A tale of two Elizabeths

Elizabeth May has the honour to be Elizabeth Windsor's most humble and obedient servant.

Elizabeth May has the honour to be Elizabeth Windsor’s most humble and obedient servant. The leader of Canada’s Green Party may not be the biggest twit ever to style herself so, but if there was an award for making a royal Canadian fool of yourself, May’s August 2012 letter to the Queen would make an admirable submission to the jury.

May, she said, wished to write Windsor in her capacity as Queen (of Britain and the colonies), requesting her assistance with a matter of grave importance to Canadians. Without so much as a nudge, a wink, or a hint of irony, the leader of a Canadian political party was asking the Queen of England to set up a royal commission whose aim was to “restore Canada to a free and fair democracy.”

A bulletin for Ms. May: free and fair democracy, if it exists at all, is not bestowed by monarchs, it is wrested from them. It took centuries of struggle to end England’s absolute monarchy, and while democracy prevailed, the royal losers were able to negotiate a deal they call constitutional monarchy. While less forgiving democrats dragged their despots off to the guillotine, the British royals plea-bargained to keep their titles and wealth in return for a promise not to interfere in politics, a field in which they had never been anything but trouble.

The Queen knows the deal better than anyone alive. Constitutional monarchy is her bread and butter, and its boundaries are as fixed as the walls around Buckingham Palace. But while the palace walls are stone and mortar, the monarchy is built on the goodwill of the people. One good shove and it could all fall down. The monarch exerts influence, of course: her quiet ahem echoes in the halls of Westminster, but she does not set up royal enquiries, or otherwise be seen to interfere directly in the business of government, not even in the colonies.

Supposing the Queen was foolish – or poorly advised – enough to stick her Norman nose into Canada’s affairs of state, there is no mechanism by which she could create a commission of enquiry. There is no palace inquisitor to set upon the task, no knights of the enquiry to summon with trumpets, no royal commissioner of democratic crises. The thing would be impossible to arrange, and May knew it. She sent the letter to make a point about Conservative electoral skullduggery, apparently without noticing that in so doing she was calling into question her own grasp of democratic principles.

Throughout its term in office, the Harper government has blundered from one assault on democracy to another. After a long drawn-out court battle, the Conservative Party pleaded guilty to election financing fraud in the so-called in-and-out scandal, saving four of its senior people from possible prison sentences. Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid releasing the truth about allegations of cabinet complicity in prisoner abuse in Afghanistan. He stuffed the Senate with Conservatives, who went on to shut down the Commons’ environment bill.

But it was the Robocalls affair that sent May running for the warmth of her sovereign’s love. You might recall that during the last election somebody tried to prevent thousands of Canadians from voting. The thing that most of these voters had in common was that they had identified themselves to the Conservative Party as non-supporters. Elections Canada doesn’t have the power to subpoena witnesses, and a number of Conservative officials are reportedly refusing to co-operate with the investigation.

Sooner or later, the government will collapse under the weight of all its scandals. Already, there are visible cracks in the superstructure. In a new Ipsos Reed poll, 69 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, “the Harper Conservatives are too secretive and have not kept their promise to govern according to high ethical standards.” Only 13 per cent found anything good to say about the federal budget, while Opposition leader Tom Mulcair outperformed Harper on values and trustworthiness.

If Harper lasts another term it will not be for lack of royal intervention, but because the weight of his scandals wasn’t enough to overcome vote-splitting among opposition parties. May knows this, which is why she decided not to run a candidate in the upcoming Labrador byelection, and urged the NDP to do the same, in order to hand the seat to the Liberals.

In brief, May acknowledges that her party is a vote-splitter which delivers an advantage to the Conservatives, and can come up with no better strategy than to sit out elections. Her actions indicate that she’s happy to see Liberals elected, although she usually runs candidates against them, and when Canadian democracy is in peril she thinks it’s appropriate to call in the Queen. The question arises: what is this person doing in politics?

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.