What the NDP Is and Isn’t Promising on the Environment

Adrian DixIn the wake of the NDP’s Earth Day announcement unveiling its environmental platform in Kamloops, BC’s environmental movement has been falling all over itself in praise of the party sure to form the next provincial government. Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, a vocal NDP critic in the last election, has now offered her enthusiastic endorsement of the party — this in addition to previous votes of confidence of a more qualified nature from the likes of Mark Jaccard and Rafe Mair. And let us not forget former Sierra Club BC executive director George Heyman, who is running as a candidate for the NDP in Vancouver.

So what exactly does the NDP have to offer on the environment? Well, let’s look at what it said in Kamloops yesterday. Contrary to media reports, leader Adrian Dix did not quite assert his unwavering opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline “twinning.” But he came closer than he ever has before. As stated in a release on the NDP website:

The Kinder Morgan proposal as we understand it, would dramatically transform what that pipeline does and would dramatically transform the Port of Vancouver. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would become a pipeline designed for oil sands bitumen export, with [sic] increasing dramatically the barrels per day passing through the Port of Vancouver via tankers.

We have to wait to see a formal application, but I don’t think that the Port of Metro Vancouver, as busy and as successful as it is, should become a major oil export facility.

We will conduct a made-in-BC review of the Kinder Morgan proposal and decisions will be made here in BC.

Our position is clear: we do not believe any proposal should transform Vancouver into a major port for oil export.

Read over that statement again. If Adrian Dix had wanted to pledge explicitly that an NDP government would block Kinder Morgan’s application, then he would have done so. But he and his team are choosing their words carefully. Without doubt, the party’s increasing negativity of tone with respect to the pipeline proposal is reducing the future government’s wiggle room (and environmental groups are right to celebrate this small victory), but some room for manoeuvre does remain.

This fine line being walked by the NDP is reflected on other environmental issues as well. In contrast to their Kinder Morgan position, Dix and co. are unequivocally opposed to the more well-known Enbridge pipeline proposal. They also favour a ban on cosmetic pesticide use. They have promised to broaden BC’s carbon tax to some (not all) currently exempt industrial emissions, and to devote a portion of its revenue to initiatives like public transit, but they will not raise the tax rate. On natural gas, they are calling for a review (not a moratorium) on the practice of fracking, but their position on liquefied natural gas development and export is otherwise mostly indistinguishable from that of the Liberals, despite evidence that BC will fail to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets if current plans go ahead.

The NDP has certainly come a long way since its “axe the gas tax” campaign of 2009 (and an even longer way since Premier Glen Clark called environmentalists “enemies of BC” in 1997). Without question, New Democrats are now miles ahead of the governing Liberals on environmental policy, and their announcement in Kamloops yesterday is justifiably greeted with cautious optimism.

But now is not the time to ease up the pressure. Environmentalists must remain vigilant against all who seek power. In fact, barring some truly spectacular flip-flops over the next three weeks, enterprising voters would do well to remember that there are more than just two parties competing for their votes on May 14.

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A Socialist’s Lament

socialismLet’s be clear about one thing: the New Democratic Party of Canada was never a socialist party.

For all the hands wrung and tears shed over its newly amended constitution, the NDP, since its formation in 1961, has always been a social democratic party like any other, and social democracy has been standing a respectful distance away from true socialism for nearly a century.

Once upon a time, Europe’s social democratic parties may have been the standard-bearers of Marxist orthodoxy, but following the infamous “schism” in the international socialist movement over World War I and the Russian Revolution, the parties lost their left wings to the newly founded communist parties. This division was cemented in 1919 when the German Social Democrats violently stamped out the short-lived revolutionary movements and administrations that had overtaken the country.

Over the decades that followed, social democrats — by their actions if not their words — abandoned all pretense of overthrowing the system and established themselves as modernizers and civilizers of market economies, as champions of the Keynesian, welfare-state consensus which took hold over Western Europe and North America following World War II and which, far from threatening the survival of capitalism, may well have saved it by making it more palatable to the masses. They favoured mixed economies, social safety nets, progressive taxation, government regulation, and nationalization of certain key industries, but rarely did they attempt inroads against the still overwhelmingly private ownership of the means of production or the role of markets in setting prices and distributing wealth.

Social democrats, as many commentators have stated, are merely liberals who “really mean it” (just as “democratic socialists are social democrats who really mean it,” Tony Wright has added).

As the postwar consensus unravelled in the 1970s and 1980s, social democracy continued its rightward drift. Social democratic parties were slower and more conflicted than their liberal and conservative counterparts about climbing aboard the neoliberal train, but they were largely unable or unwilling to resist the tide of history favouring privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and reduced government spending.

Canada’s NDP has been no exception to this worldwide social democratic trajectory, especially with its current leader’s avowed skepticism over tax hikes and openness to free trade agreements. Now, the decision by the party to scrub its constitution of any reference to socialism — save for a token mention of “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions” — means only that its words have finally caught up with its actions.

