Green Party leader Elizabeth May talks to Y! Canada News about byelections, Justin Trudeau, carbon taxes and foreign investment

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News Writer
Canada Politics

Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May recently spoke with Yahoo! Canada News about her party's continuing momentum, Justin Trudeau, carbon taxes and the recently signed Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) that has her "extremely alarmed."

Yahoo! Canada News: We've seen the Green Party break significant ground in the last few years, with the leaders' debate and earning a seat in the house. At the same time, we've seen support drop. Do you have a theory as to why?

May: Our support has actually built since my election. Our highest support in voting was when I was included in the leaders' debate. So in 2008, we had our highest level of electoral support. But, of course, we didn't win a seat. Between the two results, I'd rather win a seat, because, otherwise, people say, "You're never going to get elected anyway."

When we held rallies across the country, we were getting larger crowds than the NDP — but they weren't covered. I don't regard that as much of a surprise that our vote dropped from about 7 per cent nationally in the 2008 election campaign to about 4 per cent nationally in the 2011 campaign. But we won the seat.

Since I've been elected, our polling numbers are back up between, depending on the poll, 5-6 and 9-10 per cent. So there's been no drop in public support since my election. The drop one would find is between the 2008 and 2011 election and it is entirely attributable to being kept out of the leaders' debate.

If I'm included in the leaders' debate next time, there's no question the support will go well above 10 per cent.

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As a party of one, you're making a pretty big splash in parliament.

Westminster parliamentary democracy was not envisioned as a dictatorship. In Westminster parliamentary democracy, each one of the MPs has the ability to stand up and put forward amendments, make points of order, speak to issues, debate issues, vote according to their conscience and what the constituents want. That is, in theory, how our parliament should work.

It's only the overlay of highly structured, organized, powerful political parties on top of Westminster parliamentary democracy that had convinced so many people that one MP couldn't do anything.

If one MP is in a party where the leader says, "You can't do anything," then they end up looking pretty powerless. But when you don't have that structure, it becomes extremely effective because the members aren't held back from representing their constituents.

There's some Green Party optimism about upcoming byelections in Victoria and Calgary Centre. Realistically, are you looking at doubling your caucus?

Or tripling. Yes, it's certainly possible. We don't know when the byelections will take place but we now have completed the nominations for our candidates. We have star candidates in Calgary and Victoria, so we're really excited.

In Victoria, our candidate is Donald Galloway, who is one of Canada's leading immigration and refugee experts in both law and advocacy for those communities. [Victoria] is the riding immediately next door to mine, so a lot of the volunteers who worked on my campaign want to help out in Victoria. There's a very strong Green potential in Victoria. I mean, nothing is easy and there are a lot of challenges, but certainly it's possible.

And in Calgary?

People often don't realize that the Green Party has always been very strong in Calgary. And in Calgary Centre, we came in ahead of the Liberals in 2008 with 17% of the vote. Yes, it's always been, traditionally, a Conservative area, but there's a lot of splits within the Conservatives in Alberta these days because you've got the Progressive Conservative provincially with Alison Redford, of course, as premier and a strong challenge from the Wildrose party, so I think there's some real scope. The candidate we have in Calgary Centre is nationally respected journalist and author Chris Turner. We've got an energized team on the ground in Calgary. So both are very exciting possibilities for us.

The Green Party made an interesting move this summer by inviting Liberal and NDP representation to its convention. What was the general feedback?

Very, very positive. Stéphane Dion's a good friend and he's he's advocating this very interesting approach to proportional representation. In the House [of Commons] one day, we were talking about his proportional representation ideas. I said, "Would you be willing to present this at the Green Party convention?"

Ironically, though [Dion] is a Liberal, the Liberal Party isn't yet on the record in favour of proportional representation. He has an idea that really is interesting, so he was very excited to get more people to understand. He's a person who's motivated by ideas. He's certainly a very strong Liberal, but he really liked the idea. He checked with the party apparatus and they said okay.

