What Is a Left-Leaning Green to Do?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg/200px-Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg.pngWith less than a week to go before election day and polls tightening across British Columbia, I find myself in the all-too-common predicament of dreading the electoral options before me.

The Liberals, naturally, are out of the question. They have governed this province horrendously through 16 years of the wrong kind of class warfare, slashing education and social services, offering up more for wealthy donors than for regular people or the natural environment. True, former premier Gordon Campbell showed genuine concern for climate change for about 15 minutes back in 2008, but his successor Christy Clark froze BC’s paltry carbon tax at $30 per tonne and weakened her predecessor’s clean energy regulations in service of her pie-in-the-sky LNG dreams.

As for the NDP, the kindest thing one can say is that they are not the Liberals. Leader John Horgan, in an attempt to appeal to both the labour and the environmental wings of his party, is pledging to raise the carbon tax to the level required by the federal government, but to do so at a marginally faster pace than will the BC Liberals. The party favours some LNG projects and not others. It is strongly opposed to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, while it straddles the fence on the Site C dam.

The NDP represents the province’s best shot at effecting a change in government, yet this does not in itself constitute sufficient reason to vote for them. To cast one’s ballot “strategically” lets mediocre parties off the hook for their mediocrities and sets the stage for a race-to-the-bottom-style proliferation of inadequate policy. Progressives must demand more from the NDP, insisting that our support be earned, not taken for granted.

Which brings us to the Greens, the party perennially on the verge of either breakthrough or irrelevance, never quite reaching either. Unsurprisingly, the Greens have by far the most environmentally sound platform — and probably the most progressive one too. They promise to raise the carbon tax to an eventual target of $70 per tonne — $20 above the federal requirement — and to expand it to cover some emissions not currently priced. Party leader Andrew Weaver has been a lone voice of reason in the Legislature opposed to LNG development, and he rejects the approval of any new fossil fuel infrastructure.

On the social front, the Green Party matches the NDP’s promise on raising corporate taxes, while surpassing them on personal income tax hikes for the wealthy. Income assistance rates would be higher under a Green government than under either other major party. Both the NDP and the Greens have some worthy, albeit incomplete, ideas on housing, and while NDP child care policy presents a good deal more detail, the Greens have one-upped them on affordability.

Boasting the largest increases to both spending and revenue, Greens distinguish themselves as the party of what is ominously referred to in right-wing circles as “big government.” While their rivals promise to keep budgets in the black, the Greens pledge only to balance the books on average over a four-year term, allowing deficits to occur during individual years.

Where the Greens start to falter is not so much in their platform as in their leader. Weaver is an accomplished climate scientist and former lead author on several IPCC reports. When he speaks, people rightly listen. But his stature suffered when, during his term as MLA, he bewilderingly voted for two Liberal government budgets.

Like many Green voters, I could not help but wonder what he was thinking. Was it a matter of deep-seated conviction on his part? Or of wanting to “do politics differently,” as he nebulously claimed in the moment? Did he simply wish to ingratiate himself to whoever happened to be in government? Add to this his strange infatuation with private power and his criticism of the NDP’s equity policy on candidate nominations, and it is not clear that Weaver is capable of walking his party’s progressive talk.

Furthermore, the stakes are particularly high in the current election, in which the Greens are polling unusually well for a third party, while the Liberals and NDP wage a closely fought battle for first place. If no party gets a majority in the Legislature, who would Weaver and his potential caucus-mates throw their support behind for premier?

For my part, I plan, with some reservation, to risk another vote for the Greens on May 9, premised on the possibly flawed assumption that an NDP-Green alignment makes more sense than a Liberal-Green one. Two budgets aside, Weaver has voted with the NDP far more often than he has with the Liberals, and he stated in 2013 that he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government.

However, I understand that others, including many whose opinions I deeply respect, might make their calculations differently. Weaver is a bit of a gamble. Under the circumstances, I cannot blame anyone for casting a safe — albeit uninspiring — vote for the NDP.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Advertisements

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.

Of the Greens and the Gutless

Green PartyThose who know me know that I want nothing more than for the Green Party to succeed, but this objective is imperilled if the voting public does not think of the Greens as real contenders.

Today, BC Premier Christy Clark announced July 10 as the date for the Westside-Kelowna byelection in which she will attempt to win her way back into the legislature under the Liberal Party banner. Both the NDP and the Conservatives have named candidates to take her on; conspicuous by their absence, however, are the Greens. In a press release last week, leader Jane Sterk said, “The BC Liberals won the May 14th election decisively and the riding of Westside-Kelowna by a wide margin …. It is clear that the premier deserves to be in the legislature and we are following the tradition of respecting the wishes of the voters in this regard.”

With all due respect to Jane Sterk and the aura of civility she seeks to instill, voters can speak for themselves, thank you very much. It is not Clark who won last month’s provincial election, but her party — or more specifically, most of her party’s nominees. There is no inherent sense in which the decidedly un-green Premier “deserves” a seat. Just like any other candidate, she must convince the people of a local community that she is the best politician to represent them. That is how Canadian parliamentary democracy works.

