elizabeth-may   rick-smith   bruno-kaufmann
Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May is an environmentalist, writer, activist, lawyer, and leader of the Green Party of Canada. Elizabeth became active in the environmental movement in the 1970s. Read the OpEd

Rick Smith

Dr. Rick Smith obtained his Ph.D from the University of Guelph. He was Executive Director of Environmental Defense for 10 years, before becoming Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. Read the OpEd

Bruno Kaufmann

Bruno Kaufmann is a trained political scientist, conflict researcher and journalist. He has a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Gothenburg. Read the OpEd


A strong majority of Canadians want to see federal government action on climate change. But thanks to our winner-take-all voting system, just 39% of the vote yields a “false majority” government which fails to reflect our priorities, and a divisive and adversarial political culture.

Meanwhile, countries with proportional systems:

  • are responsible for a shrinking share of world carbon emissions (Darcy Cohen, 2010)
  • more quickly ratified the Kyoto protocol (Darcy Cohen, 2010)
  • score six points higher on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, designed to supplement the environmental targets set forth in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The index measures ten policy areas, including environmental health, air quality, resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture and climate change. (Arend Lijphart, 2012)


Elizabeth May is an environmentalist, writer, activist, lawyer, and leader of the Green Party of Canada. Elizabeth became active in the environmental movement in the 1970s. She is a graduate of Dalhousie Law School and was admitted to the Bar in both Nova Scotia and Ontario. She held the position of Associate General Council for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre prior to becoming Senior Policy Advisor to the federal minister of the Environment from 1986 until 1988. Elizabeth became Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada in 1989, a position she held until March 2006, when she stepped down to run for leadership of the Green Party of Canada.

Elizabeth is the author of seven books, including her most recent Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy. She has served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the International Institute for Sustainable Development and as Vice-Chair of the National Round Table on Environment and Economy and is currently a Commissioner of the Earth Charter International Council. Elizabeth became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005. In November, 2010, Newsweek magazine named her “one of the world’s most influential women.” In the 2011 Election, Elizabeth made history by being the first Green Party candidate to be elected to the House of Commons. She is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, author of seven books, was chosen (by a vote of all MPs) as Macleans magazine’s 2012 Parliamentarian of the Year, 2013 Hardest Working MP and by Hill Times as 2013 Hardest Working MP and Best Constituency MP.

Give us your reflections on the state of democracy in Canada today.

Democracy in Canada is in very serious trouble. The symptoms of the problem are easy to spot – low voter turn-out, with worryingly low levels among young people with no sign they will start voting once they are over 30, a less than vital Fourth Estate, undermined by an alarming level of concentration of media ownership in very few hands, public apathy, indifference bordering on antipathy toward the whole process, excessive power in the hands of the few (or the one, since I refer to PMO), a loss of respect for the fundamental principle of the supremacy of Parliament, misuse of the talents of Members of Parliament of the large parties as MPs are expected to toe the party line on every issue, big and small, and its flip-side, excessive control by the unelected top party brass in all three main parties.

We are essentially living in an unaccountable dictatorship – punctuated with elections.

Many Canadians are concerned about climate change, and our government’s response to it. What approach do you see Canada taking currently on environmental issues? How are we doing compared to other countries, and what role are we playing internationally in helping/hindering progress on climate change?

Under Stephen Harper, Canada has moved from a leadership role on the climate issue, starting under Brian Mulroney, who hosted the first global scientific conference on climate science in 1988 in Toronto, to the role of global saboteur. Stephen Harper has undermined global progress to a meaningful treaty to reduce global emissions. This is not in Canada’s interests. It threatens our children’s future. In 2006, within months of becoming Prime Minister, he repudiated our legally binding targets under Kyoto and then announced a new target using a different base year. The Kyoto Protocol based reductions against 1990 levels. By abdicating our responsibilities , both to the community of nations and to future generations, we undermined the whole global architecture on climate policy. Harper first promised we would reduce by 20% by 2020, as all the EU was also doing. But the EU was reducing below the 1990 baseline. Harper chose 2006 as the base year, and then weakened the target further in 2009 by moving to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This change, a public relations ploy for a domestic audience damaged the treaty and global standards. One of the issues raised at COP19 is how to get back to only using one common year — as was the case before Canada undermined the treaty.

