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.

Three New Year’s Resolutions for Canada

New Year'sI have never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. The practice always struck me as little more than an excuse to put off self-improvement until next year. But now, with year’s end upon us, and solutions nowhere in sight for the host of problems that we face as a country and as a world, the moment may finally have arrived to exploit this silly annual tradition and appropriate its language for purposes of cynically presenting a false common cause with any blog readers who happen to be into that sort of thing.

With such ingeniously devious trickery in mind, I present to you, O blogosphere, three New Year’s resolutions for the great nation of Canada:

1. Fight Climate Change

The year 2012 marks the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. It also marks Canada’s official withdrawal from the treaty so as to avoid embarrassment for failing to live up to our legally binding emissions targets.

Perhaps not all the blame can be placed at the feet of the Conservative government that has ruled our country since 2006, as the Liberal government that preceded it was infamous for its inaction on the climate file. But current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his slavish allegiance to Big Tar and the climate distorting effects thereof, has proven himself to be just about the most environmentally unenlightened leader one could ask for short of an all-out climate change denier.

Here’s hoping that in 2013, we start holding our representatives to higher standards.

2. Tackle Poverty

I realize that worldwide anti-austerity protests and the birth of the Occupy movement all took place in 2011, the year when equality finally made its long overdue comeback in the North American public’s consciousness. But good ideas do not come with expiry dates.

It is unforgivable, in an industrialized country, in an era of almost unprecedented material wealth, for 150,000 to 300,000 Canadians to be homeless, or for one in seven Canadian children to live in poverty. And horrendous though these injustices are, they are dwarfed by the heartbreaking extremes of destitution that exist in the developing world, symptoms of unconscionable global inequality.

In 1969, former Prime Minister Lester Pearson famously recommended that industrialized countries devote a minimum of 0.7 percent of their national incomes to foreign aid, a Canadian idea that has become a widely embraced international standard. Four decades later, Canada’s foreign aid level is at 0.3 percent.

This is not acceptable. In 2013, Canada needs to improve its performance on poverty both at home and abroad. And we have to be able to afford it. An adult conversation on taxes is urgently needed.

3. Respect First Nations

Most Canadians benefit from the historic legacy of colonialism. This does not mean that we consciously choose this legacy for ourselves, nor does it mean that Canadians today are all bad people, but this legacy is a fact that deserves to be acknowledged. The country was founded upon the massacre, assimilation, and cultural genocide of the people who first lived here, and to this day their descendents suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, incarceration, addiction, health problems, and suicide.

In the context of this crisis, Prime Minister Harper is making it clear that he cannot be bothered to meet face-to-face with Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, as her hunger strike is set to enter its fourth week. Her courageous actions, meanwhile, have inspired Idle No More, a First Nations-led cross-country protest movement against the government’s recent omnibus legislation, which activists claim dismantles many long-established measures to protect the natural world, thereby violating the treaty rights of the people who depend upon it.

Indigenous communities are always on the front line of fights against environmental destruction, and all Canadians owe them unlimited gratitude for the sacrifices they make on our behalf. If our government will not respect the First Peoples of this country, then at the very least, regular Canadians of all backgrounds need to stand together with them in the Idle No More movement.

In 2013, we need to actively demonstrate our support for their cause. We need to accept it as our own cause too.

A Taxing Debate

Tax

The gloves came off yesterday on Parliament’s first day back after its summer break, with Stephen Harper dealing the NDP what he evidently considers a fatal insult. According to the synchronized taunts of the Prime Minister and his Conservative minions, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition wants nothing more than to impose upon our struggling economy — brace yourselves, gentle Canadians — a carbon tax!

Boo?

Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats played their part flawlessly in Harper’s script by denying the government’s charge, pointing out they actually prefer another form of carbon pricing known as cap-and-trade. But, according to the impeccable logic of a Conservative Party “fact check,” “A ‘price on carbon’ is a tax on carbon. That makes it a carbon tax.” Never mind the commonly reported inconvenience that as recently as 2008, the Conservatives too favoured a cap-and-trade system.

