before Question Period reserved for one-minute statements by MPs. “I have had colleagues in civil society say, ‘If I were you I wouldn’t spend anytime in the House, it’s useless for you to be there, you should be criss-crossing the country building support for the Green party.’ But, again, that’s what I would do if I thought my primary responsibility was to the Green party. But I don’t. My primary responsibility is to the voters of Saanich-Gulf Islands who sent me to the House of Commons. And they do not want to find that they’ve elected someone who has used and, I think, abused the trust they’ve placed in me to be the best possible member of parliament for them and be a voice in the House of Commons to restore civility and respect and to push back on the heckling. I think it’s a big part of why I was elected and it’s a big part of what I want to do, that can’t be done while criss-crossing the country talking about partisan politics.”
Two weeks after the House convened last year for the 41st Parliament, May stood as the only vote against extending the country’s military mission in Libya. A year later she helped lead the fight against C-38, the omnibus budget bill. In the all-night vote marathon that followed, she was one of five MPs to be present for all 157 votes. As she cast the last opposition vote against the bill, she received a standing ovation from the MPs around her and she cried. (For the record, she did not require diapers to remain in the House for 23 consecutive hours without a break. “I drank very little water. I was judicious,” she says. “I figured I needed to have enough liquids to keep me from dying.” She had some experience in this regard: A decade earlier she’d been outside Centre Block, staging a 17-day hunger strike to protest the Sydney Tar Ponds.)
On the phone, May is like your cheerful, eccentric aunt. She is enthusiastic and effusive on almost all points. Her sentences are regularly footnoted as they’re spoken. “Put me down with Stanley Knowles,” she says of the former NDP MP who was given a seat at the clerk’s table when he retired after 16 years as the MP for Winnipeg Centre. “I think that if they let me sit there into my 80s, I’d sit there. I love parliamentary democracy. I am fascinated by procedure. I’m beside myself with the way things are slipping.” What follows then is a 524-word dissertation—stretching from the slightest breach of decorum to the profound questions of power at the heart of our system—on the state of parliamentary democracy in Ottawa.
“I know it sounds small, but you’re not supposed to have members of Parliament standing and waiting their turn because they know when they’re going to be called and they have their speech ready and they’ve got the little podium and they’ve got a written speech in front of them and they’re standing while someone else is speaking. No one is supposed to stand except the person that’s been recognized by the Speaker and until you’re recognized by the Speaker you’re not supposed to stand. I know these may seem like small points, but it’s indicative of a failure to recognize that the respect for traditions in the House of Commons may start with things like one person stands at a time and only when recognized by the Speaker. And as soon as the Speaker stands, the person who’s in full oratory flight is supposed to sit down. Those are things that when you ignore that you also can get away with having a prime minister who ignores all parliamentary tradition and prorogues—well, not all, because Sir John A. Macdonald did it once and then paid for it by losing power—but you’re not supposed to prorogue the House of Commons to avoid a political difficulty. So a failure to respect our traditions of Stephen Harper proroguing twice then launched into Dalton McGuinty proroguing. This is very unhealthy for democracy. Because we are a Westminster parliamentary democracy and tradition and if we don’t pay attention and respect Parliament, then we are allowing the Prime Minister’s Office, which doesn’t exist as an entity in our constitution, it’s not like the executive branch and the White House in the U.S. constitution—the notion of a Prime Minister’s Office as an entity in the machinery of government is simply an invention, but it’s like a cancerous growth. And as the Prime Minister’s Office grows, and this is a trend we started with Pierre Trudeau in a much more innocuous way, it’s not reached its apex, but if we don’t do anything to stop it, what else will the next prime minister do? And as the PMO grows into being the all-powerful decision-maker, leaving cabinet ministers, basically their job appears to be the primary public relations spokesperson for an area of policy they had nothing to do with developing, it’s dangerous to health of democracy. So respect for Parliament, to me, is synonymous with respect for democracy. And I respect Parliament and that’s where the work is happening. I respect … there’s very few ministers who actually, actually I can only think of one, who sit though parliamentary debate on their own bills. And that’s, and should I say for credit where credit’s due, Jason Kenney. When his bills are being debated and when I rise to criticize his legislation, he actually knows what I’m talking about and will make a reasoned defence of his own legislation. But for the most part, it’s like a ritualized form of theatre. And that’s dangerous. It’s not just a relic, sort of an anachronism, that we still have parliamentary democracy. That’s the system. And the problem is PMO, not Parliament.”
She could go on. And, in fact, she does as the conversation continues (for an extra 15 minutes beyond the allotted half hour after she and the person driving her go a bit off course).
Each party, she says, has its own version of the PMO: “people who are unelected, political, full-time strategists, who only care about winning and I don’t think they have a single strand of DNA in their being that cares about the good of the country as a whole.” The public never sees them, but these are the people, she says, who “call the shots.” “I don’t have any of that,” she says, “and as long as I’m leader of the Green party we never will.”
It is easier for her to say. She is, so far as the House of Commons is concerned, an independent MP. She is the leader of her party, but she is also its only elected member. She has no caucus to consider, no colleagues with whom she might clash. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate any of her concerns about the function and functioning of Parliament, the role of MPs and the balance of power. But it does provide her an entirely unique position from which she can survey Parliament and publicly pronounce on its fitness.
It is from this vantage point—literally Seat 309, but also figuratively Seat 309—that she makes her pitch. “Greens, when we’re a larger group in the House, will be able to demonstrate you can be a political party, you can adhere to the same values, and you can do it while respecting the role of Members of Parliament, not as non-entity nobodies who fill a space on behalf of their brand until the next time that there’s a sales pitch, but as actual thinking, conscientious, dedicated, community leaders,” she says. “And frankly, I would say that by far, like well over 90% of the current House of Commons fit that description of being thoughtful, dedicated and community-minded people who, because of the current tyranny of hyper-partisanship, spend their days taking orders and minding their Ps and Qs and deeply resenting it. People resent it to different degrees, but it’s not really what they signed up for.”
She is, of course, a politician—obviously and thoroughly. As sure as she will stand on a street corner in Victoria, she has something to sell and she needs people to believe in it, if even just a little bit. So maybe this is her angle. It could be that this is merely her opening. It could be that Parliament is merely a tool to further her political career. But all that could be true and maybe her larger point would still stand. “As long as Canadians are encouraged, and I think they are encouraged, to regard parliament as dysfunctional and uninteresting, then that means surrendering their own levers of power and saying, okay, we’ll let the people we didn’t elect run everything. You elected your MP. Your MP is accountable to you and should be accountable to no one else. And Canadians need to reclaim that.”
She is simultaneously running for Parliament and against the system. “I’m so liberated by my status,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade places with any other MP. The only MP I’d trade places with is the member for Calgary Southwest.”