If Sterk believes that we should switch to some kind of presidential or semi-presidential model in which we elect our leader directly in a province-wide vote (not entirely a bad idea), then she is welcome to put the suggestion up for public debate. But otherwise, it just looks like the Green Party, despite its historic and well-deserved breakthrough in May’s election, is falling back into old habits and virtually dropping off the political map outside the writ period.

When the Greens do not bother to run in byelections, they are not taken seriously and neither are their ideas. It is one thing to refrain from fielding a candidate as part of a principled campaign for electoral cooperation, as the federal Greens recently did (although I had some qualms about that being a unilateral act without any other parties on board), but it is something else entirely to stand aside on the grounds that a Premier has a right to a seat simply by virtue of being Premier, regardless of her ability to win a fair fight at the riding level.

The only real way to go about “respecting the wishes of the voters” is to give them a broad range of electoral options and allow them to choose freely amongst them. To do otherwise does not put the Green Party above the fray. Frankly, it just makes them pushovers.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Five Lessons — Real and Imagined — from BC’s Election Results

electionIn a stunning upset of “Dewey Defeats Truman” proportions, the BC Liberals have defied all the polls save one and returned to power with a fourth straight majority government. No doubt, there will be much soul searching and wound licking over the coming weeks. I believe that five lessons — real, imagined, and not-quite-clear — will be gleaned from the experience.

1. Proceed with caution when predicting the future.

In last year’s US Presidential election, statistician Nate Silver made fools out of all those television pundits who privileged “gut feeling” over quantitative analysis. But sometimes even the data geeks get it wrong.

So what happened in British Columbia? Did voter support swing at the last minute? Did New Democrats fail to get out their vote? Were there methodological problems with the polling? All we can say for sure is that the political landscape is littered with failed predictions (albeit rarely so shocking as last night’s), and that in the future, partisans and non-partisans alike are probably better off displaying greater humility when speaking of what is yet to come.

2. Going negative works.

This is a very depressing development. Early on, NDP leader Adrian Dix admirably vowed to run a positive campaign, and although that strategy began to shift in the final days, his team never attempted anything on the scale of the unrelenting attacks unleashed by Premier Christy Clark and the Liberals.

While negative campaigning can sometimes backfire, it appears to have worked this time around, as the Liberals successfully tapped into the sizable block of BC voters susceptible to red scare tactics. All the Premier had to do was remind us of secret NDP plans to steal our hard-earned tax dollars and distribute them to greedy union bosses, or something to that effect, and BC’s “free enterprise coalition” dutifully flocked into action.

If I were inclined to ignore lesson #1 above, I would predict an NDP emulation of this campaign style for the next several elections.

3. Campaigning on the environment doesn’t work.

This is even more depressing — and not necessarily accurate. But in politics, it is perception that matters.

During this election, the NDP adopted a moderately progressive environmental platform. The strategy evidently did not pay off. Conceivably, the problem may have been that its environmental policies did not go far enough; perhaps a more stringent stance, like opposition to LNG, might have chipped off a few extra Green votes and energized the party’s base. But New Democrats are most likely drawing a different conclusion. I predict (again, with all due humility) that in the next election, the NDP will focus more on capturing the ideological territory of the Liberals than the Greens.

But there are different strategies to consider.

4. The NDP and the Greens must cooperate.

This call is likely to grow louder over the coming months and years, but electoral cooperation won’t be easy to implement. Green Party support comes from across the political spectrum — more so from the NDP than the Liberals, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so. Plus, it is hard to determine exactly how Green and NDP transfers of support would break down on a riding-by-riding basis.

But while such a scheme is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is it guaranteed to fail. A pre-election alliance in targeted ridings is at least worth further exploration. And with Jane Sterk’s probable impending departure from the Green Party leadership, possibly to be replaced by new MLA Andrew Weaver who said he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government, bad blood between the two parties may yet diminish.

5. It’s now up to civil society.

Regardless of what happens in 2017, BC will spend the next four years governed by a party that believes itself to have a mandate for pipeline ambiguity, LNG development, and climate inaction. Environmental and social justice groups must mobilize to demonstrate to the government that its priorities for the province are not embraced by the majority of voters who wanted someone else.

“Well, that was easy,” Christy Clark joked in her victory speech last night. It is now up to all of us to make sure that the next four years are anything but.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Cleaning Up Gordon Campbell’s Mess

Christy ClarkAccording to every poll and every projection by every firm and every commentator, Christy Clark and her Liberal Party are about to be handed an unbalanced ass-whooping of the sort we British Columbians seem to enjoy dishing out to governing parties once every decade or so. Naturally, when this happens, I will be singing and dancing as much as the next person. But allow me to qualify my unencumbered joy thusly:

The impending Liberal defeat is not Christy Clark’s fault.

