Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterFor what is likely to be my last letter to the editor of 2016, see today’s Vancouver Sun (fourth letter from the top). The gist of my argument is that Kinder Morgan is bad.

Fun fact: this ain’t the first time I’ve responded to a pro-Kinder Morgan op-ed by former NDP Premier Dan Miller.

Six Ways That the Greens Are Canada’s Most Progressive Party

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In the midst of a campaign dominated by horse races and attack ads, by fear and scandal and appeals to our basest political instincts, it is easy to forget that elections are meant above all to be about policy. Which party offers the kindest, most equitable, and most sustainable vision for the country?

The answer, in my opinion, is clear. Here I present six important ways that the Green Party of Canada is the most progressive of our major national parties.

1. Climate

Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation, one that is inextricably linked to our well-being and survival, yet politicians typically treat it as some trifling matter to be addressed only when there is nothing more pressing on the agenda. For the Green Party, however, climate considerations are central.

The party’s platform calls for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Vision Green, the party’s in-depth policy document, speaks of even steeper reductions. Much of the heavy lifting for this program of cuts would be performed by a carbon fee and dividend system (a form of carbon tax), set at the admittedly paltry rate of $30 per tonne, but projected to rise over time. The only other party calling for a federal price on carbon is the NDP, but its cap-and-trade policy is sorely lacking in detail. There is no way of knowing, based on the information thus far provided, how stringent or comprehensive the NDP plan would be.

On pipelines, Liberals and New Democrats, to their credit, both oppose Northern Gateway, but they can’t seem to make up their minds on Trans Mountain and Energy East. The Liberals support Keystone XL, while the NDP rejects it. Only the Greens take a principled stance against all pipelines meant to export raw bitumen, pledging to halt oil sands expansion and to shift our economy towards renewable energy and sustainable jobs.

2. Taxes

While reasonable questions can be raised about the Green Party’s insistence on revenue neutrality when it comes to carbon taxes, there is no doubt that its fee and dividend plan is on balance progressive. Revenue produced by the “fee” is meant to be returned to all Canadians as an equal per capita “dividend.” Since people with low incomes would pay less on average than those with high incomes (due to lower greenhouse gas emissions), they would tend to get more out of the system than they put into it. The result would be a modest redistribution from rich to poor.

Additionally, the Greens pledge in their budget overview to eliminate income taxes on those making less than $20,000 per year, to reintroduce a tax on inheritances greater than $1,000,000, and to raise the corporate rate from 15 to 19 per cent (leapfrogging the NDP’s 17 per cent). Some of the projected increase in revenue would go towards the party’s vaunted Guaranteed Livable Income (also known as a negative income tax), a proposed increase to and consolidation of various federal and provincial assistance programs aimed at ensuring that no Canadian lives in poverty.

3. Trade

In an era when the battle against free trade and investor protection agreements has largely been abandoned, the Greens are the only major party still willing to fight the good fight.

The Liberal Party has supported trade liberalization treaties ever since notoriously breaking its 1993 election promise to pull Canada out of NAFTA. Even the NDP, in recent years, has dropped its principled opposition, preferring to assess trade agreements on a case-by-case basis (yes to Jordan and South Korea, maybe to CETA, no to the recently signed TPP).

The Greens, by contrast, stand unequivocally on the side of fair rather than free trade. Party leader Elizabeth May has been one of the country’s most passionate voices in opposition to the FIPA with China. Vision Green even goes so far as to suggest providing the requisite six months’ notice to withdraw from NAFTA as a means of pushing for renegotiation on more favourable terms.

4. Post-secondary education

Dozens of countries around the globe, across both the developed and the developing world, offer free post-secondary education. For the most part, this is considered a non-starter here in Canada. Alas, it is once again only the Greens who favour the complete abolition of tuition fees. They also promise to cancel existing student debts over $10,000.

5. War and peace

Non-violence is one of the six fundamental principles of the Green Party of Canada. The principle was put on dramatic display in 2011 when, barely a month after she was elected, Elizabeth May took a stand in the House of Commons, providing a lone vote of dissent against Canada’s continued participation in NATO’s war on Libya. Given the ongoing disaster still unfolding as a result of our intervention, May’s foresight deserves be acknowledged.

6. Growth

The Green Party is by no means anti-capitalist, but by questioning the ideology of infinite growth, it goes farther than either the NDP or the Liberals in undermining the most destructive foundation of our economic system. Vision Green explicitly calls for a steady-state economy and a reduced work week, stating, “Continued exponential growth is counter to the realities of a finite planet.”

None of this prevents the party from speaking the language of “smart growth” and “sustainable growth” when convenient. Perhaps this apparent contradiction reflects a distinction between short-term and long-term objectives. Nevertheless, in the current political climate, any willingness to broach the subject of limits to growth is a rare feat.

Some hedging …

The Greens are not perfect on every issue. Regrettably, it is only the Liberals who favour a rise in the personal tax rates of the top one per cent. And the NDP, in addition to having a more fleshed-out child care policy, has set a short-term greenhouse gas reduction target that is marginally more ambitious than the Green Party’s.