On top of sabotaging the international regime, Canada has failed to meet the 2009 weak targets chosen by Harper. On current plans there is no chance of us reaching the target – or even coming close. Meanwhile, in international negotiations, we stall and obstruct.

This betrayal of our principles and values opened the space for other countries to backslide – to move to other base years than 1990, encouraged and even congratulated other countries to violate their commitments as well. Harper has cancelled funding to climate science, cancelled all the climate programmes in place in 2006, and focused single-mindedly on expanding the fossil fuel sector.

Do you think there is a connection between the electoral system, and Canada’s ability make significant and sustainable environmental progress? If a connection exists, what is the nature of the connection? How important do you think electoral reform is for our democracy and for environmental progress?

The dysfunctional electoral system, First Past the Post (FPTP), is the only voting system that allows a minority of the voters to elect a majority government. So, while 80% of Canadians want climate action, Stephen Harper, who called the Kyoto Protocol a “socialist scheme,” is not in favour of limiting carbon. He won a “false majority” for the Conservatives with 39% of the popular vote in 2011.

I have come to believe that the worst aspect of FPTP is the promotion of a toxic political climate. With the constant pre-occupation for political parties with losing votes to a party relatively close to their values, they will run nasty hyper-partisan attacks to keep their so-called “base” – and more often, voters whose support is “soft” from migrating to another party to prevent the election of a worse party. The result is the mess I talked about above in answer 1. We have a situation of non-stop campaigning. Governance is trashed while parties engage in what amounts to a gladiatorial contest to the death. What we should have, instead, is cross-party cooperation in pursuit of the common good. That approach will only happen once we have proportional representation.

In the current political climate, the really important climate – that which sustains the biosphere – is over-looked.


Dr. Rick Smith obtained his Ph.D from the University of Guelph. He was Executive Director of Environmental Defense for 10 years, before becoming Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. A strong proponent of the “green economy”, Smith is one of the founders, with the United Steelworkers, of Blue Green Canada. He also played a central role in the creation of the Ontario Greenbelt, the largest in the world, and the Ontario Green Energy and Green Economy Act.

FVC: Give us your reflections on the state of democracy in Canada today.

Rick: Canadians should be concerned. Whether you measure our democracy by voter participation – which of course continues to decline, public attitudes related to the political process, it’s been a bad year for democracy in Canada. Rob Ford in Toronto, or the ongoing Senate scandal federally, the ongoing scandal related to cancelled gas plants provincially in Ontario… The average voter in 2013 had any number of concerning political scandals to look at, and I think that just further solidifies the notion in many people’s minds that our political process needs some help. So I think we need to reinvigorate democratic participation and discussion in Canada, and it’s for that reason that the Broadbent Institute has identified renewing democracy as one of our core priorities. Any Canadian, regardless of their political party preference, should be working in this area.

FVC: Can you tell me a couple of the things the Broadbent Institute is doing related to renewing democracy?

In a nutshell, we’re interested in contributing some important new ideas to our political debate in Canada, and engaging new people in that debate. We’re doing that in a few different ways. We’re organizing training sessions across the country emphasizing leadership development sessions to try to bring new leaders into the political policy realm. We’re trying to dig down in a few key areas of policy where we think progressives in particular need to do some deeper thinking, get more eloquent – areas like income inequality, green economy, democratic renewal. If we’re successful – we’ll judge our success a few years down the line by how many new people we’ve got engaged in the political policy debate and whether some of the important policy challenges have a new resonance in public debate.

