Thursday, November 28, 2013

Justin Trudeau's So-Called "Party of Hope" Telling a Dirty Joke to Young Voters

Make no mistake, the NDP is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton. It is the negative, divisive party of Thomas Mulcair. It is the Liberal Party tonight that proved hope is stronger than fear.” –Justin Trudeau, celebrating Liberal Party by-election victory in Montreal riding of Bourassa, November 25, 2013. (1)

I’m actually supportive of the Keystone pipeline because it’s an extremely important energy infrastructure piece for both of our countries. The challenge is to demonstrate that it can be done in the sense that we’re protecting our environment and making sure that we’re making the right gains towards sustainable energy sources in the long run.” –Justin Trudeau, speaking to the Center for American Progress, October 24, 2013. (2)

There’s a finite amount of carbon you can burn if you don’t want to go over 2 degrees Celsius. That implies if there is more than that [in fossil fuel reserves], that you leave some of that carbon in the ground.” –Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group. (3)

Chief Weapons are Hope and Fear

My oldest daughter Veronica, should she live a full and lengthy life, will turn 90 years old in the year 2100, hopefully surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I often wonder what the world will be like on her 90th birthday – how and where will my daughter be living, what challenges will she and her family face. 87 years seems like a long way off, but for my daughter, it could represent a lifetime – a single generation.

Justin Trudeau wants to claim the mantle of “hope” for the Liberal Party of Canada. Who can blame him? “Hope” is a powerful message to send to voters. Some suggest that it was President Obama’s message of “Hope” which got him elected to America’s highest office in 2008. Certainly, “hope” has long been the realm of politicians looking to create change.

Of course, “fear” too, has long been a political tool – often used by incumbent politicians (but not exclusively), who point to their political foes and tell voters to fear change. In Canada, “fear” has been widely used by the Conservative Party in an attempt to portray themselves as good stewards, and the opposition parties as radical know-nothings.

Both “hope” and “fear”, as political weapons, are often used to reinforce existing attitudes. If one is already predisposed to be optimistic about the future, or is grasping at the desire that change could restore such optimism, it’s likely that a message of hope will resonate. Alternatively, if one is predisposed to view change fearfully, politicians which embrace change will be perceived negatively.

Change is both something to be feared and embraced. The one constant about change, however, is that it is inevitable – and over the past several centuries at least, the pace of change has certainly increased.

Liberal Pitch to Young Voters

It is clear that Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party of Canada are making a very real play for the hearts and minds of younger voters. Younger voters are more accepting of change, and more use to the pace of change. Younger votes have also grown used to different ways of thinking that voters of my generation and of older generations . Generally speaking, the younger generation is more collaborative and less accepting of authority than older generations, which are used to more hierarchical, top-down thinking. As an example, the notion of having a “job for life” was certainly something to aspire to in my parent’s generation – while for today’s youth, the concept seems to be an archaic joke.

The Liberal Party believes that Trudeau’s youthful presence, charm and good looks will appeal to younger voters. Add a considerable dash of policy related to what are perceived to be youth issues, such as reducing tuition, making home purchases more affordable, and offering better daycare opportunities, and Trudeau could be off to the races with under-40 voters.

It’s a good strategy, as far as it goes. But the Liberal Party knows that they’re not going to win any general elections by simply appealing to youthful voters, in large part because young Canadians just don’t have the voting heft of older Canadians. Not only are there more older Canadians of voting age, but older Canadians also tend to vote at a higher rate than do younger Canadians. So, any Party which wants to court the youth vote by offering “change” needs to walk a fine line.

Voters and the Climate Crisis

The biggest challenge facing Canadian voters (and, frankly, everybody) today is the climate crisis. Anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is a global systems-wide crisis which will affect everything: the economy, human rights, health care, international migration, geopolitics and war, and the global biosphere. The deeper we go into the 21st Century, the larger the systems-wide impacts of climate change will have on our lives. Which is why it’s fair to say that climate change is going to impact younger voters, who have longer life expectancies, disproportionately more than older voters.

Now, that’s not to suggest that older voters shouldn’t be concerned about climate change, because they won’t live to feel the very worst impacts. Indeed, many older voters like myself have children and grandchildren which may very well be alive at the dawn of the 22nd Century, and we sincerely hope that they will lead good and happy lives.

2 Degrees C and Runaway Climate Change

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report (the 5th) indicates that the world is on track to experience between 1.5 and 5 degrees by 2100. The range is broad because it is climate models need to take into consideration a number of scenarios, some of which are based on the rate and timing of emissions reductions. The low end of the range is generally representative of a scenario in which the world is able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, which has long been an international goal. However, with emissions reductions pledges made by the international community in Copenhagen, we’re likely on target for warming of somewhere between 3.5 to 4.5 degrees by the end of the Century – and that’s if action is taken to achieve those targets.

Make no mistake: a world which is 5 degrees Celsius warmer will be a completely different world than today’s world. Not only will
geophysical features be different (loss of mountain glaciers, arctic sea-ice, higher seal level, increased desertification), but so will the world’s economy (impacted by flooded coastal cities, drought, food shortages, resource wars, mass migrations, failed states).

To avert the high-end of expected warming, the international community has agreed to hold the line at 2 degrees Celsius, beyond which the best science suggests we dare not venture, for fear of triggering positive climate feedbacks which threaten even more warming, faster (such as the melting of permafrost, or the loss of the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets). The IPCC recently calculated a global carbon budget, which identifies the amount of carbon which we have left to burn between now and 2100 without significantly risking blowing through the 2 degrees C threshold. This carbon budget requires that leave about 2/3 of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground as “unburnable carbon”.

A Dirty Story: A Fossil Future

Current rates of fossil fuel use indicate, however, that we are likely to use up our total carbon budget sometime in the mid 2030’s, thus guaranteeing that we’ll blow through the 2 degrees C threshold.

With this knowledge, there is only one thing we can do to mitigate against the disastrous risks of runaway climate change: we need to get our industrial society off of fossil fuels quickly and make severe inroads into reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of acting now are less significant than the costs of deferring action to the future. The costs of doing nothing are incomprehensibly large and will doom the future inhabitants of the Earth (our children and grandchildren) to a profoundly poor existence.

We’ve known about the climate crisis for decades, and we’ve generally failed to act on that knowledge. Every passing year has simply brought more knowledge – and more global inaction. Indeed, we’ve been investing in the wrong sorts of infrastructure with impunity – infrastructure which simply speeds up the pace of warming. Building coal plants, mining dirty tar sands and natural gas fracking are all hastening the warming process – yet we continue to invest in props to these industries, because they make money, employ people and service our existing built-form and lifestyles. Change isn’t easy, so we’ve put it off.

Trudeau Wants Youngest Generation to Vote Liberal Against Its Own Interests

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party wants votes to continue putting off change – at least the sorts of changes we need to start making to deal with the climate crisis (really, we needed to start making those changes when another Liberal, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, signed the Kyoto Accord). The longer we put off making these changes, the worst the world is going to be for younger people – the very same people whom Trudeau is courting for votes.

In essence, Justin Trudeau wants young voters to vote against their own interests. Trudeau wants youth to vote against their own healthy and happy future.

That may sound overly critical, but I don’t believe it is. I believe that it’s warranted. The Liberal Party has made it clear that they are the party of economic growth – and by that they mean growth of Canada’s resource extraction industries. Oh, they claim that it would be “sustainable” with an eye towards environmental protections. But ultimately, such claims are a dirty joke. Sure, I believe Justin Trudeau when he talks about making sure that pipelines won’t poison our rivers and lakes. But clean water is only one part of environmental sustainability. Indeed, the key part to sustainability comes in mitigating development’s effects on global warming – and that means reducing emissions. It's a joke to think that we can ramp up fossil fuel extraction while reducing emissions - a very dirty joke.