However, on most issues, Elizabeth May and her running mates occupy a place in the political landscape that we would be foolish to overlook. To expect them simply to disappear — to roll over and die in the face of deliberate mischaracterizations and short-sighted appeals to strategic voting — is neither realistic nor desirable. They fill a hole in the national conversation and challenge us to demand more from other parties.

If the NDP and the Liberals truly want to defang the Greens, they could start by adopting their policies.

This posts appears on rabble.ca.

The Case for ‘Yes’ in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

File:Vancouver Transit.jpgWell, anybody could have called this one.

According to a new survey by Insights West, 53 per cent of residents plan to vote No in the upcoming 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite. Only 38 per cent say they will vote Yes to the proposed half-percentage-point sales tax increase to help fund more buses, new rapid transit lines, improved walking and cycling networks, road and bridge upgrades, and more.

The once mighty Yes campaign’s decline is a regrettable development, but no one can honestly claim to be surprised. Though referendums can be useful exercises, they are out of place on matters such as public transit where the impacts of present-day decisions are borne in large part by future generations. Voters risk falling victim to the myopic lullabies of anti-tax zealots and their assorted useful idiots. Provincial and municipal representatives would have done well simply to sit down together and hammer out a fair cost-sharing arrangement.

But it’s too late for that now. For better or for worse, the provincial Liberals made a cheap pledge during an election which everyone expected them to lose, and we’re stuck with this plebiscite as a result. Mail-in ballots are on their way next month. It is therefore crucial, for reasons of social and environmental justice, that we do all we can to beat the odds and secure a win for the Yes side.

Is TransLink the problem?

So why, one might ask, is the delightfully named “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax” proving so unpopular? Apart from the reflexive mantra of “we hate taxes,” two primary reasons come to the fore. The first is the reputed wastefulness and unaccountability of TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority.

It is true that the organization suffers a democratic deficit, a convoluted governance structure, and bewildering levels of executive compensation. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Compass fare card system has been disastrous, and recent high-profile service shutdowns on the SkyTrain have not made matters any easier.

It is a mystery, however, why anyone would believe that voting No could solve these problems. High-level decision-makers and bureaucrats are not “punished” when denied the ability to implement sensible policies. They are neither fired nor forced to take pay cuts. On the contrary, the only effect is to punish the general public by worsening our transit system’s dysfunctionality in a time of rapid population growth. The poor in particular would suffer through this act of sabotage to one of the cheapest means of getting around. All this in addition to further increases in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion.

It is also worth noting that while any waste is indefensible — public bodies must always strive to improve their efficiency — the items commonly cited as examples of TransLink’s storied wastefulness add up to a mere fraction of one per cent of its annual expenditures. In other words, the vast majority of the organization’s budget goes to the vital public services we rely upon it to provide. So let’s keep matters in perspective, shall we?

Are sales taxes the problem?

A second concern for some segments of the No team is the kind of taxation being considered. Sales taxes, they argue, are regressive, in that they disproportionately impact people with low incomes. If we are to expand public transit services, we should try to do so by means of more progressive alternatives.

So far so good. Indeed, the options are limitless if we allow our imaginations to run wild.

In place of a regional sales tax, perhaps transfers from higher levels of government, which are already anticipated to defray the bulk of the costs, could cover every last dime of transit funding. Personal and corporate income taxes could be raised. So too could the provincial carbon tax, for although it is just as regressive as a sales tax (all else being equal), it at least adheres to the polluter pays principle.

The problem is that not one of these idyllic alternatives is on the table, nor will they magically become so if residents vote No. We are not faced with a choice between several different mechanisms by which to pay for needed transit investments; we are faced with a choice between making those investments and not making them.

A sales tax boost may not be perfect, but as far as tax hikes go, 0.5 per cent is fairly small — amounting to an average of 35 cents per household per day, according to the Yes campaign (or about twice that by the No side’s reckoning). And unlike other sales tax proposals, such as our dearly departed HST, this one is earmarked almost entirely towards public transit, an indisputably progressive cause which benefits people with low incomes and helps to prevent climate destruction.

So what exactly is the problem, Metro Vancouver? Will we succumb, as suggested by the latest poll, to the cynical panderings of “starve the beast” fanatics? Or will we defy the prognosticators and rise to the occasion?

This blogger is not optimistic, but he hopes to be proven wrong.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

It’s the Climate, Stupid!

Portland protestNot two weeks since the federal government’s long-anticipated approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the project are becoming clearer by the day.

There is widespread public hostility — both in Kitimat, envisioned as the pipeline’s end location, as well as across British Columbia more generally. First Nations and environmental groups have launched several court challenges, with more expected to come. Massive protests and civil disobedience are inevitable. Efforts will soon be underway to initiate a province-wide referendum. The government of BC, which must provide about 60 permits, is ambivalent about the pipeline at best, while federal opposition parties are promising to reverse the project’s approval if they win next year’s election.