So what exactly is the difference, if any, between these two carbon pricing mechanisms? They both seek to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and they both require emitters to pay for the privilege of emitting. The difference is in the order. With a carbon tax, government starts by setting a price, and in response to this economic incentive, polluters reduce their emissions. By contrast, under cap-and-trade, government starts by setting a cap, a maximum level of aggregate emissions, but polluters are free to buy and sell their emission permits amongst themselves for whatever price the market demands.

Both systems have their advantages. Cap-and-trade has the benefit of certainty. After all, the goal of all climate policy is to reduce carbon emissions — something which cap-and-trade does directly by dictating what the overall level of emissions must be, thereby eliminating the guesswork involved in setting a carbon tax. However, carbon taxes have the strength of being generally more broad-based than cap-and-trade. For logistical reasons, it is difficult to set up a cap-and-trade system among any but the largest of large polluters, meaning that most emissions will probably not be covered. By contrast, there is nothing easier than levying a tax. Carbon taxes therefore have at least the potential of applying to 100 percent of emissions.

In my opinion, the advantages of carbon taxation are stronger than those of cap-and-trade, but the devil is in the details. I would take a well-designed cap-and-trade system any day over a poorly designed carbon tax. The effectiveness of each policy depends on how high the tax is set, or how low the cap.

Falling right into Harper’s trap yesterday, Mulcair claimed he preferred cap-and-trade because carbon taxes are “regressive.” This is a common myth. The truth is that all measures to combat climate change — whether they take the form of a tax, emissions trading, or traditional command-and-control regulation — result in higher energy prices at the retail level. No matter who pays directly, businesses will always pass on as much of the cost to consumers as they can possibly get away with. The solution does not lie in making false promises that only “big polluters” will have to pay and no one else. Rather, it lies in offering tax credits or other forms of compensation to people with low and moderate incomes. I have written in the past about progressive carbon tax proposals which use the revenue generated to ensure that the poor are better off than they would be in the absence of such a tax. It is no less incumbent upon cap-and-trade advocates to design their plans in such a way that the burdens are distributed justly.

In conclusion, despite the similarities, cap-and-trade is not a carbon tax, and the Conservatives are wrong in their boastful chorus of accusations. Nevertheless, New Democrats are advised to grow a pair and not let Harper define the debate. We all need to recognize that a well-designed, progressive carbon tax could do the planet a hell of a lot of good.

An Open Letter to Stephen Harper Regarding Senate Reform

Senate Foyer Ceiling

Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

I am writing today in response to reports that you will seek a Supreme Court reference on the constitutionality of your proposals for Senate reform. In a way, I can understand this. You would like clarity on a politically tricky issue, one that would otherwise almost inevitably face judicial challenge.

Personally, I do not believe the court will fully endorse all features of your plan, as the Constitution Act, 1982 is quite clear regarding the constitutional amendment requirements for such fundamental changes to the upper house. But either way, both you and I know that pursuing Senate reform by statute is not a long-term solution. Any future government will be able to repeal your legislation without difficulty.

What Canada really needs, to settle the decades-long debate once and for all, is a national referendum. Not one in which the issue of Senate reform is muddied by other matters, as in the Charlottetown Accord, but a single stand-alone nationwide vote on the future of the Red Chamber. Voters should be given a choice between three possibilities: 1) an appointed Senate, 2) an elected Senate, and — my personal favourite (see here and here for my reasoning) — 3) abolition of the Senate. The ballot would also need to be preferential to make sure the winner has majority support.

Once the dust from the referendum has settled and one of these three options has become legitimized by popular endorsement, it should then become easier to get seven provincial governments representing half the country’s population (as required by the Constitution Act, 1982) to, if necessary, back a constitutional amendment. Will the provinces inevitably put aside their differences and come to an agreement after such an exercise? There is no guarantee. But this at least represents a better shot at a permanent resolution to the Senate reform debate than your Supreme Court reference case.

And what if voters settle on something other than your preferred route of an elected Senate? Am I being naive in asking you to put your own preferred outcome at risk? Only you can answer that question, Mr. Harper. All I can do is urge you to recognize that what unites all proposals for Senate reform is the desire to deepen democracy in our country. So please, respect the people — the demos — in their right to decide for themselves what institutions are most appropriate for the expression of their will. This is the only way of dealing with the Senate that truly embraces democracy.