And Justin Trudeau has no plan to reduce emissions. He has no plan to have Canada lead the international community forward towards a real and necessary emissions reduction strategy. By embracing tar sands expansion, it’s clear that Trudeau simply doesn’t see the need to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Oh, he may say otherwise – politicians say a lot of things – but based on some of the other things which Trudeau has said, he clearly wants Canadians to believe that we can both expand the tar sands and reduce emissions.

And that’s pretty much an impossibility, unless we tank the economies of every province other than Alberta. Is that really Trudeau’s vision for Canadian prosperity? That’s hardly a “hopeful” scenario for the future. So it must be then that Trudeau isn’t being honest with voters about something. Are we really willing to gamble with what he’s being dishonest about? Are Canadian youth really willing to vote for somebody because they believe that Trudeau is lying about the tarsands development and economic growth being important to him? More would be likely to think that, based on the Liberal Party’s past track record, the lie is about taking action to reduce emissions.

A Better Story: A Green Future

A real message of hope and change would be one which has at its heart a recognition of holding warming to 2 degrees Celsius through energy conservation, investing in low carbon transport, and a revolutionary shift to renewable energy sources. There is one political party in Canada which is promoting that hopeful, optimistic (and necessary) vision: the Green Party. The NDP, on one of its better days, might at least acknowledge the necessity of the vision, but under the leadership of Tom Mulcair, the NDP has drifted away embracing it. In that respect, at least, I have to agree with Trudeau: the NDP isn’t the party of “hope”. But then again, I never thought that it was, even under Jack Layton – and I certainly don’t think that Trudeau can lay claim to the “hope” mantra either.

Of course, the Green Party is selling hope – but it’s also selling fear. If you’re not scared about the future that I’ve described throughout this post, well, I don’t know what to say. The future we’re headed for – the future which my children will have to endure thanks to our reckless polluting ways – is one which should be feared. It should be avoided at all costs, but instead of dousing the flames, we’re adding more and more fuel to the fire. So it may be fair to say that the Green Party engages in the politics of fear to get its message out to voters – I think that’s the truth. Sharing a vision of a 5 degree C world with voters is a compelling reason to vote Green, in my opinion.

But it’s not nearly as compelling as sharing a vision of a 2 degree warmer world – one where we’ve managed to achieve the 80% reduction to emissions at mid-century by embracing the green economy. Sharing both stories is important – but the most compelling is clearly the storyline about living a healthy, happier life in which distributive renewable energy plays a major role.

The Green Party is actually uniquely situated to tell both stories to voters: about the future that we could have if we get our act together, and about the future we will have if we don’t. We’re uniquely situated because we do the one thing that the other parties, for the most part, won’t: we are consistent with our application of the truth. Even when it’s not what voters want to hear.

I’d like to ask Justin Trudeau how he sees the world in the year 2050 or in 2100 – and how the policies of his party would have led to such a future. I’ve no doubt that Trudeau will paint a bright picture of the future, but by embracing the expansion of the tar sands, his picture of the future will be a lie.

The Liberals' Dirty Joke

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals want the votes of young people. Young people, and frankly everybody, should be concerned about whose interests the Liberal Party of Canada is really acting on behalf of. It’s an absolute certainty that if Trudeau continues to expound tar sands expansion and pipeline development, he and the Liberals are not acting in the best interests of young voters. The Liberals are not offering a vision of hope, and are not offering anything in the way of change. They're just telling a dirty joke to voters.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)


(1) Quote taken from “Justin Trudeau angers NDP by quoting Jack Layton”, Laura Payton, CBC News, published online November 26, 2013.

(2) Quote from “Justin Trudeau pitches Keystone to U.S. anti-oilsands crowd”, Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star, October 24, 2013.

(3) Quote From “IPCC: 30 years to climate calamity if we carry on blowing the carbon budget”, Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, September 27 2013.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Economic Growth, Pipelines and Twitter Tactics for Greens: the TV Ontario Toronto Centre By-Election Debate

The other night, I meant to catch TV Ontario’s “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin, as Paikin was hosting the candidates of the Toronto Centre by-election for a debate on public issues. However, several children of mine who didn’t want to go to bed at their usual hour kept me away from enjoying the livestream. Up and down out of my chair, I decided that perhaps it was best to follow the debate sort-of as it was happening but a little after the fact maybe, by reviewing the numerous reactions in my Twitter feed, just shy of real time.

I follow a fair number of media personalities on Twitter, and more than a few Greens, a good number of whom are from the Toronto area. I also follow a sprinkling of members and supporters of other political parties. As a result, my Twitter feed really lit up with tweets about the Toronto Centre debate. Had I been disinterested in this debate, I would have certainly resolved to extricate myself from Twitter over the hour which the debate raged, because very few tweets about anything else seemed to be getting through.

Last night, I had the opportunity to watch the debate, courtesy of TV Ontario’s excellent website. After watching the debate myself, and transposing it against the feelings that I had for the debate based on my Twitter feed review experience, I almost feel as if there were two different debates. As a result, today’s blogpost is going to explore, to a degree, the power of partisans on Twitter and they way in which this social media tool could be used to shape political public opinion. Yes, I’m sure these topics have been discussed with greater clarity by those more knowledgeable than me – but my focus will be on my own (surprising) personal experiences regarding this one specific hour-long debate, and what this might mean for the Green Party.

The Green Party - Getting the Message Out - Challenges

Over the last little while, there have been a number of mainstream media articles published in the National Post and through Sun Media which have been critical of the positions and policies of the Green Party of Canada. More accurately, these articles have been critical about the perceived positions and policies of the Green Party, rather than to actual policies, for the most part. Further, as I enjoy expressing myself as a partisan Green, I have certainly encountered on social media significant distortions of the Green Party’s positions and policies – most often being made by the political partisans and core-supporters of other parties.

The Green Party of Canada’s candidate in the Toronto Centre by-election is John Deverell. John has been a journalist, most notably with the Toronto Star, but in the past few years, he has worked on political campaigns, most recently that of Joyce Murray, in her bid for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada (which was won by Justin Trudeau). One of John’s driving issues is electoral reform – particularly, getting rid of our archaic First-Past-the-Post electoral system, and replacing it with a more representative and democratic system. For constant readers of my blog, it should not come as a surprise that based on John’s passion for electoral reform alone, I am predisposed to want to like John. A lot.

The John Deverell on display through my Twitter feed on Wednesday night, however, was an individual who seemed to be sadly lacking in new ideas – and where he did try to talk about new ideas, was completely unable to express himself without sounding like either A) an idiot, or B) a pompous moron. For the most part, my Twitter feed largely ignored John, sometimes with apologies about not be able to reproduce the “jargon-filled” rants that Deverell seemed inclined to make.

Generally speaking, John Deverell came across as raving non-entity – at least according to my Twitter feed.

It is worth mentioning at this time how my Twitter feed seemed to react to Geoff Pollock, the Conservative candidate. Geoff, too, appeared to be a marginal participant in the debate – perhaps bombastic, particularly in his unwavering support of this Party and Prime Minister –but well-spoken and perhaps someone who, in a different riding, might actually have a chance to get elected.

Debate Perceptions - McQuaig and Freeland

From my Twitter feed, it seemed to me that Paikin must be largely ignoring both John Deverell and Geoff Pollock, and instead must have been concentrating on responses from the NDP’s Linda McQuaig and the Liberal Party’s Chrystia Freeland, whom appear to be the two front-runners in the riding. I recall wondering if this might actually be so, given the number of past debates that I’ve watched Steve moderate. I certainly had my doubts. But seemingly 9 out of 10 tweets that I was reading had to do with McQuaig and Freeland.
McQuaig and Freeland, according to my Twitter feed, were each knocking each other for loops. It sounded sometimes as if there were a physical brawl going on. It was difficult for me to discern which of these candidates appeared to be making the better points – or even just getting in the best shots with one-line zingers. I took two things away from my Twitter feed about McQuaig and Freeland: Twitter could not help me make up my mind which of the two were having the better performance; and, McQuaig was engaging in personal attacks on Freeland, at times very vile ones.