Bruce Hyer, being a former NDP, or current independent, was a wonderful addition to the convention. With only one MP in the House right now, everybody can see what I'm doing, but it's wonderful to have [Hyer's] perspective on the difference the Green Party was already making in the House of Commons. He felt more MPs would make a bigger difference, which is quite wonderful for delegates to hear from someone who isn't a card-carrying Green Party member but who's watching the impact we're having in the House of Commons.

[ Related: Why Elizabeth May should run for the federal Liberal leadership ]

Justin Trudeau recently came to your defence on Twitter after you were heckled in the House. What are your thoughts on his decision to run for Liberal leadership?

I can't say it was a surprise. I hope the best for him. I've always been fond of him, but I must say I've been impressed with him in the House of Commons where we've been serving together for a year. We sit near each other, so that's another factor. I see a lot of him in the House.

I always take an interest in what's going on in other parties, but, also, knowing people on a personal level, you just think, "I hope it doesn't become too difficult for them." He's got a beautiful young family, and the demands of running for leadership and then being in leadership if he wins…I just hope it goes well for him and his family, because they're lovely people.

Can you explain/simplify carbon tax and the importance of it?

Very mainstream establishment bodies recognize that there's a significant problem when — and this is Economics 101 — significant downsides to our energy choices don't make their way into the price that's paid.

It's all about the fact that treating the atmosphere like a garbage dump for fossil fuel waste is essentially treated in the economic free market system as an externality. Somebody's gonna pay the cost, but not the producer and not the user of the product.

Carbon pricing is already in place in most industrialized countries. There are two ways to do it: one is straightforward and uses the existing fiscal system, and that's carbon taxes, and the other is more complicated and requires establishment of a complex system to create a market for carbon and then cap the level of the carbon that is being emitted and constantly move the cap downward and trade within that cap. So it's essentially trading for pollution credits.

Both [carbon pricing and cap-and-trade] operate to put a price on carbon and begin to internalize the externalities and send a signal in the marketplace that your business will make more money, your household will make more savings when you avoid dependency on fossil fuels. And that has the other effect of stimulating in the marketplace the whole energy revolution, which is poised to happen with solar and hydro and photovoltaics, and geothermal and biofuels.

There's still globally $300 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuels and only $30 billion a year in subsidies to renewables. Between failing to put in place an effective carbon price, and undermining carbon pricing by subsidizing fossil fuels, we still have the horrible reality that, using the atmosphere as a garbage dump, that garbage dump is overflowing. The result of it is that climate change and impacts to climate change are no longer something we might see in the future, but are at present causing significant, extreme events that kill people, that reduce food production, that imperil regions. Still, at this point, the level of climate crisis that is something we can adapt to if we have to.

What we don't talk about nearly enough is climate science and what happens if we don't reduce greenhouse gasses. The worst case scenarios are things that people don't want to think about or talk about. The worst case scenarios do not allow human civilization to continue. So we better be acting very, very quickly.

We need some leadership that says, "Stop pointing fingers at each other and let's figure out what we do now, because the climate crisis is advancing and Canadian farmers are hurting and the Arctic ice is melting and sea-level rise and storm surges are wiping out wharves on our coastlines, and we're facing significant stress globally." And the best we can get out of our two leading parties is this nonsensical debate in the House.

We've been told that revenue-neutral carbon tax can actually reduce income tax. How does that work?

The fiscal system can be used for incentives and disincentives. Why do we put taxes on cigarettes? Because we think they're not so good for people to be using. It's a source of revenue. So why is it that we tax the things we want, profits and income, and leave tax-free the things we don't want, pollution and waste?

In the whole field of ecological fiscal reform, the essence of it is, "Why don't we tax the things we don't want and reduce the tax on things we want?" It's about shifting the tax burden off of income taxes and on to the things we don't want.

If we put a tax on carbon, that tax revenue — it's all on our website, because we have a 3-year budget on how our carbon tax plan would work — brings in about $30 billion a year, which means there's $30 billion of taxes elsewhere that can be cut.