Sincerely,

David Taub Bancroft

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.

Another National Post Letter

This one is about the Harper government’s crackdown on the charitable sector despite its important contribution to our democracy. Please see today’s National Post — or click here — for my letter.

A Multi-Partisan Approach to Environmental Protection

I am a strong believer in the Green Party. It plays an essential role. Environmentalists cannot afford to patiently wait around for traditional parties to see the light and pass the necessary laws to avert catastrophe.

That being said, Canadians have been slow to embrace the Green Party, and that slowness has been magnified by an unfair and unrepresentative electoral system. The Greens’ single-member delegation in the House of Commons — a triumph in its own right — is too small a basket for environmentalists to consolidate all our eggs. And in the face of the slowly unfolding plans of Stephen Harper’s majority government to eviscerate environmental regulations in Canada (the “streamlining” of the assessment process that I’ve written about before was just a start), we need to try something new.

Green leader Elizabeth May, with the help of any other MPs concerned about the environment, needs to create a multi-partisan Environmental Caucus in the House of Commons — somewhat akin to the (misleadingly named) Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, or the various congressional caucuses in the US and all-party parliamentary groups in the UK. It would be considerably less “official” and more “activist” than the House’s Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Open to MPs from all parties, this informal caucus could potentially present the most formidable and unified challenge to Harper’s radically anti-environmental agenda. If joined by a handful of green-leaning Conservatives, it could even sow the seeds of division within the governing party. (Please allow my indulgence in fantasy. It’s all I’ve got!)

Might this strategy result in the appropriation of my beloved Green Party’s values and the stealing of its political thunder? It’s possible — especially if the strategy is successful. But environmentalists’ allegiance is to the planet, not to any party, and at the moment this represents our best path forward. We cannot wait another three years to boot the bastards out. The environment needs parliamentary protection against a short-sighted and power-hungry executive right now.

How to Win

This is a seating plan of the Canadian House o...

Amidst the cacophony of Harper government threats — seemingly a new one each week — to dismantle what remains of Canada’s proudest progressive achievements, there can be heard a faint buzz of debate in centre-left circles on what to do about it. Some of these voices even dare to suggest that perennial political non-starter — cross-party cooperation. (Don’t they know this is Canada? Leave coalitions to those unholy socialists in Europe!)

The latest timid foray into this territory comes courtesy of youth-flavoured democracy group Leadnow.ca. It has begun polling its members on whether or not it should call on New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens to work together in the next election to defeat select Conservative incumbents and, assuming they succeed, reform the country’s electoral system. This idea of an ad hoc pre-election alliance is far more attractive than the common proposal for a merger of the parties. The NDP, Liberal Party, and Green Party, despite their occasional common ground (and commoner enemy), each have distinguished histories and represent different ideologies and concerns. To permanently paper over these distinctions and create an American-style two-party system would diminish the political choice and diversity on offer to Canadian voters.

But wouldn’t a limited electoral alliance do the same thing — albeit on a smaller scale? Wouldn’t there be some ridings in which voters are denied the full range of progressive options? The short answer is yes, but only as a temporary measure. If the three parties manage to form a coalition government and put in place a new electoral system that eliminates vote-splitting, then they can go back to fully competing against each other in all subsequent elections without handing victory after victory to a Conservative Party voted against by a consistent 60 to 70 percent of Canadians. And let us not underestimate the lack of voter choice represented by our first-past-the-post electoral system and the incentives it provides to “strategically” ignore parties we may agree with the most in deference to those we hate the least.

The major hurdle on the way to cooperation will be convincing those involved. The Greens will probably be the easiest, considering Elizabeth May’s history of openness to such ideas, as in her 2007 non-competition agreement with then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion. In the current NDP leadership race, however, only second-tier candidate Nathan Cullen supports joint nominations with the Liberals and Greens in some ridings, a crime for which his fellow contenders, normally loathe to criticize each other publicly, have attacked him (although not too harshly — they are still brothers and sisters after all).