Interestingly, when I watched the debate myself, which I tried to do with an open mind, what I witnessed with regards to McQuaig and Freeland was pretty much what I had witnessed through my Twitter feed the night before. Both McQuaig and Freeland appeared to be effective debaters, but their styles were quite different. McQuaig certainly engaged in personal attacks on Freeland, including this foolish notion that Freeland was somehow responsible (or should accept responsibility for) the outsourcing of jobs from Canada to Asia during her time as Editor at the Financial Post. McQuaig took issue numerous times with Freeland having lived outside of Canada for the past decade, never once conceding that Freeland’s experiences might actually serve her well as an MP.

McQuaig also engaged in a debating strategy which I’ve found NDP candidates in particular to be famous for: oxygen-sucking. McQuaig would rarely yield the floor back to the other candidates, or even to the moderator Paikin, unless pushed to do so, in an attempt to dominate the discourse. When other candidates, particularly Freeland, were talking, McQuaig would constantly try to interrupt – and would sometimes succeed in having the floor yielded back to her as a result. That kind of nonsense really annoys me – and yes, Freeland also tried to talk over McQuaig a few times, but mostly it appeared to me that Freeland was doing so simply in an effort to be heard, or to try to finish a derailed train of thought.

Generally, though, in contrast to McQuaig, Freeland sounded reasonable, and did not retaliate by trying to personally attack McQuaig. Although Freeland articulated a number of policy ideas and concepts which I find problematic and dangerous, they appeared to be generally consistent with long-held Liberal views. That being said, I don’t know that she scored as many “points” (whatever they are) in the debate as did McQuaig. For all of McQuaig’s aggressiveness, she at least seemed to be able to articulate policy and ideas in a more compelling way than did Freeland. Which isn’t to suggest that Freeland didn’t know her stuff – it’s just to suggest that McQuaig appeared to know her stuff, understood debating tactics and came across as more politically astute – if also annoying.

But, for the most part, it seemed that the battle between the two as characterized on my Twitter feed played out in real time more or less as Twitter would have led me to believe, with one exception: the Freeland and McQuaig exchanges, while they did dominate the debate, certainly did not dominate the debate in terms of time in the way that Twitter would have had me believe. Paikin certainly seemed to give Pollock and Deverell almost as much time as McQuaig and Freeland received to make whatever points they tried to make.

John Deverell and the Green Language Barrier

And this is where things get interesting. The John Deverell that I watched in the debate was not the same John Deverell that I heard about second-hand through my Twitter feed. Yes, there were elements of the latter in the former – sometimes John appeared to use terms and language in a way which appeared a little high-handed (some might say “pompous”) – but certainly the buffoonish Deverell character I expected to see based on my Twitter feed was not the one that I saw at the debate.

First off, I believe that Greens almost always have a harder time in public forums like candidates debates than do the candidates from the other old-line parties (but not, generally speaking, a harder time than the candidates from even smaller parties). The problem is often one of language – and some Green candidates (and smaller party candidates) can overcome this issue through sheer dynamism – but the fact is that Greens use words, terms and ideas in a slightly different way than do the other parties – and different from mainstream Canada.

This language barrier can get us into trouble sometimes, as it did for John Deverell on several occasions. Two issues in particular caught my attention. First, on Twitter, John was taken to task for expressing that capitalism is “radical”. On the surface, that sounds like a pretty strange thing to say. In my Twitter feed, it certainly came across as being bizarre and slightly unhinged. When I watched John in action, it appeared to me that Twitter really dropped the ball – choosing instead to focus on the words themselves, rather than the bigger-picture idea John was trying to express. It’s not even that John chose the words poorly, because he didn’t. In the context of what John was describing, which was capitalism’s chameleon-like ability to constantly change, it is a “radical” concept because it is far from the force of conservatism that we often think it to be. John was talking about how capitalism breeds innovation, and how we should be aware of that, rather to think of capitalism as a static, non-dynamic force. In that respect, capitalism is “radical” – not because of what it is, but because of the way in which we should look at it, but mostly don’t. Most Greens, I think, get this.

Anyway, John’s “radical” remark didn’t appear to be too problematic while watching the debate. But it certainly was problematic to read about it on Twitter.

Greens and Growth

The other issue for which John was taken to task, both on Twitter and at the debate, was John’s notion that “growth” (as in “economic growth”) was somehow bad. When the topic of conversation moved in the direction of economic growth, Deverell seemed to suggest that growth wasn’t going to resolve the issues being debated. Paiken seemed to be a little surprised at the remark and asked for clarification, at which point Deverell clearly indicated that his preference was not to embrace growth. Paikin then went around the room to ask the other candidates whether they supported growth or not. Freeland and Pollock acknowledged that they did, while McQuaig said that she supported “sustainable growth”, a term she used a couple of times during the debate. This terminology was not challenged by the candidates or by the moderator, Paikin.

On Twitter, the notion that “growth” could somehow be challenged sounded preposterous! Isn’t economic growth, after all, the panacea which is going to grow the economy and bring jobs to everybody?

Sorry, I had to take a moment there to step aside from the computer and laugh.

Ok, back to the question – how on earth could growth ever be considered “bad”? Both Freeland and Pollock talked about the need for growth, putting forward economic growth as the only option available for the future. Watching the debate, it seemed to me that Freeland, Pollock and Paiken were all genuinely shocked to be sharing the same space with the double-headed hydra Deverell who (seriously) was knocking growth. My Twitter feed was even worse. It was largely from the remarks made to Deverell’s claims about growth that people on Twitter started to write him off as a crank.

The End of Growth

Of course, Deverell is right – even if people don’t want to hear it. There is no future in economic growth. Economic growth requires a number of inputs to be in balance: the cost of raw materials, labour, capital, energy, etc. Right now, our economy is fuelled largely by fossil fuels, which have increased in price considerably over the past couple of decades. As a result, savings have needed to be found elsewhere, which means that labour prices have needed to be checked (which is why the middle class hasn’t experienced any real increase in wages). Truthfully, most of the economic growth we’ve experienced over the past 20 years has come about largely through the debt we’ve accumulated. We’ve been using tomorrow’s money to finance today’s growth.

Clearly, that’s not a sustainable option, so there are a few targets which must be assessed if growth is to continue. The first are those pesky labour costs. Outsourcing and downsizing were popular options over the past couple of decades, and we’ve seen well-paying jobs flee North America as a result. Now, the latest push is to roll back collective agreements with unions as part of a broader assault on workers wages. There really aren’t any better options right now, as energy prices are expected to remain relatively high. So, if we want to grow the economy, we’re going to have make most people poorer.

Business is lowering its energy costs, however, mainly through conservation. But for the most part, business has failed to embrace conservation as a way of promoting growth, perhaps in part because it seems counterintuitive that you can grow an economy by using less energy. Certainly I keep hearing the arguments that we need more energy for growth as a reason to develop the tar sands and frack the nation. But the reality is quite different. Saving money on costs (be it labour or energy), and you end up with growth.

Problems with Growth

We could experience growth by switching to renewable energy. Over the medium term, the use of renewables is sure to bring the cost of energy inputs down, especially when compared to increasingly scarce and expensive fossil resources. In the short term, the construction of renewable energy infrastructure, to service the economy of tomorrow, could lead to growth. I suspect that when Linda McQuaig and the NDP talks about “sustainable growth”, this may be the idea that they have in mind: creating the architecture for the emergent green economy is good for growth in the short and medium term, and good for the planet. Clearly, that’s the case – and it’s a worthy pursuit. But it's not a complete story.

