Elizabeth May’s “Climate Cabinet” offends parliamentary democracy

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This past week, Green Party leader Elizabeth May sent an open letter to the other party leaders, proposing that post-election they form a “Climate Emergency Cabinet” to tackle climate change together, likening it to the kind of cross-party “war Cabinets” of the First and Second World Wars.  While the underlying logic may be that we need some kind of total rethink of our economy in order to rapidly decarbonize as a means of fighting climate change, May’s proposal is not only divorced from the reality of the situation – it’s outright offensive to the very notion of parliamentary democracy.

In her letter, May calls on all of the parties to create the cross-party Cabinet, to include all parties represented in Parliament.  The notion would be that party leaders would form an “Inner Cabinet,” with other party members represented in other portfolios, and the House of Commons asked to declare its confidence in said cross-party Cabinet.

“The Cabinet will commit to leading our country as it confronts the Climate Emergency,” she says in the letter.  “The act of its creation will reassure the Canadian people that their leaders are united in a national call to arms, and they will rally behind us in this vital endeavour, contributing all their mighty talents to the cause.”

The problem?  This is essentially asking for the suspension of democracy.

Democracy, and parliamentary democracy in particular, requires opposition if there is to be any accountability exercised.  When everyone is accountable, then nobody is accountable, and that’s a very big deal when you’re looking to essentially reorder the economy of the country in short order.  It leaves one to wonder if May proposes to leave it up to backbenchers from all parties to provide the challenge function to government – difficult to do when you need some level of party cohesion and still expect there to be an ability to maintain confidence – or does she simply propose to leave the oversight and accountability functions to Officers of Parliament and the media, thus making Parliament even more irrelevant and ineffectual as it already is threatening to become?

Nobody here is arguing that climate change isn’t an existential threat – because it is – but the simple reality is that it manifests itself in a very different way than a total war effort.  Its effects are slower, meaning that the public doesn’t have the same particular buy-in as when there is the imminent threat of invasion.  It’s also something that requires longer-term solutions, and is not something that is of short duration – like a total war – where there is a total mobilization of society.  Yes, fighting climate change may require a total mobilization of society, but it’s not going to happen simply because Parliament essentially suspends democracy for a few years.

And that’s the other side to the idea of a “war cabinet” that May is ignoring here, which is that when faced with something as grim as imminent invasion, a war Cabinet essentially allows for draconian measures, which society will agree to.  If that is indeed what she believes needs to be authorized by virtue of suspending democracy in this way, then we should be alarmed by that kind of thinking.  It’s not a short-term state of emergency – it’s a long-term problem with long-term solutions that merit debate on the kinds of trade-offs that need to be made, and priorities need to be established – which is precisely why there needs to be oversight and accountability, and robust debate.  May’s proposal would essentially eliminate that debate, at least in the public forum of the House of Commons (as opposed to behind the closed doors of her “Inner Cabinet”).

If May’s point is to get all parties onboard with a single climate policy – and good luck with that, given the range of options being presented – doing so with a “war Cabinet” isn’t the way to go about it.  There are far better mechanisms to a societal-level problem than the suspension of democracy and the imposition of a policy dictatorship on the country.  To add to that, May has already declared that every other party’s climate policies are inadequate, and thus has declared that she wouldn’t support any of them to prop up their government in a hung parliament, and yet here she is essentially proposing to bypass that whole process regardless.

It should also bear reminding that the Green Party’s own climate proposals are completely unrealistic (read energy economist Andrew Leach’s evaluation here).  If it’s May’s intention to use this policy dictatorship to push her own party’s climate agenda, under the rubric that it will get the country the closest to its emission reduction targets in the shortest amount of time, then perhaps she is hoping for the draconian nature of a war cabinet to forcibly close down entire sections of the economy, and use the coercive powers of the state to ensure that energy workers are dispersed to other industries – doing exactly what the paranoiacs have been raving about in their opposition to doing anything about climate change.

Which brings us to the broader and more cynical point of this exercise, which is the fact that it’s a proposal that essentially states that because she won’t be able to win the election, she’s going to try to seek outsized influence in other, less democratic means.  Much the same as the push for proportional representation is very much about smaller and marginal parties like May’s trying to gain outsized influence in a coalition government because they can’t gain power my other means – and conjuring any number of cockamamie arguments to justify the desire – this “war Cabinet” proposal seeks to do the very same thing.  The Greens are unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, but this way, she gets a seat in the “Inner Cabinet” and would have a direct hand in the policy dictatorship.  It’s certainly an extreme example of trying to change the rules to suit yourself if you can’t get power the old-fashioned way, but there we have it.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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