Like other socialists, I consider this a depressing development, but not a particularly momentous or surprising one. It is the direction of the party’s long-term evolution that I find unfortunate, rather than the recent symbolic amendment which is only a symptom. True, I have never voted for the NDP or any other notionally socialist or socialish party at the federal or provincial level. For my own reasons, I have always chosen to prioritize my environmentalism over my socialism (although the two are not exactly as separable as this statement implies). But it nevertheless has been — or rather, would be — a comfort to know that there is some party in Parliament still willing to fight the good fight long after it has ceased to be fashionable.

Socialism is a notoriously pluralistic ideology, composed of adherents both scientific and utopian, revolutionary and evolutionary, authoritarian and democratic, statist and libertarian. (Many of them attack one another with a hatred and vehemence leftists seem only to display towards their own kind.) Certainly not every socialism necessarily represents an advance over every capitalism, but by exploring beyond the free market horizon, we are at least offered a chance to expand democracy from the political realm to the economic and to embrace a mode of production that does not require infinite, ecologically destructive growth for its very survival.

Capitalism means economic rule either by elites or by impersonal “laws.” Socialism, potentially, means economic rule by all who are impacted by the economy — workers, consumers, communities at large.

Canada’s New Democrats have survived their version of the UK Labour Party’s “Clause IV” fight, and they undoubtedly believe themselves to be more electable as a result. They may be right. But their slow, lumbering move to the centre also represents a surrender in the battle of ideas, leaving the country poorer in the process.

Who will take up the cause now?

Party Positions on BC’s Carbon Tax

Carbon taxWith the release today of the NDP’s fiscal plan in advance of the May 14 election here in British Columbia, we are now finally able to assess where the major parties — Liberals, New Democrats, Greens, and Conservatives — stand on the province’s carbon tax. In my opinion, there are four primary questions by which their respective carbon tax proposals are to be judged:

  1. Will the tax be raised?
  2. Will the tax base be expanded?
  3. Will the tax remain revenue neutral?
  4. How will equity concerns be addressed?

This is not to say that these four criteria are the only relevant ones in carbon tax policy. But I believe they are the most important.

First off, the only thing that needs to be said about the Conservative position is that the party opposes the carbon tax and plans to eliminate it in the unlikely event that a Conservative government is formed. A similar policy was adopted by the New Democrats four years ago, which did not end well for them. I can’t see it going any better for the Conservatives. ‘Nuff said.

Raising the Tax

As for the other three parties, let’s start with where they stand on raising the carbon tax. The Liberals — who introduced it back in 2008 at $10 per tonne, raising it incrementally until it reached $30 in 2012 — have now promised to keep the tax frozen at its present rate for five years to allow other jurisdictions a chance to “catch up” to BC’s “leadership.” The NDP’s fiscal plan indicates that the likely next government will be taking roughly the same position. Only the Greens (full disclosure: I’m a party member) are pledging to increase BC’s carbon tax to $50 per tonne and to continue nudging it up from there until it gets the job done.

Expanding the Base

On the subject of the tax base, let’s note that the carbon tax, as currently constituted, applies to only about two-thirds to three-quarters of emissions in the province. Exempt are certain mostly industrial emissions coming from oil, gas, cement, aluminum, and other sectors. The Liberals have announced no plans to change this, while the NDP says it will expand the tax to some areas (such as oil and gas) but not others (such as cement and aluminum), and the Greens promise to tax all greenhouse gas emitting industries.

Revenue Neutrality

The issue of revenue neutrality is one which I think is not nearly as important as it is commonly assumed to be. So, counterintuitively, here is a lengthy digression on the subject:

Currently, the carbon tax is required by legislation to be revenue neutral (it’s actually revenue negative, but who’s counting?), with every dollar coming in going back out in the form of tax credits and cuts to personal and corporate income taxes. The rationale is something along the lines that if people are aware that their tax burden will be no greater (on average) with a carbon tax than without, then they will be more likely to support it because, after all, everybody hates taxes. What the Liberal government did not count on, however, was that many would not be convinced of the carbon tax’s effectiveness unless they saw its revenue being put to productive use. There is a certain poetic justice in the idea of a tax on greenhouse gas emissions being used to pay for public transit and other eco-friendly projects.

Political optics aside, the best argument for revenue neutrality is that the base for a carbon tax (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions) should be declining over time, assuming that the tax is doing what it was designed to do. Such an unstable revenue source will not provide reliable funding for important government services — green or otherwise — so it is better not to depend on carbon taxes for revenue at all.

On the other side, opponents of revenue neutrality might acknowledge that perhaps carbon taxes are not ideal sources of government funding, but we are not exactly spoiled for choice. Not nearly enough is being invested in green initiatives at present, so why not exploit whatever revenue we happen to have at our disposal, regardless of how imperfect it might be?

Personally, I consider both these arguments to be about equally convincing (or unconvincing) and find myself in the rare position of being pretty much neutral on revenue neutrality. I support carbon taxation and I support green government spending, but what do I care whether or not funding for the latter comes strictly from the former? I could simply go either way on the issue.

BC’s political parties don’t quite see things the same way. The Liberals seem to be holding the line in favour of revenue neutrality (even if their latest budget has altered the tax cuts which were originally part of the revenue neutral deal, but never mind), whereas the New Democrats have long supported investing carbon tax revenue in public transit and other such projects. The Greens, officially, are on the side of revenue neutrality, but they have indicated that they might be open to compromise.