Ultimately, there can be no denying that economic growth feeds on itself, and is not sustainable over the longer term. You can finance growth through debt until you can’t any longer; you can depress wages until people can’t afford the goods and services needed for growth to occur; you can even reduce the price of some inputs, like energy, through using less (conservation) or by switching to cheaper renewables. But at the end of the day, you’re going to run into a wall. And that wall has to do with finite resources.

In other words, when all of the economically accessible non-renewable resources have been taken from the ground (like metals) are used up, what are you going to do then? Well, with metals, at least you can re-use them, but at the end of the day, there is only ever going to be a finite amount of any one thing available for you to work with. That moment when nothing “new” can be created is the end of growth. It’s certainly not the end of economic activity, however. Economic development will continue (think of how we’ll need to ramp up to build the recycling infrastructure we’ll need to extract useable resources from the waste products of previous generations).

The 2 Degrees C Line in the Sand

While this point might sound far-off in the future, it really isn’t. We might even already be there – not because we’ve taken everything out of the ground that we can conceivably use – but instead because we know we must leave a lot of known resources in the ground if we are going to stave off the very worst effects of a changing climate by holding the line of warming at the internationally acknowledged 2 degrees Celsius. If we are to say within our global carbon budget of approximately 500 megatonnes between now and 2100, over two thirds of proven fossil fuel resources will need to remain buried in the ground, no matter that their use might seem to be required to grow the economy.

While it is true that extracting and burning those resources might be the easiest way to grow the economy (because we know how to mine and burn coal, oil and gas – and our transportation, communication and home heating infrastructure is already in place to make it easy to do so), we risk pitting economic growth against the environment. Some, like members of Chrystia Freeland’s Liberal Party and Geoff Pollock’s Conservative Party, are willing to abandon the global environment in the pursuit of growth. That’s not an exaggeration – if you believe that our fossil industries must grow, you have already written off the planet – the two are mutually exclusive – unless you take the absurd position that Canada only should be allowed to pollute, while all other fossil enterprises must be shut down.

The NDP and the Hypocrisy of "Sustainable Growth"

Linda McQuaig’s NDP is trying to peddle the line of “sustainable growth” as an alternative, but really, like the term itself, the NDP’s position on the matter is contradictory. I was a little put out that Deverell didn’t challenge her on it. The other debate participants, including the moderator, quite likely didn’t press McQuaig because they failed to see the contradiction. Certainly, the people commenting in my Twitter feed were not calling her out on the contradiction either – if anything, she was receiving a fair bit of praise for putting forward this “revolutionary” idea.

Deverell’s position, to be against “growth”, was the only consistently expressed economic position of the four debaters. The Conservative Pollock professed to be concerned about climate change - and touted his Party’s use of regulations over a “job killing carbon” tax to keep emissions down. Pollock and Freeland wanted voters to believe that we can have both continued economic growth of our fossil industries, and address the climate crisis. For we know that we must leave two thirds of known reserves in the ground. Knowing that, why the need for more pipelines (wherever they might go) and yet more infrastructure in support of last century’s brown economy?

McQuaig’s NDP, with their wildly dumb notion of “sustainable growth”, seems to be in favour of fossil fuels on the one hand and against them on the other – a typically inconsistent approach for the NDP – and a really problematic position to take on Canada’s economy. In defence of McQuaig and the NDP, they are certainly not the first social democrats to try to pull the wool over the eyes of voters through the use of the term “sustainable growth”. I can certainly recall U.S. President Obama talking about this idea on a number of occasions. I will repeat it once again: “sustainable growth” is redundant, an oxymoron, and an impossibility. But the notion that it isn’t any of these things makes good politics, which is why the NDP has embraced the term.

Pipeline Politics

At least the NDP does appear to be in favour of slowing down the expansion of our fossil industry. I think. Certainly, from McQuaig, it’s far from clear that this is the case – Freeland asked the relevant question, “If you’re not in favour of Keystone XL, but you are in favour an east-west pipeline, what the difference?” McQuaig’s answer was satisfying only from a certain perspective: she wanted to keep jobs in Canada. But from the perspective of climate change and the expansion of the tar sands, the development to either pipeline will lead to further expansion of the enterprise, and greater carbon emissions.

In short, if you believe that Keystone XL is environmentally dangerous (from an emissions perspective) – as the NDP does – it is foolish to then champion any other pipeline – even one that creates jobs – at least from an emissions perspective. There may be other reasons to champion an east-west pipeline over a north-south one, such as energy security, and the potential to bolster our own refining industry, potentially for the purpose of avoiding carbon tariffs against Canadian products. But from an emissions perspective, if building infrastructure like pipelines leads to expansion of the enterprise, our climate is sunk – unless we are willing to pay for costly carbon offsets. Which is dumb economics considering the other option available: do nothing and leave the bitumen unharvested, in the ground.

Stepping Back Before Stepping Forward

Sorry for that lengthy sidetrack, but I thought that it was worth exploring a little, given the criticism and skepticism which John Deverell’s anti-growth comments received at the Toronto Centre debate, and by those on Twitter following the debate. With all of the above in mind, Deverell’s position against growth was the only honest and truthful (and economically sound) position taken. And for telling the people the truth, and not what they want to hear, Deverell will likely finish dead last in this by-election – a fate which many Green candidates before him have experienced, and which many Greens after him will also surely encounter.

Now, let me turn to some of the lessons that I’ve learned from the Toronto Centre debate. First of all, for those readers of my blog who would like to one day represent the Green Party – if you want to be taken seriously at this point in history, you may need to step back before you can go forward. By that I mean you might have to lay the groundwork at the outset of public discussions/debates around how it is that you’ve arrived at the conclusions that you’re going to talk about. Unfortunately, this takes some time – valuable time in a debate, because no one has much of it, and let’s face it, as the Green Party, chances are you’re going to be marginalized in the discussion anyway. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to do this because you avoid looking like a bit of an “I’m against everything” wingnut.

John Deverell actually laid out his case for democratic reform very well. He spoke to the historical problems, and pointed out how these distortions have really served us badly over the years, and only then made his case for a better electoral system. On the matter of climate change, because it seemed to come up out of nowhere, and by the time Deverell got a chance to enter the discussion, the same sort of groundwork was not laid, and Deverell’s remarks about capitalism and growth really struck raw nerves.

Our ideas are hard to sell at the best of time, because the other parties aren’t really even talking about them for the most part (the same can be said for a Guaranteed Annual Income – another issue which Deverell didn’t explain, but perhaps by not expanding on it, saved himself from looking different than the other candidates).

Greens, we’re at a disadvantage in these sorts of forums, because we’ve got to explain what we’re talking about, because our ideas are in some cases beyond the mainstream. That doesn’t make them bad ideas, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about them. We just need to be cognizant that when we do talk about, we need to back up a little first before we go forward.

Oxygen Sucking and Other Debate Dominance Tactics

Another lesson that I learned is that the NDP’s “oxygen sucking” debate style works, along with other "debate dominance" tactics, such as trying to drown out one's opponent by constantly speaking over them. Yes, it’s annoying, but if you can monopolize the floor and drown out your opponents, whether you’re saying something important or even relevant just doesn’t matter. McQuaig employed this tactic, and she looked aggressive, engaged and able to take on anybody about anything – and those are winning qualities in a debate, and they stick with people long after the debate is over. In many respects, I found McQuaig’s running roughshod over Freeland time and again the defining part of the debate, and likely the reason why so many have selected her as the debate’s winner.

However, this tactic will not work for Greens, generally speaking, and should not be employed by Green candidates looking to be elected at this time. As I wrote earlier, Greens should instead focus on laying the groundwork to bolster their points and positions as a priority. If we engage in “oxygen sucking”, we will end up looking like bossy-know-it-alls – and if we engage in the kind of personal attacks that McQuaig hammered away at Freeland with – we will find ourselves having dragged politics back to a level which we decry. In short, it’s better for us, I think, to talk about the Green Party than it is to knock the other parties and their candidates. Just turn your backs.