FVC: Many Canadians are concerned about climate change, and our government’s response to it. What approach do you see Canada taking currently on environmental issues?

With very few exceptions over the past couple of decades, Canada has been lagging behind the rest of the world, any way you slice it, environmentally. Whether you look at pollution control related to greenhouse gas emissions, cancer causing pollution or smog, if you look at protected areas, if you look at protection of marine resources, monitoring of environmental compliance by corporations, monitoring of toxic pollutants in the bodies of Canadians… Pretty much any way you look at it, Canada is well behind the rest of the world, and the metrics tell the story. The OECD yearly publishes its ranking of environmental performance among its members and Canada quite regularly is at the bottom of the barrel. We are miserable performers internationally, and quite frankly I think its fair to say that the last government in this country that really took environment seriously was the Mulroney government and that was a long time ago, at a federal level anyway. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

I think it’s important to point out that at a provincial level, at a municipal level, there’s some very interesting stuff going on. Gregor Robinson, for instance, originally ran on a platform of making Vancouver the greenest city on the planet, and as much as it pains me as a Torontonian to admit this, he’s been having some success! Other cities across the country are doing some pretty innovative things. Ontario has made some great strides over the last few years shutting down coal plants, and the renewable energy industry. Nova Scotia has, Quebec has… It’s not like there isn’t interesting, exciting stuff going on – world leading stuff going on – environmentally in Canada, it’s just not at the federal level.

Internationally, for many years, Canada was just kind of a bump on a log when it came to climate change. Most recently, we’ve actually become an active negative force. So whether it’s actively pulling out of the UN Treaty on Desertification, or whether it’s actively trying to stymy international climate negotiations, or other international treaties, we are just hellbent, it seems, on impeding global progress. And that’s frustrating, because clearly, the vast majority of Canadians want to do better on these issues, and believe that there’s no necessary conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. The fact that our current government seems to perpetuate that hoary old myth that you can’t have economic growth if you get serious about environmental protection either in Canada or around the world, is just contrary to mainstream Canadian values. So I don’t think that most Canadians have realized the extent to which we’ve become a bad actor internationally.

FVC: Do you think there is a connection between the electoral system and Canada’s ability to make significant and sustainable environmental progress.?

Yes, I think so. In one respect, which is that one of the significant differences between conservatives and progressives around the world now is a commitment to a greener economy. There are a few exceptions to this, but by and large if you look at European countries, certainly if you look at the United States, if you look at Australia, where carbon pricing was a significant issues in the last election, there is a significant difference between conservative and non-conservative parties on the acceptance of the need for a green economy, the idea that for the future we need to reduce pollution of various sorts, as well as create good, new jobs, and that we need a greener type of prosperity in our economic systems. At some very basic level, many conservatives across the planet just do not buy that. Certainly that’s the case with our conservatives federally. At some very basic level our Conservatives do not prioritize pollution control in the slightest.

Federally, to state the obvious, our Conservative Party was elected with a minority of votes, with a plurality but not with a majority of votes cast. So in that respect, if we had a different electoral system we might be seeing different policy at the federal level. Now, I want to add here that it’s not like the Liberal Party, when it was in office throughout the 1990’s, was any world leader when it came to environmental protection either. But I do think it’s fair to say that our Conservatives at a federal level, and conservatives throughout the world recently, are exhibiting a new level of hostility to environmental progress that we haven’t seen before. To the extent that the policy process is controlled by those political parties, environmental progress is being impeded.

FVC: Fair Vote Canada advocates proportional representation so all votes count, because 60% of people are not represented by their government, and if you add the progressive conservatives into that, that number would rise. So would you support the idea that all votes would count, and that would have impact on policy?

Absolutely. I think a mixed member proportional system makes the most sense. I think it’s worth reflecting as Canadians on the fact that we are now in a very small minority of nations in the world in not having a proportional system. In global terms, we now have a very unusual electoral system, which many countries have moved away from.

