Beware the Politician With the Courage to Say What She Thinks

Elizabeth May keeps on defying expectations. Mind you, when many of those expectations seem to be that you implode, this might not be difficult.

Earlier this month, Ms. May let loose on the Government’s climate change plan and, remarkably, given the pitbull defence by noted Conservative heavy John Baird, May managed to make him sound calm (at least, according to the news media). Here are May’s own words:

Green leader Elizabeth May is standing by her comments over the weekend that condemn Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stance on climate change, comparing it to “a grievance worse than Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis.”


Mind you, John Baird was quick to equal the rhetoric, not letting the facts or relevancy get in the way of a good rant.

“It is time for the Liberal members opposite to stand up against outrageous, hateful, mean-spirited comments by their candidate in Central Nova,” Environment Minister John Baird said in Tuesday’s question period.

“It is inexplicable how they could not stand up against people who bash Christians and invoke Nazi-era atrocities.”


(As an aside, I’m having some difficulty finding the complete quote of May, which she claims was a quote of a British politician making the same point without the media going completely berserk on him. One wonders if this is because the quote itself is more innocuous than simply prefacing it by saying “Elizabeth May called Stephen Harper’s Conservatives a bunch of Nazi-appeasers”. It wouldn’t be the first time such comments have been so overblown.)

The response from the pundits, many of whom weren’t likely to have voted for May or the Green Party in the first place, was immediate: looney toons, dangerous, dumb. Greg Staples expressed skepticism over the Green’s high showing in the most recent opinion polls and wondered if those numbers would drop significantly over the next week.

My prediction? No. In my opinion, this controversy will be largely forgotten by the middle of this month, and the Green’s numbers will still be in the 10% range by the end of it.

Ask yourself: has Elizabeth May yet apologized for anything she has said since becoming leader of the Green Party? It’s not to say that she hasn’t taken responsibility for bad words; she did can the Green Party candidate who talked about punching the air with joy during the 9/11 attacks, but she herself has been able to stand by her own controversial statements without any significant damage to Green Party support. Abortion? Elizabeth May expressed her own personal pro-life stance and got pilloried for it by Judy Rebick and the folks from Rabble, but that hasn’t hurt Green Party support. Indeed, it gained her respect from such moderate conservatives as Andrew Anderson.

And while these remarks comparing opposition to Kyoto to appeasing the Nazis violates the much vaunted Godwin’s Law, the sad fact is that Godwin’s Law is no more than a parody of itself these days. It hasn’t stopped supporters of the invasion of Iraq from likening anti-war activists to being akin to Neville Chamberlain, and Lord knows that the Nazi epithet has been thrown around by both sides of the spectrum until it has sadly lost its ability to shock. Especially when the attacks come from certain Conservatives, some of whom have already played this card, or similar ones involving the Liberals being in bed with the terrorists, renders their outrage over May’s remarks to pointless hypocrisy.

Finally, if you believe, as May does, that the environment is heading towards a significant change that we cannot easily adjust for, which we ourselves are contributing to, then the analogy works. In terms of environmental catastrophes, there are worst case scenarios out there which match or dwarf the casualties suffered during the Second World War. And these are not out in left field, either; certainly not to American military analysts who are producing contingency plans for handling multiple wars fought over clean water and the loss of arable land.

I don’t like the analogy, I’m not comfortable with any politician using it, but then May and I disagree on the environment. I’m more optimistic over the time we will have to make changes, and our ability to come up with technologies to make those changes, but we both agree that there is a problem here that needs fixing, and soon. And, if polls are to be any judge, many Canadians also agree.

So May has a point, and I don’t think her comments will hurt her. Indeed, she has probably gone a long way towards energizing her base.

Between her willingness to stand by these recent statements, and her statements on abortion, May strikes me as someone who says what she means and means what she says, and who has the intelligence to back up her comments; which is something those who have apologized for similar, ill-spoken miscues, haven’t had the luxury of. At times, her frank speaking style is unsuited to politics in the age of the soundbite, but Canadians willing to look past the cheap attempts to twist her words (such as the incident where people jumped on a slip of the tongue to suggest she was calling Canadians stupid when she was instead calling politicians cowards), will find arguments that they can engage in, even if they don’t agree with it. This is a refreshing change to politics as usual, and I think she’ll find support for it.

Further Reading

Calgary Grit firmly establishes the flimsiness of the assumption that May’s Neville Chamberlain comparison is going to hurt her, by picking up on these words from Jack Layton:

“Mr. Speaker, enough is enough. We have been hearing those kinds of comments from the Prime Minister for 16 years since he began promising to clean up the air for Canadians and instead we have worse pollution than ever. He makes Neville Chamberlain look like a stalwart in standing up to a crisis. Smog is sending people to emergency wards at unprecedented levels. The prairies are drying up. We have forest fires like we have never had before. All we get are promises of plans to be brought forward some day. Will he bring forward a plan, yes or no?”


To Jack’s credit, he himself has been somewhat muted in his criticism of May in this case, since he too is simply saying what he means on an analogy that is fair if you accept certain premises from it. But any NDP supporter who sees fit to criticize May for her comments is going to have to get around the comments of their own leader, first.

On a Completely Different Note

Happy thirteenth anniversary, Erin! I knew from that first e-mail that you were someone special.

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