Wanted: Green Tweeps

Now, here’s the biggest lesson that I learned from my debate experience – and its one which the Green Party has to try to figure out a way of addressing, and which will be difficult for us to do, because of the smaller number of supporters that we have.
Social media matters. The opinions expressed by a cadre of people using Twitter does matter. Not only are individual tweets passed back and forth by sharing, in some cases they end up in mainstream news organizations reports, and they can impact public opinion. They can certainly impact the perception of people who might not have seen an actual debate, or even if they are watching it live, a really good tweet might get someone thinking about words just spoken in a different way.

The power of partisan tweeps cannot be undersold.

It used to be that if you were a candidate and you went to a public forum, you brought along as many of your own supporters as you could – so that they could be seen (and heard) cheering you on, so that they could line up at microphones and lob you softball questions, and so that an uncritical media might foolishly write about the reception some of your answers received (without referencing the fact that all of those clapping would have applauded you no matter how you answered). Greens have come to the game late, and I know for a fact that too many Greens remain surprised when the show up at all candidates meetings only to discover that there isn’t really one single undecided voter in the audience.

Candidates go to all candidates meetings because that’s what candidates should be doing. These meetings are part of our democratic tradition, after all. Oh, and of course, the media might be there, and wouldn’t it be good for a campaign to have nice things written about you in the paper, or to have your picture on TV? Having attended a number of debates in the past as both an undecided voter (seriously) and a Green partisan, it’s my observation that the tone of the debate changes the moment the media steps into the room – and changes again should they leave.

The Toronto Centre debate was made available to a very large public because it was broadcast on TV Ontario. Not all debates are like that – in fact, very few are. In the past, it wasn’t all that unusual to go to a debate and never hear anything more about it again if the media wasn’t there.

Everybody Can Help Shape Public Opinion

Times have changed. Now, everybody is a reporter. People attending debates, whether they are partisans or the rare undecided voter, they are all potentially reporters. Live tweeting debates is only going to become more common – and Greens must be prepared to engage the other parties on these terms. It’s no longer just enough to have our partisans show up and cheer the smart remarks of our candidates. They must show up with their smart phones and tablets and broadcast their “take” on the debate.

But even that’s not enough. You can’t just pick up your phone and log into Twitter or Facebook and start delivering the goods. If no one is paying attention to you, you could put the best spin on a debate in the world, and no one would ever know. So, Green partisans must become engaged in social media to a considerable extent – to the same extent that our opponents in the other parties are engaged.
On Twitter, that means having a lot of followers – and not just any old followers, but the sort of followers you can rely on to retweet your messages far and wide – so hopefully the kind of followers who also have a lot of followers.

When you go looking for someone to follow on Twitter, we’re often swayed by how many followers that individual has already amassed. Someone with 10,000 followers is someone we presume must have something interesting to say – at least more so that someone with only 25 followers. Also, the number, frequency and quality of tweets matters.

Right now, simply put, we just don’t have enough Green partisans using Twitter or other social media platforms to promote the Party. We must get more partisans active on Twitter, and build up their lists of followers, so that when local or national debates happen, we can mobilize the base to participate in the process and to actually influence public opinion.
As I wrote early on in this post, I follow a number of Greens on Twitter – but I didn’t see many tweets from Greens when I was following my Twitter feed as the debate was being broadcast live on TVO. As a result, even I was left with the opinion that John Deverell faired poorly in the debate.

So, Green candidates and campaign teams, as we move forward towards the next election, keep Twitter in mind. Mobilize your supporters to actively use Twitter and engage with others on it. When the time comes, use Twitter to your advantage, and don’t let the other parties suck the oxygen out of social media.

Choosing a "Winner"

Now, finally, after all of this, I feel it would be remiss to terminate this blogpost without saying one last word about the Toronto Centre debate. Although I have written that I was impressed with both John Deverell and Linda McQuaig’s performances in the debate (Deverell’s because he expressed ideas that I agree with, and McQuaig for her superior tactics), I always feel the need to select a “winner” based on my own criteria – which isn’t always about which candidate had the best policies or was the more effective communicator. For me, choosing a winner means looking at a number of factors, including how well a candidate spoke, was able to recall and explain party policy, their body language, etc. Choosing a winner is often difficult, based on any criteria. And I know that at the end of the day, “winning” a debate doesn’t really matter – except when it does because reporting a win is one more positive for the winning camp.

The most effective performance of the night for me was clearly that of the Conservative Party’s Geoff Pollock. I give him the “win” because I found him to be the most appealing and sincere of the candidates at the debate. Geoff spoke with wisdom, with clarity and was able to express the positions of his Party (no matter how egregious) with great sincerity. He was affable and polite. And he refused to engage in the politics of negativity (which was easier for him to refrain from doing – because he’s not going to win in Toronto Centre – yes, I believe that negative campaigning is an effective way of winning elections – I do not believe that we should use it, and I hate this tactic with a passion – but I can’t deny that it works). For all of these reasons, I’ll give the “win” (for what that’s worth) to Pollock.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Our Democracy on Life Support

This week, Elizabeth May, member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is in Warsaw, Poland, attending the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aka “COP19”. For the third year in a row, May is there not as an elected representative of Canada – the nation in whose parliament she sits as a legislator. This year, after seeking accreditation to join Canada's delegation (and receiving a letter from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq refusing accreditation - 4 days after the start of the conference) May sought and received accreditation from another nation – this time, Afghanistan – whose small delegation she will assist at the COP19 climate talks. The reason that a Canadian parliamentarian is attending these talks on behalf of another nation has everything to do with the rise of populist partisan politics in Canada, specifically, and throughout western democracies generally.

It used to be that democratically elected governments governed in order to look out for the welfare of citizens. That’s really no longer the case. Successful political parties have learned that they do not need to appeal to the public in general terms, but only to specific segments of the public. In Canada, the success of this kind of populist narrowcasting is assisted by our archaic First Past the Post electoral system, in which a candidate is elected simply by receiving the most votes cast.

Populism and Canada's Old Line Political Parties

The lessons successful political parties have learned over the past several decades are very problematic for the continued health of Canada’s democracy. Political parties have learned that they don’t need to appeal to a majority of electors, but instead only to a simple majority of voters in a small number of key swing ridings. When power is obtained in such a manner, the results can be very disturbing. In Canada today, we have a circumstance where candidates from one political party were elected to a clear majority of ridings without receiving a majority of votes cast. Although this approach isn’t uncommon in our electoral system, it certainly raises questions about the legitimacy of our governance structure.

The pursuit of populist politics has largely replaced good public policy initiatives in all 3 of Canada’s largest political parties. As a result, all three political parties have engaged in retail populism in an effort to capture votes which they perceive to be at the “centre” of mainstream politics. The NDP has shifted to the right on issues of social justice, while the Conservatives have shifted to the left. The Liberals try to stake out ground in the centre, while making minor incursions into both flanks. Rather than bold policy positions, Canadians are subjected to a salad bar of political choice – which might be fine for what it is, but it’s still just an appetizer.

In this political environment, however, political parties can’t afford to be bold or even particularly innovative. The success of the Conservative Party has come about largely as a result of the iron-fisted will of its Leader, Stephen Harper, who has silenced social conservatives at every turn. Had those social conservatives started to raise issues about abortion or gay marriage, rest assured that those hand full of mostly suburban swing ridings in Ontario and British Columbia would have be lost to the Conservatives.

