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.

Quebec, Referendums, and Formulas for Secession

A percent signNational unity is back in the news after the NDP tabled a private member’s bill yesterday, a bill that would repeal the Clarity Act and set the bar for Quebec sovereignty negotiations at a mere 50 percent plus one in a clearly worded referendum.

We all know what that means. The NDP, it will be claimed over the coming days and weeks, is “in bed with the separatists” and willing to “tear our country apart” for partisan advantage. There is nothing those treacherous socialists won’t do to preserve the Faustian bargain that won them Quebec in 2011!

Never mind that one can with perfect consistency oppose Quebec separatism while at the same time supporting Quebec’s right to separate if that is what its residents choose (so far they haven’t). And never mind the disingenuousness of those who scream and rage at the prospect of a 50 percent plus one threshold for “destroying the country” while not uttering a peep about the routine formation of majority governments with less than 40 percent of the vote.

No, never mind any of that. The real issue comes down to the following question: is a simple majority of votes in a referendum enough to bestow legitimacy upon Quebec’s decision to secede? The answer, as is so often the case, is “yes and no.” It’s complicated.

The common federalist demand for a “clear majority” before agreeing to entertain the notion of secession (while rarely defining the threshold at which numbers become sufficiently clear) is understandable. If 51 percent of Quebeckers vote to separate, what happens if they change their minds after a year or two, as marginal majorities are wont to do? Would their new sovereign government offer them another referendum? Would the winning percentage still be 50 plus one? Would the rest of Canada even want them back? Such a low bar for secession could make things messy and unpredictable.

On the other hand, in the case of a virtually split province, why should the system be biased in favour federalism rather than separatism? Why must the supermajoritarian burden rest solely on the shoulders of sovereigntists? Simple majority rule has its faults, but surely minority rule is even worse.

There are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed is some kind of compromise, something that will satisfy both federalists and sovereigntists. I would like to humbly submit, as a possible candidate for such a compromise, what with characteristic appellative inspiration I call the “three-referendum rule.”

What I propose is that the Quebec provincial government, should it see fit to do so, hold a series of three referendums over the span of a decade — one every five years. All three referendums would, in the same unambiguous language, ask Quebec voters if they wish to form a separate country. Fifty percent plus one would be the necessary threshold for victory. If a majority votes “yes” in the first referendum, Quebec would remain a part of the Canadian federation for the time being, but would receive greater autonomy therein. If a majority votes “yes” a second time, Quebec’s autonomy would increase still further. And with a third “yes” vote, ten years after the first, Quebec would finally achieve the status of independent nation-state. If, however, any of the three referendums fails to produce the requisite simple majority of “yes” votes, the whole procedure would be sent back to square one.

While I believe this three-referendum rule to be the fairest secession formula on offer, there are undoubtedly some difficulties involved as well. It would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment in order to be put into effective use, and the nature of the stages of Quebec autonomy within the Canadian federation would need to be spelled out in detail. Furthermore, this secession formula must not be imposed unilaterally by one party on another. There has to be broad agreement by everyone involved — federal and provincial, federalist and sovereigntist — before the three-referendum rule can be put into practice.

And what if there is no such broad agreement? Then we must fall back on imperfect solutions. Even in the absence of three referendums held in five-year increments, approximations can be made. The principle of self-determination requires that decision makers glean whatever information they can to determine the will of the people of Quebec.

And a referendum, even just one, in which a simple majority of Quebec voters sends a message to the rest of Canada — well, that’s a pretty strong expression of the people’s will.

The Senate Election that Refuses to Die

Map of Canadian Senate Divisions

Map of Canadian Senate Divisions

Three months ago, I wrote a post warning of coming Senate elections here in British Columbia. Now it seems that the private member’s bill providing for such elections, despite Premier Christy Clark’s support, will not be making it through the sausage factory any time soon.

Reason to celebrate? Unfortunately, no. Not to be deterred, our Premier assures us that an election to replace retiring Senator Gerry St. Germain will go ahead as planned without either enabling legislation or any of that pesky public scrutiny and debate that go along with it.

I explained three months ago my opposition to an elected Senate — that it merely papers over the injustice of a fundamentally undemocratic system of representation, and effectively discards the principle of one-person-one-vote. Far better to simply abolish the outdated institution and look elsewhere for checks and balances. Yet despite the far-reaching influence that my mother assures me my blog posts ought to have, there remains a persistent myth that Canada needs a Senate in one form or another to represent regional interests. It is no coincidence that all federations have bicameral legislatures, this line of reasoning goes.

Compelling, but not quite true. The world contains twenty-four federations, and fully five of them (Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Comoros, Micronesia, and St. Kitts and Nevis) have unicameral legislatures. Admittedly, this is a small percentage, and pales in comparison to the majority of unitary states with no upper houses. In other words, despite this sprinkling of exceptions, it seems that federalism and bicameralism do indeed tend to go hand in hand.

So let us examine the connections. First of all, is it right for the provinces to be given representation in one of the houses of the Parliament of Canada? I don’t see why. The proper agents for provincial interests are provincial governments, not federal lawmakers. If the provinces are represented in the Senate, then shouldn’t the feds, by the same logic, be represented in a second chamber of the provincial legislatures? Or if the goal is to asymmetrically increase the influence of the provinces (not an entirely unreasonable goal), then would it not be more effectively and transparently achieved by means of a simple devolution of powers?

Second, even if it were right to preserve provincial representation at the federal level, the Canadian Senate does not do this. As an appointed body, it merely serves the interests of the ruling federal party and its loyal hacks. Were Christy Clark and Stephen Harper to have their way and make the Senate an elected body, by contrast, its members would then be selected by the same people who select members of the House of Commons — i.e. Canadian voters — only their influence in certain parts of the country would be wildly and arbitrarily out of proportion to their numbers. At most, this would mean that the power of some provinces would be increased vis-a-vis other provinces, not that the power of the provinces in general would be increased vis-a-vis the feds. The only way to accomplish the latter goal through Senate reform would be to allow provincial governments to appoint Senators (the German model), and virtually no one in Canada argues for that.

So please heed my warnings, anonymous blog surfers! Senate elections, whether in BC or elsewhere in the country, will do no good, and to the extent that they legitimize an irreparably flawed institution, may do considerable harm. Let us just abolish the blasted thing and be done with it.