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.

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.

On the Limits of Scandalmongering, or Why I Don’t Care About Rob Ford’s Alleged Crack Use

Rob FordFor all my political ideals and self-conceptualizations, I cannot for the life of me seem to get myself more than superficially interested in the scandals that plague the holders of public office. The Rob Ford crack video hubbub is a case in point.

Yes, it is funny. Yes, there is hardly a politico more deserving of being knocked down a peg. And now, with even Ford’s brother being brought in on the fun with allegations of a drug dealing past, the entire country seems to be locked in the grips of an overpowering case of SchadenFord (no, I am not the first to think that one up).

Yet there is something disturbing in the idea that for all the regressive initiatives embraced by Ford during his two-and-a-half years as Toronto Mayor — for all his ill-advised crusades against labour, cyclists, libraries, and transit — it is the as yet unproven crack video, surely the least of his transgressions, that now threatens to do him in.

A similar point can be made about the Senate expenses scandal currently underway in Ottawa. True, this one is different from the crack case insofar as it involves the misuse of public funds, but if we focus solely on the “bad apples” like Wallin and Duffy and Harb and Brazeau, then we lose sight of the wider issue, namely the culture of entitlement inherent in an unelected upper chamber that makes the cultivation of such bad apples practically inevitable. The NDP is taking the enlightened position with respect to this scandal — criticizing the individuals involved, yes, but also connecting them to something more profound, more systemic, taking the opportunity to renew its longstanding call to abolish the Senate entirely.

And that, precisely, is what’s missing from most scandalmongering, defined as it is by an overemphasis on personalities and an underemphasis on institutions. The Fords and the Duffys of the world, entertaining though they are, do not affect us nearly as deeply as the offices they hold and the policies they implement. Of course those who do wrong deserve to be punished, but the news coverage generated by these individual wrongdoings are completely out of proportion to their true impacts.

We’d do a lot better focusing on what really matters.

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.

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.

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?