Likewise, the NDP has shed its socialist roots, and now talks about cutting corporate taxes and building pipelines across the nation, while remaining silent on the climate crisis. It’s elected Members of Parliament have their freedom of expression stifled by the heavy hand of the caucus whip. Under Leader Thomas Mulcair, the NDP seems to want to be the new Progressive Conservative Party – which must continue to surprise long-time NDP members and supporters. But Mulcair appears content to move forward based on the past success of Tony Blair’s new Labour party in the United Kingdom, with just enough pandering to soft separatists in Quebec to pry votes away from the Bloc in key swing ridings there.

The Liberals, of course, continue to want to be everything to everyone, choosing once again to put all of its eggs into the leadership basket. Justin Trudeau promises pipelines and “kinder, gentler” runaway tar sands development with the one hand, and tries to recruit young voters to his cause with the other (those very same young voters whose future success he is putting at risk through runaway fossil fuel development). Trudeau’s simple vision of “change” may be appealing to many Canadians who have suffered long enough under Stephen Harper’s rule, but really the Liberals appear to be content at offering more of the same, but with nicer packaging – and legalized pot.

Demoracy in Limbo: How Low Can We Go?

Recent events have shown just how far we have sunk as a society. Politicians appear to be largely free to lie to the public on a continual basis, and even when their lies are exposed, they don’t miss a beat, and continue to lie again, revising history in its wake if they have to. None have been better at this than Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ok, maybe Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been better – more on that in a moment), whose evasions of difficult questions and changing tune on the Senate Expense Scandal has been on display now since May, when it was revealed that his former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, cut Senator Mike Duffy a $90 thousand cheque to repay improperly claimed housing expenses. At first, Harper praised Wright as a hero, but then Harper accepted his resignation. Later, Harper claims to have fired Wright, but now it’s not clear just how Wright left the PMO’s employ.

Clear and concise questions have been put to Harper by the media, and most effectively by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in Question Period. Harper refuses to share his answers with Canadians, and instead uses his opportunities to mock the other parties and throw mud at their Leaders. When Harper does deign to answer questions, he more often than not contradicts his own earlier version of events, yet insists he has been “clear” all the while.

And then there’s Harper’s fishing buddy, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is the “most honest” politician in Canada, at least according to his brother Doug. Ford continues to insist that he didn’t lie about his drug use for six months because he would have answered honestly had he been asked the right question. More problematic, Ford seems keen on rewriting historical facts to suit his own agenda (such as being elected with the largest number of votes in Canadian history, which isn’t true – former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman holds that title). Through constant repetition, however, these talking points take on a certain truthiness which then enters the public mindset. Journalists seem to have completely given up their duty of calling out politicians on their bold-faced lies, and now seem content simply to report whatever nonsense they say, and let readers and viewers figure out the truth for themselves.

The Fact-Free Politics of the Right

I may be idealizing the past here, but it seems to me that political arguments used to be based on opinions – whose opinion on a certain issue was the best, or just the most popular. Generally speaking, there appeared to be fair agreement on what the facts of an issue were. Those days are long gone, and it seems now that the facts themselves have become a casualty of partisan politics. Having been involved in discussions related to climate change, I can tell you with great certainty that there remains a considerable disagreement on what a “fact” is. Having a political case made on the basis of opinion used to pose a pretty good challenge to voters, who in the past, may have turned to trusted media for assistance. Today, when the very foundational facts of an argument itself are in dispute, it’s almost impossible for informed debate to take place. And it’s not always our political parties who are confusing fiction with facts – increasingly, it’s been that formerly trusted mainstream media which has abrogated its responsibility to report the facts, and instead has chosen to embrace fact-free “infotainment”. The media has certainly provided significant cover to the Canada’s right-wing political parties by refusing to challenge them on the basis of their made-up facts.

And largely, it is right-wing political parties around the world which are operating in this fact-free environment. And largely, it is the same right-wing political parties which have taken our democracy to new lows. Here in Canada, we have numerous examples to go along with Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. In British Columbia, Christy Clarke’s Liberals engaged in a largely fact-free election campaign, and appeared to be making stuff up as they went along about the impacts of B.C.’s proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) initiative. In Ontario, former Premier Dalton McGuinty decided to retire before difficult questions were asked of him pertaining to the cancellation of gas plants. In New Brunswick, a Conservative Premier continues to insist that the public supports his fracking initiatives, even though poll after poll shows that this isn’t the case.

This denial of reality amongst right-wing politicos is becoming really problematic. And it’s leading to some really troubling situations.
In pursuit of tougher standards for criminals, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives enacted mandatory minimum laws, which have now been struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional. Here we have a parliament enacting laws which seek to strip away the Charter rights of Canadians. Of course, Harper wasn’t the first to engage in these sorts of exercises. Here in Ontario, to his cabinet’s constant discredit, Premier Dalton McGuinty enacted illegal laws in the lead up to the 2010 G20 conference in Toronto, which led to the arrest and detainment of hundreds of civilians, and the illegal seizure of property. All in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights. For McGuinty’s efforts, he was re-elected by Ontario voters.

And that seems to be exactly what Stephen Harper and Rob Ford are counting on. Who cares about taking away the rights of Canadians, as long as you can be seen to be upholding a “law and order” agenda – nevermind that the very idea that passing illegal laws is a contradiction. Just give the people what they want, and things will be fine. Who cares that you lied and cheated and made up your own facts? Who cares that you slandered the good reputation of people who got in your way? Just lower those taxes (which raising user fees and/or slashing essential services): that’s the story!

The Rule of Law - Open to Interpretation

Opinions, truths, facts – they’re all open for discussion. So too, apparently, is the rule of law in Canada. And when the rule of law is suborned for partisan political activities, rest assured that we are headed to a very bad place – one where the notion of “democracy” becomes a sham. Yet that appears to be the road that we’re headed on. Take Harper’s new poster-child, the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which Liberal Justin Trudeau has also been fawning over. CETA’s investor state dispute resolution mechanisms will strip away the ability of democratically elected governments to enact laws which look out for their citizens. Instead, where disputes arise, rather than turn to courts for adjudication, as has been the practice for the past thousand or so years, shadowy trade resolution panels will make decisions based on…well, whatever criteria they want to use, really, because their decisions, while binding on our national, provincial and municipal governments, aren’t going to be made in public.

And I'm not even going to get into the numerous legal issues pertaining to First Nations - and how they are being ignored by most governments.

So much for the power of democracy.

Populism: Comfortable with Complacency

Yet, Canadians seem generally keen to shed cumbersome democratic processes for expediency. Have you ever heard anyone complaining about the cost of holding an election when the outcome seems to be predetermined? Rather than giving voters more of a change to exercise their democratic franchise, we Canadians seem to be keen on minimizing those opportunities. Recently, Ontario moved from a three year municipal election cycle to a four year. In the past, municipal officials had to stand for election every year, but this was judged to be too cumbersome, too expensive.

And judging by voter turnout, an increasing number of us seem to feel that even when an election has to be held, it just doesn’t matter. Canadians stay away from the polls in droves. And those of us that do vote often do so against our own interests.
In this political environment, is it really any wonder that Stephen Harper and Rob Ford think that they can get away with their behaviour? Is it any wonder that they believe that they’ll be re-elected at the very next opportunity? Do you really doubt Rob Ford’s sincerity when he said that he wanted to be Prime Minister one day?

We’ve allowed the democratic health of our nation to sink to an all-time low. It’s only going to get worse for us as long as we remain indifferent to the antics of our elected leaders, and the tactics used by political parties to gain and hold onto power. Real reform must start with our electoral system, as it appears extremely unlikely that Canada’s 3 large political parties are going to take any action to reform themselves. The Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP know how to achieve political success – why would they want to change? Nevermind that it would be for the good of Canadians – it’s not about us, after all – it’s about power.