Well, not primarily. She certainly hasn’t helped. “Ethnicgate” does not reflect well on the Clark government, but this present ordeal is not particularly different from the “very ethnic” mini-scandal that failed to put a dent in the Harper Conservatives during the last federal election. People are outraged at the BC Liberals now because we were already predisposed to feel outraged. “Ethnicgate” provided a focus for what was always there.

So why don’t we like the Liberals? All arrows point to Gordon Campbell, that ghostly spectre whose past misdeeds will no doubt haunt the upcoming campaign. Clark is simply paying for her predecessor’s mistakes, and while she has committed her own fair share of blunders along the way, not even the charismatic lovechild of Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama could have prevented the SS Gordo from sinking. The Liberal Party’s fate was permanently sealed one summer day in 2009 — only two months after the last election — when the Campbell government announced its plan to introduce the dreaded HST.

Let me qualify my point once more. The Harmonized Sales Tax, which will finally meet its end next week, is not all bad. Nor is the old Provincial Sales Tax, which will replace it, all good. As far as consumption taxes go, value added taxes like the HST are undoubtedly more efficient than cascading taxes like the PST. And it may even be the case that businesses would have passed on all their HST savings to consumers through lower prices — eventually. (But then why was the business community so in love with the HST? Never mind.)

So what is wrong with the HST? I can’t speak for all British Columbians. Surely, the sneaky, underhanded way in which the government introduced the tax plays a big part in explaining why people don’t like it, and understandably so.

As for me personally, the main reason I signed the anti-HST initiative and voted against the new tax in the subsequent referendum is that I am not a fan of broad-based consumption taxes in general — be they HST, PST, or GST. Such taxes are notorious for taking a bigger bite out of the incomes of the poor than the rich. And while I realize that it is unrealistic to eliminate both the HST and the PST all at once, I came to the conclusion during the HST debate that the only proposal I could support would be a conscious effort to shift taxes incrementally away from consumption and towards more sensible tax bases. In other words, lower the sales tax — whatever form it takes — and recoup lost revenue by raising income taxes, corporate taxes, or carbon taxes (a more targeted consumption tax).

Of course, neither the Campbell nor the Clark Liberals gave any indication that they were willing to engage in a profound conversation of this nature. All I can do is hope that the incoming NDP government will be more open to such an exercise. In the meantime, I happily count down to election day and await the long overdue demise of the Campbell era — more than two years after he stepped down as Premier.

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterPlease see today’s Vancouver Sun — or click here — for my latest letter to the editor. This one is about BC Premier Christy Clark’s efforts to raise government revenue via liquefied natural gas production. As regular readers might expect, I am not exactly on board.

Twisting the Facts on the Environment

Infographic courtesy of sumofus.org

Case #1: BC Premier Christy Clark has a job creation plan. One component of said plan involves three liquefied natural gas plants in the northern part of the province. Unfortunately, this runs afoul of the provincial Clean Energy Act. So what does Premier Clark do? In June, she redefines “clean energy” to include natural gas — a resource that emits greenhouse gases just like any other fossil fuel — provided that it is used to power those plants in northern BC. Just like that, everybody wins!

Case #2: Scientists advising North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission recommend that the state plan for a sea level rise of 39 inches along its coast by 2100 due to climate change. Business groups complain that the resulting restrictions on coastal development will damage the economy. State lawmakers respond by introducing a bill that would bar officials from taking such pessimistic predictions into account. Instead, they would be required to consider only historical trends. In July, after North Carolina is widely mocked for trying to declare rising sea levels illegal, state legislators agree to a compromise and instruct the Coastal Resources Commission to come back with another report in four years. In the meantime, officials are still to ignore the scientists’ original advice.

Case #3: As a signatory to the Copenhagen Accord, Canada is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Peter Kent announces that Canada is halfway there. This must mean that the country has already lowered its emissions to 8 or 9 percent below 2005 levels, right? Wrong. By “halfway,” the minister means only that if we continue along the same path, we will be halfway to our target by 2020. Furthermore, this 2020 “halfway” projection does not use 2005 emissions as a baseline, but rather hypothetical 2020 emissions assuming inaction on the government’s part. The upshot is that by 2020, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently projected to drop to only 2.7 percent below its 2005 emissions, rather than 17 percent below. Halfway indeed!

Case #4: Enbridge would like to build a pipeline pumping Alberta oil to the BC coast for export. Sadly for Enbridge, people are increasingly concerned about accidents and the possibility of oil spills. To reassure the public, the company puts out several promotional videos. Earlier this month, it is discovered that in two of these videos, a string of islands in Douglas Channel, with a combined area of over 1000 square kilometres, is completely erased from the map. One must admit, the tanker route certainly looks a lot safer this way.

The PR lessons from this summer have been fascinating. If the facts are not convenient, simply invent new facts. Staying on message is the important thing. Who are we to let reality get in the way?