When the Liberal leadership race drew to a close, few people were surprised when Justin Trudeau emerged with over 80% of the votes. His popularity with Canadians is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s successful ascension to the US Presidency in 2008. One issue that Obama and Trudeau have in common is a support base which believes strongly in government regulation to protect the environment. Interestingly Obama has done relatively little due to a divided Congress and House of Representatives, which continue to block climate change legislation. His administration is now facing a lawsuit by 10 states and environment groups for delays in providing greenhouse gas (GHG) guidelines for power plants.
Trudeau has yet to craft specific environmental policies but after a memorable verbal exchange with Environment Minister Peter Kent over Canada’s withdrawal of the Kyoto Protocol it’s likely that climate change will be a prominent plank. While he supports increased foreign investment in the oil sands Trudeau wants polluters to pay by putting a price on carbon, but hasn’t yet revealed what policy tools he would use. He is currently walking a tightrope on the oil pipeline issue, denouncing the Northern Gateway through British Columbia but favouring Keystone XL to the United States. While Justin has committed to sustainability, it is anyone’s guess how he would approach the myriad of environmental issues facing Canadians.
The question of whether the Liberals would be the best party for the environment is an interesting one as we reach the midpoint of Harper’s majority term. While the Liberals signed the Kyoto Protocol under Chretien, there was obviously no plan for getting Canada to its international targets. In the 2008 election the Liberals under Stéphane Dion’s leadership tried to sell a carbon tax, which was seized upon by the Conservatives. Since 2008 carbon taxes have been politically unpalatable in Canada, except when used by the Harper government to attack the NDP.
For Trudeau’s Liberals the challenge is creating environmental policy that is different than that of the NDP and Green Party. The Conservatives have made it easy for rival parties to attack their track record on the environment. As is well-known amongst the A\J reading audience, buried within the 2012 Omnibus budgets were cuts and cancellations to many programs and substantial weakening of existing legislation. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) and the Experimental Lakes research facility are just two examples of casualties from these budget bills.
Harper has alienated environmental groups, academics, First Nations and concerned citizens with his agenda for oil pipelines by removing regulatory hurdles and limiting public consultation on projects. New rules limiting public comment on energy projects, such as Enbridge’s Line 9 in Southern Ontario, are raising tensions between groups and municipal leaders, while the Northern Gateway pipeline consultations have incensed most of British Columbia. The Conservatives have also shown a disregard for international cooperation on environmental issues, first by withdrawing from Kyoto and, most recently, backing out of a United Nations convention that fights global droughts in order to save approximately $300,000 a year. Trudeau has been given a tremendous opportunity to use this situation to his advantage.
There are significant hurdles for the Liberals to overcome on this file. As mentioned previously, the Liberals accomplished relatively little during the Chretien/Martin years. The 2008 Green Shift carbon tax plan was seized by the Conservatives as part of their attack strategy, although since then BC has demonstrated that carbon taxes aren’t the end of the world. The biggest challenge for Trudeau is his father’s legacy, especially the National Energy Program (NEP), which is still very unpopular in western provinces. The NEP will almost certainly be used in arguments against any Liberal plans for regulation of the oil and gas sector.
Once the dust settles from the weekend’s leadership convention the Liberals’ next focus will be engaging Canadians and new party supporters. A 2010 poll found over 60 per cent of Canadians want more government action on environmental issues, while a survey released last week found that “three-in-five Canadians (60 per cent) support protecting the environment even at the risk of hampering economic growth.” The Federal party that is best able to harness this public sentiment will enjoy an advantage over its rivals, potentially dethroning Harper’s Conservatives in 2015.
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