Our Democracy on Life Support

One day, I fear we or our children might wake up and discover that what little shreds of democracy we thought we were clinging to have disintegrated altogether. Think I’m over-reacting? I hope you’re right – but when sitting parliamentarians can be removed from doing their jobs by their peers – parliamentarians I might add who have not been convicted of anything, much less charged – what does that bode for the future? Why stop with the Senate? Why not do the same with the House of Commons? Sure, those would be “elected” parliamentarians, but so what? The precedent is there now.

If our Prime Minister can shut down parliament to avoid a vote of confidence – well, that would be unheard of, right? What about parliamentary process, and the supremacy of parliament? They used to mean something, but largely now they don’t. The PMO and his cabinet keep financial records under lock and seal, denying elected officials the ability to do their jobs. Harper’s Conservatives silence any and all opposition through the use of numerous tools in the tool kit. That’s why Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament, couldn’t get credentialed by Canada, and instead had to turn to Afghanistan.

The Conservative Party engaged in wide-spread voter suppression tactics in the last general election (the robocalls fraud). Elected Conservatives exceeded legislated spending limits and committed other illegal acts during elections (the “in and out” scandal). Federal fixed-date election laws were broken by the Conservatives almost as soon as they were enacted. Parliament even voted the government in contempt – but Canadians rewarded the Conservatives with a false majority mandate, rather than punishing them. Maybe because the opposition appeared untested (the NDP) or inept (the Liberals).

Do you think for a moment that all of those unelected Senators appointed by Stephen Harper are going to let a hypothetical Liberal or NDP majority government push through their agenda? Or will we see more situations like what happened with Bill C-311 at play? Bill C-311, you may recall, was the NDP’s climate change bill, which was approved by a minority parliament with the support of the Liberals and Bloc, but ultimately killed in the Senate by a snap vote after a committee chair counted Liberal absences? So much for the will of elected members of parliament. Do you think for a moment that the Conservatives will fail to use appointed Senators to frustrate their political enemies?

When the truth is open to interpretation, and lying and cheating are successful electoral strategies, and when the rule of law is an intolerable, time-consuming, agenda-trumping inconvenience, do you think for one moment that the hinge of historic precedent is going to close the door on the out-of-control Conservative Party? Not a chance.

Am I over-reacting? Or are we really just kidding ourselves that we’re living in a democracy today?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mulcair's NDP Shouldn't Let Partisan Gain Trump Canada's Interests on The Canada-Europe CETA

As a Green partisan, I find myself salivating at the notion that the NDP will embrace the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) heading into the next election in 2015. If the NDP wants to cede ground on opposition to CETA to the Green Party of Canada, in pursuit of what the NDP’s believes is a successful electoral strategy, so be it. Another way of putting it is if the NDP wants to abandon its values, its principles and its base because they think that more voters will cast their ballot for a CETA-embracing NDP, more power to them – at least from a partisan Green point of view.

Already, the NDP’s lack of position on CETA (Leader Tom Mulcair insists that he wants to wait to see the details of the document before taking a position) is starting to fracture the NDP caucus – and rightly so. The Globe and Mail reports today that although Mulcair is insisting that his Party is neutral on CETA, Newfoundland and Labrador NDP MP Ryan Cleary is expressing concern that CETA will be a bad deal for his province – and Cleary is right (see: “Mulcair keeps options open on EU deal”, the Globe and Mail, November 5 2013). The Globe and Mail reports that Cleary’s concerns have to do with provisions of CETA which will end provincial minimum fish processing requirements, and thus disadvantage a major Newfoundland and Labrador industry.

On CETA, NDP Must Put the Good of Canada Ahead of Partisan Games

But even I, the most rabid Green patisan, can’t fully applaud the notion that the NDP might come out in favour of CETA. There’s an awful lot of game-playing in politics, and the NDP is notorious for playing partisan political games. But in the case of CETA, the stakes are simply too high for Canada. What Canada needs now is a New Democratic Party which will show leadership on this issue, rather than abdicating it.

And it’s not just me that is concerned about the NDP’s potential values-free position on CETA. Council of Canadians President Maude Barlow worries that the NDP is placing electoral politics above the values and principles which the NDP claims to champion. As quoted in the Globe article (above), Barlow says: “We don’t need the NDP worrying about optics, for heaven’s sake. We need them standing up for the core values that they’ve always stood for.” With Mulcair at the helm of the new NDP, however, all indicators suggest that principles and values will play a marginal role in the NDP’s electoral success strategy.

Look, I understand that public opinion polls indicate that Canadian voters are generally in favour of CETA. All of the mainstream media, its commentators and pundits, have been telling Canadians that we need CETA, that CETA will create jobs, that economic growth and prosperity require more free trade. It’s difficult to subscribe to a different narrative on free trade in the face of the overwhelming neoliberal view promulgated through the mainstream media, and repeated around water coolers and donut counters throughout the nation.

"Free Trade" - What Freedom?

But CETA, a so-called “free trade” agreement, isn’t really about either – not freedom, nor trade; at least not in the way that most people would think of either. Rather, it’s about the freedom of money to move between jurisdictions without impediment, and without benefit to the vast majority of citizens. Its investor-state provisions are a threat to the democratic freedoms of citizens – and to the very sovereignty of our nation. “Freedom”, as defined by CETA, is simply the freedom from regulation and the democratic will of voters.

If CETA was simply an agreement to remove trade barriers like national tariffs on goods and services, there might be some merit to it. But the fact is, Canada and Europe have long had very low tariffs on one another’s goods and services – so clearly, this deal, years in the works, must be about something more than just removing little tariffs. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “free trade” is good and essential for our economic health, that we’ve stopped questioning what, exactly, “free trade” really is.

CETA, more than just a trade deal, strikes at the fundamental heart of our democratic institutions – and will erode Canadian sovereignty. Through investor-state dispute resolution provisions, multinational corporations will have the ability to challenge Canadian laws – not in public courts, mind you – but through secretive arbitration processes, presided over by trade lawyers. If a Canadian government (federal/provincial/municipal) passes a law which might damage a European company’s ability to maximize its profits (not just to profit, mind you, but to profit as much as possible), a closed-door trade panel might conclude that compensation (read: Canadian tax dollars) is owed to the multinational. Nevermind that the government might have been trying to protect the democratic interests (read: health, social welfare and environment) of Canadian citizens. In the world of trade, the threat to profits will prevail, and Canadians will be on the hook to pay up.

What's at Stake

Sounds a little out there, doesn’t it? If this were so, why isn’t the mainstream media reporting this very shady side of the free trade deal? Well, besides running counter to the neoliberal narrative, there are actually those on the right-wing of the political spectrum who believe that these sorts of democratic restrictions will lead to more positive outcomes for Canadians – more “freedom”. And indeed, they very well may be correct – but only insofar as a very tiny minority of super-rich elites are concerned. But the super-rich seem to call a lot of the shots around here, so it really should come as no surprise that a counter narrative about “free trade” continues to be largely suppressed.

But the facts speak for themselves. For example, if a provincial government passes a law to ban fracking out of concern for environmental and public health and safety reasons, might a multinational company with an interest in gas development be able to take the Government of Canada (on behalf of the provincial government) to one of these star-chamber review panels, demanding compensation? Under CETA, the answer is clearly “yes” – but it’s not just CETA which should be of concern. In fact, that very scenario is playing itself out right now under the investor-state provisions of NAFTA, with a U.S. company, Lone Pine Investments, challenging the Province of Quebec’s laws on fracking. Lone Pines is seeking $250 million of Canadian taxpayer’s money because Quebec’s water protection law will reduce expected profits (see: “U.S. firm to launch NAFTA challenge to Quebec fracking ban”, the Globe & Mail, November 15, 2012).