I think a proportional representation system would better connect people to the democratic process. One of the more compelling arguments I’ve heard about the relevance of proportional representation to Canada is that it would decrease the balkanization we see in Canadian politics. Because we have a First Past the Post, winner-take-all system, non-Conservative voters in many ridings in Alberta, for example, do not really have their views represented in Parliament. Similarly, Conservative voters in many areas of urban Ontario do not have their views represented in Parliament. So, increasingly, our federal politics is focused on a smaller number of ridings which swing back and forth between various parties. Many political parties – I won’t say completely ignore large areas of the country which either vote for them with super-majorities or are never going to be competitive – but if we had a proportional system voters could see their views represented in a new and interesting way. I think it would help break down the divisions in our country, and break down some of the deadlock we’ve seen on some of the important environmental issues over the past few years.


Bruno Kaufmann is a trained political scientist, conflict researcher and journalist. He has a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Gothenburg. As a journalist Kaufmann worked at the Swiss Broadcasting Company before joining the special editorial team for international reform issues at in Hamburg in 1998. Since 2000 he has covered European and international affairs for the Swiss Broadcasting Company and has been a columnist on publications such as “Nordis”, “OpenDemocracy”, “ParliamentGazette” and “European Voice”. Currently he is editor of a global news platform in the making on active citizenship and participatory democracy supported by the Swiss Broadcasting Company.

Chairman, Election Commission of Falun, Sweden
President, Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, Marburg/Germany
Co-President, Swiss Democracy Foundation, Zurich/Switzerland
Co-President, Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, Phoenix/USA

Many Canadians are concerned about climate change, and our government’s response to it. What approach do you see Canada taking currently on environmental issues, in comparison to other countries?

From a European perspective your country has very good image, when it comes to environmental issues. Many Europeans do see Canada as the more ”European” North American country, where many issues are handled in less brutal way than in the neighbouring US. However, as we can see, your current government is even behind the current US administration when it come to dealing with our common environmental challenges, by basically serving a narrow and short-sighted business interest. This is too bad and would be great to change indeed.

What role are we playing internationally in helping/hindering progress on climate change?

Again, at the surface is seen as the ”friendlier” partner in North America compared to the US super-power. And again, the current government is basically opting out of this responsibility by not following up on international treaties and by not taking leadership when it comes to making the world a better, safer and healthier place to live in for billions of people across the globe. It is the same guideline – narrow and short-sighted business interests – which are guiding Canada externally as well as domestically. Change would be most welcome indeed.

Many Canadians may be wishing to elect a government with a better platform on environmental issues in 2015. Is it enough to install a new government using our current winner-take-all system?

For a long time the British-invented Westminster-model of direct majoritarian governance was seen as model-democratic. It offered some political drama and a feeling of transparency within post-monarchic and nation-state-based frameworks. But today this limited form of ”elected dictatorships” has definitely seen its best-before-date as the world has become a much more complex and interdependent place, where chains of representation can not be short-cutted any more by unified minorities ruling over often divided majorities. A mature and robust democracy needs much more of check-and-balances than a winner-take-all-system can offer.

Do you feel there a connection between electoral systems, the dynamics they create, and the ability of a country to make significant and sustainable environmental progress? If so, in your experience, what is the nature of the connection?

Environmental issues are not just about agreeing on what we don’t like, like but finding common solutions for a long time ahead in the future and generations to come. Such a long-term perspective needs more than a government trying to be re-elected, but a society where citizens are taken seriously as sovereign participants and where all voters are not just counted at election day but also heard in between elections. Such a democratized society must be based on a modern representative democracy which combines protection of the individual with delegation of power and participation by citizens in agenda-setting and decision making. In my experience, societies where citizens are encouraged, enabled and supported to take the political centre-stage on every basis are societies where sustainable environmental policies are pursued more efficiently than countries where representative democracy is limited to indirect forms of participation only.

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