Elizabeth May is a tree-hugger to be reckoned with

If Sierra Club head leads the Greens, the NDP could be in for some trouble

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The Gazette, Friday, May 12, 2006

It was a bad day for Jack Layton when Elizabeth May announced she was running for the leadership of the Green Party.

When it comes to environmental activism, she is the real deal. It's not unrealistic to suggest that she might double the Green vote to eight per cent. Most of those votes would come from the cities and Vancouver Island, and most of that growth would come at the expense of Layton and the NDP.

"It would serve him right," May was saying in Ottawa on the day of her announcement, as she waited to go on for a CBC television interview with Don Newman. "He shouldn't have brought down the government on the first day of the climate- change conference."

That would be the non-confidence vote of last Nov. 28, the opening day of the United Nations conference on global warming in Montreal. It was the 11th Conference of Parties in the Kyoto round, and during nearly two weeks of marathon sessions, it did some important work that was swamped by the media coverage of the campaign.

May was there as executive director of the Sierra Club, a post she has held for 17 years since she left the Mulroney government as special adviser to the environment minister.

In a movement known for its share of tree-huggers and wingnuts, May has always been mainstream, working from the inside rather than shouting from the barricades. If there's an acid- rain accord with the United States today, she deserves a significant amount of credit for talking it onto the Mulroney government's agenda.

May could talk the birds down from the trees. She has always refused to take no for an answer. And she has always been motivated by optimism rather than driven by zeal. While the shock troops of the environmental movement are always saying the end is near, she's always saying the problem can be fixed, as ozone depletion was following the Montreal Protocol of 1987.

That was a fairly important development since, without a solution, as she deadpans, we die.

The environment isn't going away as an issue anytime soon. Canada's Kyoto target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012 is unattainable, especially since our emissions have actually increased by 24 per cent. But if Kyoto is only a process, the issue of global warming is urgent, especially with the melting of the polar ice cap, and all that implies for sustainable development and Arctic sovereignty.

The Harper government will release its climate-change policy in the fall, and if May becomes leader of the Greens on Aug. 27, the Conservatives can expect her to make it all about the environment.

The Tories should be concerned because of her eloquence and her ability to turn science into sound bites, on an issue the public deeply cares about.

The NDP should be concerned because she is a real threat to them on the centre left of the political spectrum.

"Who's your opponent?" she was asked.

"Stephen Harper," she replied.

"No, for the leadership."

"Oh, the deputy leader, David Chernushenko."

He ran unsuccessfully for the Greens in Ottawa Centre, one of the granola-crunchiest places in the country. For that matter, the Greens ran unsuccessfully everywhere in the country under the leadership of Jim Harris, who in two elections couldn't get the Greens above four per cent.

Without a seat in the House of Commons, the Green leader doesn't get invited into the leaders' debates. But the Greens do have money, since they got enough votes in both 2004 and 2006 to qualify for the $1.75 per vote per year under Bill C-24, the campaign finance reform that limits donations but also funds parties.

If May were to win the Green leadership, and somehow win a seat in a by-election, they would have to invite her to the leaders' debates. That would make a stage already crowded with four leaders even more crowded with five. But it would also put her on a level playing field.

At 52, a single mother of a teenage girl, she might seem a novice or politically naive. She's anything but. She's a American native who lived in coal-miner country in Cape Breton, and can play the game with the best of them.

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