Laws, passed in good faith by elected legislators, based on the best available evidence, to protect the public interest, can be challenged by multinational corporations under investor-state provisions, leaving taxpayers on the hook to foot the bill for loss of profit. Really, what good then are our laws? If the democratic will of electors, as carried out by legislators, leads to costs being paid to multinational firms because of a loss of corporate profit, what does that say about our democracy? To me it speaks loudly that the profit of multinational corporations is of more economic value than the health and welfare of citizens – and of the public officials citizens elect to look after their interest.

And that’s what Newfoundland and Labrador MP Cleary is concerned about when he raises the issue of provincial fish processing laws being abandoned in the name of this trade deal. Why shouldn’t Newfoundland and Labrador pass laws pertaining to a Canadian natural resource which they believe are in the public interest? These laws have assisted with creating local jobs and keeping local people employed. Why are they now to be put at risk? I can’t help but wonder that if Mr. Cleary’s NDP decides to support CETA, whether Mr. Cleary’s own job might be the first one lost in Newfoundland and Labrador in the name of “free trade” with the European Union.

Investor-State Dispute Resolution - Freedom from Regulation and Transparency - and the Democratic Will of Citizens

No, these investor-state provisions aren’t “free trade” in any sense recognizable to Canadians. What they offer, instead, is the freedom from regulation for multinational corporations in pursuit of profit. It used to be that the NDP understood that the rights of citizens should take precedence over the rights of corporations – certainly, many people in the past voted for the NDP because they shared this value. I can’t help but wonder if those voters will continue to support the NDP should Tom Mulcair decide that his party’s electoral interests are in repudiating the long-held belief that corporate rights shouldn’t trump the democratic rights of citizens.

CETA, more than just a trade deal, is also an assault on public sector workers and local economies. By opening up governmental (including municipal) procurement provisions, well-paying local public sector employees, many of whom belong to unions, will be put at risk. The hands of decision-makers will be tied by provisions which end “buy local” preferences, in the name of unfettered competition. Some say that competition is a good thing for taxpayers – but lower prices offered by outside firms can have an overall detrimental impact on local economies, as dollars which otherwise would have stayed in circulation in local areas are shipped out of the community, overseas. Low price points can never tell the whole story of the true nature of the economic impact of procurement decisions.

As a result, CETA will tip the balance of local procurement away from local businesses and enterprises and towards multinational corporations. Canada’s small and medium enterprises, particularly those which cater to public authority contracts, may quickly find themselves disadvantaged by European multinationals which can undercut contracts. Again, while this may save taxpayers a few dollars in the short term, in the long term we’ve seen this play out already in other sectors, to the detriment of Canadian businesses.

While I agree that municipal governments should be looking to save taxpayers money, CETA creates a very real threat to the provision of public services, especially sewer, water, municipal telecommunications services. The creeping privatization of municipal water supplies is something which Canadians should be concerned about – and something which will likely be exacerbated by CETA, given that many of the multinational private water distributing firms who are global players in the private water industry are headquatered in Europe. Around the world, what used to be a public service – the delivery of safe, clean drinking water through municipal pipes and infrastructure – has already been removed from the public realm, taken over by for-profit water distributors with the end result being less access to drinking water, especially to the poor. Some believe safe, accessible drinking water should be considered a human right. Many of those who believe this have voted for the NDP in the past. I can’t help but wonder if they will continue to do so should the NDP come out in favour of CETA.

CETA and the NDP's Electoral Game Plan

But right now, I’ve got to give the NDP some credit. Tom Mulcair has insisted since day one that he wants to wait for the details of CETA to become public before giving his party’s nod of approval (unlike Justin Trudeau's Libearls, who have roundly embraced CETA). And indeed, it makes some sense not to rush to judgment on CETA based on what little is known about it. But we do know that these investor-state provisions are going to be included in this trade deal – just as they are included with the Canada-China FIPPA. We also know that, unlike with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the Conservative Party of Canada has no intention on going to the electorate for its approval on the deal. Where Brian Mulroney called an election on the Canada-U.S. deal, Stephen Harper’s goal is to have CETA wrapped up nicely with a bow by the time the 2015 federal election rolls around.

Harper’s plans for CETA might shed some light on how the NDP could play its game, though. On the one hand, the NDP’s support of CETA risks offending its own base, which largely includes the labour movement and those concerned about social justice and wealth distribution. On the other hand, pundits would have Mulcair believe that opposition to CETA won’t sit well with “mainstream” Canadians – and in this case, the polls clearly suggest that a majority of Canadians support CETA. However, if CETA itself isn’t going to be an election issue, Mulcair and the NDP might be afforded a degree of cover, and take a middle of the road position – support the removal of tariffs and trade barriers, but oppose provisions which impact Canada’s democratic sovereignty.

Of course, such a position is surely to be harpooned by the Conservatives and Liberals, who will do all that they can to muddy the waters and portray the NDP as anti-trade – even though they’re not. But in politics, it’s perception which often counts (see Stephen Harper’s comments to Mike Duffy re: housing expenses). In this political reality, it’s not at all clear that a nuanced position on CETA will cut it for Mulcair. Yet, to remain true to the NDP’s values and principles, a nuanced position, at the very least, is what’s required.
Better yet, based on the NDP’s values, the NDP should take a principled stand against CETA, and damn the consequences, because it’s the right thing to do. And also because Tom Mulcair’s NDP risks alienating parts of its own base on this issue. In the past, that wasn’t such a big deal – where else would left-wingers like public-sector union supporters or democratic rights advocates park their ballots? In 2015, though, there will be another party snapping at the NDP’s heels – a political party which isn’t afraid to make policy decisions based on values, rather than on the perception of electoral success. Of course, I’m talking about the Green Party.

The Green Party and Fair Trade

The Green Party wasted no time getting out in front of CETA. On the day that CETA was announced in Brussells, the Green Party posted this media release: “Green Party Opposes Anti-Democratic Elements of Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement” (October 18, 2013). In the release, the Party made it very clear that investor-state dispute resolution settlement provisions of CETA will prove detrimental to Canada. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May left no doubt about her opinion on those elements of CETA being made public: "While critical details of this Agreement are still being kept from the public, I am profoundly concerned with some of the core measures that have already been announced.”

I think it’s fair to say that a majority of Green Party members agree with May’s sentiment, even though the membership has not adopted a specific policy related to CETA. That being said, grassroots members of the Green Party of Canada have spoken up very clearly on the notion of fair and equitable trade, rather than the so-called “free trade” which has brought us Chapter 11 of NAFTA and investor-state provisions in CETA and the Canada-China FIPPA. This doesn’t mean that the Green Party opposes trade – on the contrary, the Green Party embraces trade under optimal circumstances. If you’re interested in the Green Party’s position on trade, it may be worthwhile to visit Section 5.17, Trade and Sovereignty, of Vision Green. Vision Green is a unique document published by the Green Party between elections – unique because it encapsulates member-approved policies in a narrative and easily-understood manner. And unique because the Green Party of Canada is the only federal political party to make public its comprehensive policy document at all times. It’s available for the public to read – and of course for the partisans of other parties to critique. What shocks me most of all, however, is that partisans from other political parties are more likely to claim that the Green Party is being “secretive” by keeping its policies from Canadians far more often than they take issue with a particular policy message found in Vision Green. But I digress.

The Interests of Canada Trump Short-term Partisan Gain

Will Tom Mulcair’s NDP eventually come out in favour of the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement? We’ll have to wait and see, but there is a lot to suggest that the NDP probably thinks that it’s electoral success requires supporting CETA. And it may be right on that equation. But support of CETA would be fundamentally against the values and principles of a good many of the decent, hard-working people who built the NDP into the Party that is today. Although my own political party might stand to benefit from our stance on CETA by attracting anti-CETA New Democrats should Mulcair decide to support the trade deal, I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that. Canada needs the NDP on board in opposing CETA. That, to me, is much more important that short-term partisan political gain for the Green Party. This is one issue that I don’t want my party to have exclusive ownership of.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)