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Media Bites: Elizabeth May Is the Stonehenge of Canadian Politics

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It seems to me the world could use a single, unified theory of Elizabeth May. She's been part of this country's political scene for nearly a decade, after all, and yet her longevity continues to baffle. She's very much the Stonehenge of Canadian politics: pointless, yet cryptic.

Certainly there's no compelling ideological explanation for her existence. Canada's present three-party system, while imperfect, certainly offers a broad enough buffet to satisfy most tastes. If anything, it may even be too broad, considering the persistence of party merger movements over the years -- first on the right and now on the left. Canadians, like voters in most Anglosphere nations, seem to prefer the polarized politics of either-or. Take the most contentious issue of our current political climate, for instance -- Stephen Harper. You either love him or despise him. There are no moderates on this issue.

Elizabeth May is no moderate on this issue. She wants the Prime Minister out of office, and has even claimed to find him personally frightening. She made a ham-fisted metaphor the other day comparing his government to North Korea's -- at least in terms of environmental record (or something). That's basically all it takes to be on "the left" in modern Canada, but just for humour's sake, it's worth noting that her views on stimulus spending, universal childcare, carbon taxes, yadda yadda all pass the progressive litmus test, too.

But again: why vote May when you can vote Mulcair or Trudeau and get pretty much the same thing?

The only real explanation is that there's certain rejectionist segment of the Canadian populace, a none-of-the-above voting bloc who possess a sometimes paranoid, often conspiratorial distrust of anything that reeks of established power -- including political parties that actually have seats in the legislature.

You know who I mean. People whose political views present philosophical incoherence as moral superiority ("you can't put a label on what I believe!") coupled with a lazy disinterest in even the most basic lessons of sixth grade civics. Folks convinced the world is run by the Bilderberg Corporation, yet also think Ottawa's responsible for garbage pickup. The sorts who think WiFi signals are giving them brain cancer and homeopathy can cure it. Near as I can tell, this is the Elizabeth May base. (Homeopathy coverage and Wifi paranoia are official Green Party positions, incidentally).

Because Elizabeth May is affable and nonthreatening, the press doesn't portray Green voters with the sort of casual stereotyping they use for most other parties. It's not part of the accepted media storyline, in other words, to note that Elizabeth May's political career has probably entailed a lot of polite nodding at wild-haired women with healing-crystal necklaces barking lunatic theories about smart meters in the way it is acceptable to worry about evangelical Christians in the Tory party or militant unionists in the NDP. Which is too bad, because if there's one obvious explanation for why May's poll numbers seem to have a relatively low ceiling, it's this.

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The hypocrisy is that May herself has never been a terribly anti-establishment figure. Part of the reason she's even famous in the first place is because she once sat on some UN environment committee chaired by Maurice Strong, the legendary CEO of the unambiguously-named Power Corp, whose boards and bosses are unsettlingly omnipresent in the resumes of many Canadian figures of power and influence. Since then, she's won the Order of Canada, got a chair at Dalhousie University, and was elected Parliamentarian of the Year by her House of Commons peers. In 2008 she backed the frantic coalition scheme to install the ultra-orthodox Stephane Dion as prime minister, and she'll no doubt happily rush to endorse any future backdoor plot to inaugurate Justin or Tom. Her showy eagerness to promote electoral cooperation with parties she nominally opposes, as she's doing right now in Labrador, seems to be less about fighting the system than cultivating a respectable reputation within it.

It's not an unsympathetic motive. One imagines the high profile that comes with leading a political party, even an unpopular or redundant one, makes for a vastly more satisfying career than toiling as someone else's back-bencher. You get endless interview requests from literal-minded reporters assigned to survey "all parties," your own podium at leadership debates (sometimes), and your grinning mug politely included on all those little bar graphs on election night. And no whipped votes or caucus revolts to crimp your style!

Create a political system that maximizes the power of party bosses while limiting the freedom and free-thinking of individual members, and sooner or later the most vain and self-important politicians will game that same system by creating personality cult parties-of-one. You see this a lot in Europe, where populist egomaniacs like Holland's Geert Wilders and Italy's Beppe Grillo establish "movements" that basically begin and end with their own eccentricities, yet can still tap into some weird minority of voters who coincidentally share the same fringey obsessions. Such vanity vehicles may not exercise much influence over the governing process -- let alone govern -- but for anyone who gets into politics not wanting to take orders from any crank except themselves, it's a self-empowering strategy that makes a lot of sense.

So a fresh mystery presents itself.

The question isn't why Elizabeth May exists, but why there aren't more of her.