All this in addition to the much-ballyhooed 209 conditions.

Nevertheless, as rosy as matters may look from certain angles, victory is far from assured. The entrenched power of Enbridge and its political backers in Ottawa and Edmonton is nothing to scoff at, and pipeline opponents would do well to take a step back and consider why exactly they are opposed.

I say this because in the coming months, British Columbia will be bombarded by relentless propaganda (as though we haven’t had enough already) claiming that Enbridge has heard our cries of protest and will commit to building the greenest, most environmentally responsible pipeline it can build. The threat of bitumen spills on land and at sea will be neutralized. The company will meet and exceed provincial demands for “world-leading” response, prevention, and recovery systems.

Never mind for a moment the disingenuousness of such attempts to deflect and to co-opt. Never mind Enbridge’s less-than-exemplary record on oil spills. Such promises, even if true, are irrelevant because they fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room, climate change. The fight against pipelines is not just about our wilderness, our rivers, our coastlines — vital though these are. It is about the planet-wide impact of dangerously accelerating tar sands expansion, a process that Northern Gateway is meant to facilitate.

According to current projections, if warming is to be kept within the two-degree limit pledged by world leaders at Copenhagen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak some time before 2020. Such a scenario is not consistent with the continued building of large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure with decades-long lifespans (at least not here in the developed world). Virtually every new pipeline, oil refinery, LNG facility, or coal-fired power plant is another nail in the coffin of climate stability.

It is possible to disagree reasonably about how rapidly to phase out existing infrastructure, how aggressively to tackle the transition to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewables. But at the very least, at this stage in our history, to continue full speed in the opposite direction without a care for the consequences should be unthinkable.

That — in addition to the risk of spills — is what’s wrong with Northern Gateway. That is why we can’t let them win.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA few days ago, former BC NDP premier Dan Miller had an op-ed in The Vancouver Sun in which he criticized his party’s insufficient enthusiasm on resource development. As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I take a slightly different point of view. Please see here for my response letter in today’s Sun (second from the bottom), in which I briefly discuss the environment and the economy.

Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Three Solutions to Mark Canadian Environment Week

EarthIn honour of Canadian Environment Week — currently underway amidst accelerating tar sands development, hot on the heels of withdrawals from the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification — let us reflect upon what the federal government, if it were so inclined, could be doing differently. In other words, broadly speaking, how might Canada move beyond the symbolic in pursuit of true environmental sustainability?

1. Get serious about climate change.

By and large, there are three basic policy tools available to the government here: standards, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade. To the extent that they have acted at all, the Harper Conservatives, in line with the Americans, have primarily gone the route of standards (such as fuel efficiency requirements and sector-by-sector regulations). This is a somewhat surprising move since standards are known for being “command and control,” while carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, regularly decried by the Conservatives (although they did briefly favour the latter), are considered more market-oriented.

Unfortunately, the standards that have been implemented so far by the Canadian government do not go far enough. The three major types of policy tools may have different implications with respect to simplicity, predictability, cost-effectiveness, and comprehensiveness, but in the end, the most important question is how stringent they are. We are getting rather late in the game of dealing with climate change, and it is high time we exploit every mechanism we have at our disposal.

2. Take advantage of our federal system of government.

In a federation like Canada, where responsibility for protecting nature is shared between the federal and provincial governments, environmental policy can get messy. But if this overlapping jurisdiction is accepted and handled wisely, then sometimes environmental progress can emerge out of competition between the two levels. Political scientist Kathryn Harrison dubs this kind of arrangement “unilateralism,” in which the feds and the provinces pursue their environmental goals independently. That way, they effectively check one another’s work. If one level of government abandons its responsibilities, there is still the second to fall back upon.

Sadly, this approach is not one that is embraced by the current federal government. The Harper Conservatives have pursued equivalency agreements with their provincial counterparts, in which provinces forfeit their rights to implement independent environmental assessments on certain key projects, allowing the feds alone to call the shots. This may avoid duplication of efforts, but the savings come at the expense of the natural world. The environment would be far better off if we embraced all the advantages Canadian federalism has to offer.

3. Enshrine environmental rights in the Constitution.

Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd came out with two books on environmental rights last year. He finds that 147 countries from virtually every region of the world have explicitly inserted environmental rights or responsibilities into their national constitutions. His work shows that the impact of these measures extends far beyond mere symbolism, with countries that boast green-tinged constitutions demonstrating stronger environmental performance. In many cases, governments rewrite legislation to comply with the environmental provisions of their constitutions and courts even force their governments to change course.

Anyone who recalls the last few decades of Canadian history knows that amending the Constitution is no easy task, but the fact that we are part of a dwindling minority of nation states that do not prioritize environmental protection in this manner should serve as a wake-up call. The natural environment is not some trivial matter to be tossed back and forth by the government of the day. It is the life support system we all depend upon, and it deserves at least as much pride of place in the supreme law of the land as freedom of speech and the right to vote.

This post appears on rabble.ca.