Equity

Finally, there is the question of equity. Carbon taxes on their own, like all consumption taxes, are well known for being regressive, meaning that on average the poor have to pay a larger percentage of their incomes (although lower absolute amounts) than the rich. For this reason, most fair carbon tax proposals include some kind of mechanism to compensate for this regressive element. BC’s carbon tax includes a low-income tax credit meant to do just that, but unfortunately, a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that the current program does not go nearly far enough and that our carbon tax is still, on balance, regressive.

I have not heard the Liberals or the NDP say anything about changing this. The Greens meanwhile have promised to “exempt” (whatever that means) people below the low-income cut-off from the carbon tax. The lack of detail on offer from parties across the spectrum suggests to me that the issue of equity is not being treated as seriously by opinion makers as it deserves to be.

Final Assessment

  • Green Party: B+
  • New Democratic Party: C+
  • Liberal Party: C-
  • Conservative Party: F (or I for Incomplete)

Note, these grades reflect the parties’ carbon tax proposals only. Carbon taxation is not the sole dimension of a comprehensive climate policy, but it is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. I find it encouraging to see three of the four major provincial parties openly embracing an idea which is still considered taboo on the federal level. That being said, it would be even more encouraging if they would step up their game. Climate change is the key challenge of our generation, and a well-designed, progressive carbon tax ought to be considered part of any reasonable set of solutions.

So hop to it, BC parties! The stakes are high and time is short.

Bring Your Boomers: How BC Candidates Fare on Climate Change

Enbridge pipelineAlthough the writ for the upcoming BC election won’t be dropped for another two weeks (yes, this campaign has been going on forever), I had the pleasure yesterday of attending an all-candidates meeting on climate change organized by Gen Why Media.

The forum seemed geared primarily towards the young ’uns, despite being billed by organizers as part of their ongoing “Bring Your Boomers” intergenerational dialogue series. A few older voices in the audience could be heard complaining about the darkness of the venue and the frenetic Twittercentrism of the onstage decorations. And though I am ostensibly still part of the youth demographic (I think) for whose benefit all this was being done, even I felt that the ambient electro-rock band Au4 which opened and closed the evening, while very talented and entertaining, was a bit loud for a political event.

Window dressing aside, however, it was a lot of fun. Five candidates running in the upcoming election from across the province shared the stage with three young people (Sam Harrison, Caleb Behn, and Andrea Curtis) who drilled them on their environmental commitments. Former Quebec City Bureau Chief for CTV Kai Nagata served as moderator.

The consummate star of the evening was independent MLA and former New Democrat Bob Simpson from Cariboo North. He drew by far the most applause by coming out strongly against both the Enbridge and the Kinder Morgan pipelines, and declaring the phrase “green LNG” (liquefied natural gas) to be “nonsensical.”

Green Party leader Jane Sterk seemed like somewhat of a kindred spirit, and it is no wonder she is not running a candidate against Simpson in his riding. She unsurprisingly took the strongest environmental stances of the four party representatives onstage, echoing Simpson on pipelines and natural gas, and adding that a Green Party government would raise BC’s carbon tax from thirty to fifty dollars per tonne.

NDP environment critic Rob Fleming got his fair share of love from the audience too, but he had to put up with some minor heckling whenever the room noticed him waffle on an issue. While the Enbridge pipeline got a firm “no,” Kinder Morgan was a “maybe,” pending a new review process. He spoke favourably of liquefying natural gas for export using renewable energy, so as to avoid the in-province emissions that would result from the current government plan, and stressed the potential role of BC gas in weaning China off of coal, a common claim by both major parties which critics find questionable.

More than a few eyebrows were raised by punk rocker and Conservative candidate Duane Nickull. Running against the Premier in her riding, he touted the importance of geothermal energy and repeatedly emphasized that the BC Conservatives are not the Harper Conservatives.

Finally, drawing a large majority of the evening’s heckles was youthful first-time provincial candidate Gabby Kalaw of the governing Liberals. He definitely came across as the phoniest of the bunch, the way he earnestly greeted everybody onstage by name and kept transparently trying to “relate” to people. He also had the toughest job of anyone at the forum, considering the palpable hostility that virtually the entire audience felt towards his party. But I was unable to shed a tear for him once he started spouting nonsense about using a “Prosperity Fund” of natural gas revenue to help us finance the fight against climate change in some unspecified way.

The high point of the evening came at the very end. Since the main event ran long, there was not as much time for questions from the audience as expected. So when Kai Nagata began wrapping up, a revolt almost broke out. One sweet little old lady in the back had her hand up for a very long time, and members of the audience began insisting that she be given the chance to speak. Nagata apologized, informing us that there just wasn’t time, and the audience’s displeasure grew more and more feverish. Finally, Nagata gave in and allowed the sweet little old lady in the back to have the last word, whereupon she stood up and, in her sweet-little-old-lady voice, launched into a rambling, incoherent proclamation about chemtrails.

Best. Ending. Ever.