Our platform also applies a charge on toxic chemicals. We have this so-called war against cancer. One of the union leaders once said, "The war on the cancer is the only war where we've never engaged the enemy." So why don't we put another pricing signal to try to reduce the emissions of toxic chemicals that are known to be carcinogens?

You recently held a press conference about the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA). What do Canadians need to know, and what needs to happen?

I think it's the only thing we're talking about in the House of Commons right now, because it's going to take effect without a vote in the House, without a Debate in the House, by a stroke of the pen by the Prime Minister. It's going to take effect within 21 sitting days from when they tabled it, which was Sept 26th — and it will be a legally binding treaty with the People's Republic of China for a minimum of 15 years.

It gives Chinese-owned state enterprises, which are actually arms of the Chinese government, the right to complain of any Canadian laws they don't like and claim damages.

Right now, China is suing Belgium for $3 billion because China bought a Belgian bank that went belly-up, so they're saying, "Well, that's a $3 billion investment" and the Belgian government owes them $3 billion.

[FIPA] requires the government of Canada to actively encourage Chinese investment in Canada and to approve those investments within our laws. (The Investment Canada Act would still apply.)

This isn't just Chinese investment in the oil sense. This goes way beyond Nexen and CNOOC. We know they want to buy uranium, they're already buying our uranium. What about when they wanna go buy the uranium mines? This would say, "Well, you can't stop that."

The way the agreement is drafted, it's everything. It's fisheries and forestries and agriculture and who knows. Anything the Chinese want to buy under Article 3 of this agreement, the government of Canada has an obligation to encourage Chinese investment.

Also under this agreement, Chinese state-owned enterprises must receive national treatment. In other words, any government in Canada must treat Chinese state-owned enterprises exactly the same way we treat our own businesses and industries.

There are exemptions to say they can't complain of laws that are passed for health and environment and so on, but it also says they can complain of those laws if they find that they were passed in an arbitrary fashion.

The entire process is behind closed doors and secret to Canadians. If in the first six months of any complaint China has against any law passed in Canada — any law: municipal, provincial, federal — China, under this agreement, would have the power to complain. The first six months is a diplomatic negotiation.

I think we're being naive. I think the idea that the Canadian government is in a diplomatic negotiation that is completely in a black box — Canadians don't even know it's happening — and that the Chinese government could be leaning on the Canadian government saying,"We'll bring a lawsuit for x billion dollars because we don't like a law that's just been passed, can you fix it?" We're going to see a lot of caving in.

Canadians won't even know why it is our laws have been weakened.

Go back to C-38. At the time, it seemed to be that a lot of changes to C-38 were a direct response public statements and certainly private pressure by the government of China that there were certain things in Canada that they didn't like.

This all happened before this FIPA comes into effect.

A future government is allowed to give one-year written notice to get out of this agreement. But any Chinese investments that have been made up to when our future government gives the one-year notice to get out of it are protected for a further 15 years.

This is a huge agreement which is not going to have a single hour's debate in the House of Commons. That's why I asked the speaker for an emergency debate. He said it didn't count as an emergency. If this doesn't count as an emergency, I don't know what does. if my interpretations of this agreement are wrong — and they could be wrong — then I'd like to have the opportunity in the House of Commons to be told why I'm wrong.

The fact that we had six days in the House of Commons to debate the Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement and six days of committee hearings on the Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (and, at this point, trade between Jordan and Canada is, imports and exports combined, less than $100 million a year), and right now where we are with China is $64 billion a year and that agreement doesn't get any debate, makes me think they're hiding something.

[ Related: Green Party's Elizabeth May was a habitual EI user: 'When I needed it, I used it' ]

Canadians are going to want to know about this.

I'm extremely alarmed. It's all well and good to say the Nexen sale and CNOOC will all be good for Canada, but people are looking at the CNOOC takeover of Nexen and thinking, "It doesn't matter that CSIS has national security concerns?" And on top of that, they're not looking at the rights that CNOOC will have under this agreement that Nexen doesn't have right now.

As a Canadian corporation, Nexen could not complain about Canadian laws and seek damages. But CNOOC can.