OTTAWA -- There are 308 members of Parliament. In the House of Commons, Elizabeth May occupies seat number 309.
There couldn't be a better symbol of irrelevance, which seems fitting. May is the sole MP from the Green Party, which lacks official standing in the House. In effect, she is an independent. She has few resources, fewer privileges. She has no place at the table of parliamentary committees. At a time when most MPs no longer have to travel 50 yards from Parliament Hill to become "nobodies," as Pierre Trudeau famously observed, Elizabeth May should be utterly, hopelessly, spectacularly irrelevant.
And yet, look around the House. One of the most prominent and effective MPs occupies seat number 309.
"I always say to school kids that it's like platform 9 3/4," May laughs about her strange seat number, referring to the famous invisible train platform in the Harry Potter books.
It's 10:30 Monday morning. She got back to Ottawa from the West Coast at 1 a.m., she's been up for hours doing interviews, she and her staff are rushing around her cramped office preparing for a very big day, and yet she's as bright and chirpy and eager to talk as if your correspondent were a neighbour dropping by for coffee on a quiet Sunday.
That's one explanation for May's surprising prominence: She's exhaustingly enthusiastic and ridiculously gregarious. She hugs people. Big hugs. Like Barney the Dinosaur. And she, like Barney, isn't partisan with her affections. May is notorious for saying nice things about people in other parties, even praising their policies and wishing them well. In politics, this is eccentric behaviour. Pundits have criticized her for it.
"It would ruin my life not to have friends," she says with unabashed sincerity. "Probably I'd be a better politician if I didn't care what people thought about me but I actually want to keep the respect of people on all sides of the House. I don't want politics to make me an awful person." Happily for May, she has friends on all sides of the House -- and while that may not be as politically useful as the unflinching willingness to stick a shiv in opponents, it is very handy when you occupy seat number 309.
But there's more to May than a purple felt exterior. She's also a sharp lawyer.
"This is my new Bible," she says, lifting the House of Commons Procedure and Practice rule book, which is 1,400 of the most boring pages ever printed. May expected to enter a minority Parliament where horse-trading was the main action. But it was a majority so she decided "the only thing I can do to make a difference is to know the rules really well."
May was familiar with parliamentary procedure from her time working as an aide to a Conservative minister in the Mulroney years. But careful study of her new Bible revealed important changes. One had been made in the Chrétien years: If you have a seat on a parliamentary committee and you have the right to introduce substantive amendments at that stage of review, you no longer have the right to bring substantive amendments at report stage. The Liberals made this change in response to an Alliance attempt to slow the passage of legislation. It was, in other words, yet another restriction of the opposition's ability to oppose.
May saw an opening. She didn't belong to a party with official standing. She didn't have a seat on committees. And so she, unlike Liberals and New Democrats, had the right to bring substantive amendments at report stage.
Which is how she became the eye of the C-38 storm this week.
May expects the Conservatives will change the rules to stop a repeat performance (thus completing the work begun by the Chrétien Liberals and demonstrating yet again the Conservatives have become what they once opposed). But that won't change a fundamental fact that often gets lost, May says. "There are far more powers to each individual member of Parliament than most Canadians would ever imagine."
The word powerful does not fit comfortably alongside member of Parliament. But May is right. All MPs are powerful. She is proof of what even the most disadvantaged MP can do -- if they are not muzzled and leashed by a party leader.
But almost every MP is muzzled and leashed. They are told how to vote. They are told what to say. And most obey, because obedience is rewarded and independence punished. Even cabinet ministers have been reduced to ventriloquist's dummies, mouthing words chosen by the Prime Minister's Office.
May finds it astonishing.
"I worked for (Mulroney-era environment minister) Tom McMillan, who was a very red Tory. I wrote speeches for him. We never checked his speeches with the PMO. He'd get up to answer in question period. He didn't have a script for how to answer. Brian Mulroney was not telling his cabinet members what to say, syllable by syllable," she says. "I look at Peter Kent and I think, 'My God, man, you had a great reputation. You were a great journalist. You won the Robert Kennedy Prize for journalism. And you're going to stand up in the House and read the lines?'"
Traditionally, in the Westminster system, all MPs are equals, each having been selected by the voters of a riding to represent them in Parliament. Even the prime minister is merely "first among equals," having been elected to Parliament in the same way as the others and depending on their continued support to remain head of government.
Of course this picture is complicated by parties, which have always existed in the Westminster system, in one form or another, and have always exerted control over MPs, of varying degree. But the existence of parties doesn't change the fundamentals, which is why, traditionally, party affiliation didn't appear on ballots next to the candidates' names. That changed in the late 1960s. And that change meant Elections Canada needed to confirm a candidate actually is the party's representative. So it required party leaders to sign nomination papers.
It seemed like a minor procedural change. It wasn't. "That was the first bludgeon party leaders got to use to keep his or her party members in line," May notes. The decades since have seen a steady decline in the ability of MPs to think and speak freely, leading to the current reality where mindless obedience and witless partisanship are the norm and a member of Parliament who simply exercises her judgment, as she was elected to do, is a startling aberration.
May plans to introduce a private member's bill that would replace the party leader's signature on candidates' nomination papers with those of the local riding executive. It's wildly unlikely it will pass. The party leaders will see to that. But the fact May, who is herself a party leader, would try to curtail the power of party leaders, at least offers a flicker of hope the Westminster system may not be entirely dead.
Which is an impressive accomplishment for someone in seat number 309.
Dan Gardner is a columnist
for the Ottawa Citizen.