I can understand NDP hesitancy towards any rapprochement with the Liberals. As is often noted, the latter have a long history of campaigning like New Democrats and governing like Conservatives. But just as commonly observed is the uncharacteristic good behaviour of Liberal governments held to account by constructive partnerships with the NDP. Canada’s health care and pension systems are testaments to the positive influence that progressive parties can have on the Liberals, just as the Harper government’s current moves to turn the clock back on these very accomplishments are testaments to the effects of division in the centre-left ranks.

The Liberals will likely be hardest of all to sway. To convince the people only recently considered Canada’s “natural governing party” to cooperate with those most responsible for their downfall is like asking Americans not to resent the growing economic might of soon-to-be-superpower China.

Moreover, at their recent convention, Liberals endorsed the alternative vote electoral system, whereas Greens and New Democrats have a long-established preference for proportional representation. How do they find common ground on this front? Ideally, in the event that they form government, the three parties could hold a national referendum asking voters to make the choice between electoral systems for them. And even if the Liberals succeed in convincing Canadians to choose the far inferior reform of the alternative vote, it would at least be just as effective as proportional representation at eliminating vote splitting, and would thus vindicate the NDP-Liberal-Green alliance.

So what are we waiting for, progressives? Why are we so afraid of cooperation? Just one pre-election deal to work together, form a coalition government, and ditch first-past-the-post; and Harper’s Conservatives are history. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

(New Democrats, please explain that line to the Liberals.)

Update 09/02/2012: Leadnow.ca has now moved beyond internal polling, and has set up an online petition open to the public. Please sign it!

Dr. Harper’s Health Care Prescription

English: Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister

Where should progressive decentralists stand on Medicare in Canada?  Should we resign ourselves to the much-dreaded vision of a patchwork of provincial systems, or should we insist that universal health care trumps the virtue of dispersing political power far and wide?

Stephen Harper has contended recently that health is solely a matter of provincial jurisdiction, that he wants the federal government to provide transfer payments with no strings attached.  I will admit that I like the idea of fewer federal standards imposed on the provinces.  Just because I happen to favour a fully public health care system with no user fees — and I do — that does not mean that I should be able to force all my preferences on Manitobans or Nova Scotians.  But there is a difference between fewer federal standards and no federal standards whatsoever.  To receive quality medical care wherever you are and regardless of your ability to pay ought to be considered a basic human right.  This could potentially manifest itself in many diverse forms in the provinces, but Harper is making it ever more apparent that he is unwilling to protect so minimal a right at all.

Furthermore, while I believe in decentralization of decision-making within limits, I also believe in centralization of funding.  In a country with regional economic disparities, robust federal funding is necessary to ensure that all provincial governments have the ability to implement health care systems of their choosing, and to respect the basic rights of their residents.  Some might argue that having one group of people provide the money while another decides what to do with it is a recipe for unaccountable spending, and there is some validity to that.  But let us not overstate this concern.  Provincial governments are, after all, accountable to provincial voters.  It is a little known fact, but there happens to be a sizable overlap between provincial voters and federal taxpayers, and they have an interest in ensuring that their tax dollars are well-spent.  As far as I’m concerned, substantial federal spending on provincial projects optimally combines the principles of decentralization, equity, and accountability.

And what does our Prime minister have to say on the subject?  Harper has unilaterally announced a plan according to which federal health transfers to the provinces will continue to increase, but at a lower-than-accustomed rate.  On top of that, he has decided to change the funding formula to an equal per capita allotment for every province.  Previously, poorer provinces had received more funding per person than rich ones on the grounds that their revenue-raising capabilities were more limited.  Under the new formula, however, the rich (i.e. Alberta) will get richer at everyone else’s expense.

So does the recent series of health care announcements by the Harper government pass the — okay, my — progressive decentralist test?  The answer is an emphatic “no.”  The funding that Harper promises is neither sufficient nor fair, and it is unclear just how close he will come to sacrificing the human right to health in the name of provincial jurisdiction.  Too close for comfort, we may reasonably project, given his well-established distaste for social programs.

Dr. Harper’s cure, in other words, appears far worse than the disease.  Back to the prescription pad!

Vancouver Sun Letter

Hot on the heels of my previous post, please see my succinct letter to the editor in today’s Vancouver Sun on the subject of Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.