Greening Politics: Canada's Leaders Strut Their Colours on the Political Stage

By Paehlke, Robert; Ross, Nicola | Alternatives Journal, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Greening Politics: Canada's Leaders Strut Their Colours on the Political Stage


Paehlke, Robert, Ross, Nicola, Alternatives Journal


IN THE LATE 1980s, the term "sustainable development" entered our vocabulary and Canadians considered the environment to be the most important issue facing the nation. Pushed by then Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and her commission's 1987 release of the report Our Common Future, much of the world felt the same way. George Bush Sr. suddenly remembered he was paying dues to the Sierra Club. Maggie Thatcher claimed she'd been green all along. And Brian Mulroney chimed in by actually doing something: he released his Green Plan and acted on acid rain.

In the 1988 election, Mulroney defeated Liberal leader John Turner, a Bay Street lawyer not known for his environmental convictions. And even Ed Broadbent, whose New Democratic Party had a strong third place showing, was mostly focused elsewhere. As it turned out, the late 1980's wash of green was neither broad nor deep. It faded in the economic downturn of the early 1990s.

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Now, some two decades later, we might well wonder how much has changed. It seems as if a bigger environmental enthusiasm is now gripping federal politicians. The Liberals picked former environment minister Stephane Dion as their new leader. He joins NDP head Jack Layton, who has a long green record, and veteran environmental activist Elizabeth May, who has brought a previously unknown dynamism to the Green Party. The Bloc Quebecois also gives the issue plenty of green ink in their proposed plans.

Influenced, no doubt, by the polling data that moved The Globe and Mail to declare 2007 the year of the environment, Prime Minister Harper emerged from the 2006 Christmas break in robes freshly dyed a pale and uneven shade of green. Wary of the PM's rebirth, Dion, May and Layton are happily reciting old Harper denials of climate change. But the Prime Minister, doggedly clutching his new script, has sent forth a trusted new Environment Minister to preach the green gospel in hopes of luring back alienated constituents.

In light of these developments, Alternatives decided to speak to the players. We asked the new Minister of the Environment, the heads of the Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties, and the environment critic for the Bloc Quebecois what they thought should be done about climate change. All but the Bloc representative responded.

John Baird: The King's Bishop for the Environment

As the story goes, Jack Layton gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper a copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The PM just hasn't watched it yet. Nonetheless, one of Harper's first actions in 2007 was to anoint John Baird to the post of Minister of the Environment. Baird, an MP so trusted that he accompanies Laureen, the PM's wife, to social events in her husband's absence, is also allowed the privilege of speaking directly to the media.

His response to the question Alternatives put to him about his party's approach to climate change countered his boss' longstanding skepticism. Baird wrote, "The science is clear--climate change is real, and this government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Lest Canadians be swayed by this sermon, it's best to compare Harper's tactics with those of George W. Bush. Like Bush, Harper has close ties to the energy sector, and like Bush, one of the first things Harper did after moving into 24 Sussex Drive was demolish most of the country's climate change programs. He also announced Canada had no intention of meeting its Kyoto targets. Now, however, Baird says his party is committed to act. He told Alternatives, "To tackle this issue we have proposed tough new legislation, Canada's Clean Air Act ... and we are ready to work with other party's [sic] to consider ideas to improve it."

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Time will tell if the Conservatives toughen up the anemic climate change policies contained in the 2006 version of their Clean Air Act by establishing emissions targets that are backed up by policies that result in real action.

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