National Column: Time is right for Trudeau to act boldly for change

It was 13 years ago. Jean Chretien’s government ratified the Kyoto Protocol and the Liberal prime minister proclaimed “Canada is a good citizen of the world.”

It was four years ago. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives pulled Canada out of the protocol. “Kyoto, for Canada, is in the past,” said his environment minister, Peter Kent.

After more than a decade of spinning our wheels – or worse – on climate change, why is there hope a new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau and a new cast of provincial premiers will make the tough decisions on the environment that have eluded our political leaders in the past?

Why might there be the political will in 2016 that has not been there before – why now might our leaders for once look past the horizon of the next election and shake us from our climate torpor?

The question of political will, not science or economics, is central to any significant Canadian action at home after the Paris climate summit, and while the political alignment in this country raises expectations today, it may be only marginally better now than then, says the man who was at the centre of the Kyoto

“It is not a night-and-day difference,” says David Anderson, the environment minister for ChrÈtien and then Paul Martin, who recalled those climate struggles of the past in conversation from his Victoria home.

“We have a better opportunity now because we do not have the disinformation campaign being waged by the oil and gas industry. They are not actively trying to trip up Canadian policy today as they did

The mainstream media is no longer the portal it once was for climate deniers, Anderson says, and Trudeau has begun talks with the provinces from the bottom up, not the top down. Given the history of oft-acrimonious federal-provincial relations in this country, that is key, he says.

During Kyoto negotiations, Anderson lived with the threat of a constitutional confrontation and court action if Ottawa tried to force federal measures on provinces, particularly Alberta, Ontario,
Saskatchewan and Quebec. Only the Manitoba NDP government of Gary Doer landed on Ottawa’s side, largely because it was seeking hundreds of millions of federal dollars for a power project on the Nelson

Today, Trudeau has more progressives around him. On the continental front, he will have an ally in Barack Obama. The ChrÈtien Liberals were dealing with the George W. Bush Republicans.

Provincially, New Democrat Rachel Notley in Alberta and Kathleen Wynne in Ontario are early in mandates and are offering more than lip service to climate change. Anderson had to deal with Ralph
Klein and Mike Harris and, in his home province, Gordon Campbell was an early resister before he later introduced a carbon tax, now frozen by Premier Christy Clark. A B.C. task force Friday recommended that tax not only be unfrozen but doubled over the next five years.

Trudeau is primed to move early in his mandate and can leverage his early popularity to push premiers on measures that will ultimately prove unpopular if required.

Although various polls in recent days indicate Canadians would pay more for products and services in the name of reducing emissions, the reality of what it would actually take – smaller vehicles, smaller homes, a shrinking lifestyle – has not actually been spelled out. Once the bill is actually presented to voters, the support will quickly decline.

That’s where political courage comes in.

It is common for newly arrived leaders to think boldly in the early days of their mandate before being dragged into the weeds of reality. Trudeau’s time to not only think boldly, but act boldly, is at hand. He has repeatedly told us his children are the reason he sought the land’s top political office.

Anderson believes there is one test of political will ready and available for testing.

A 10-cent-per-litre federal excise tax – a carbon tax – at the pumps could generate $5 billion for federal green initiatives.

The time is right. Gas prices are relatively low, and Canadians have shown they are willing to pay higher prices.

Will it be seen as kicking the energy sector when it’s down – the Harper argument of the past and the argument of Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall today – or will it result in the political courage to strike when opportunity arises?

It is something Trudeau should at least float, Anderson believes.

Late 2015 offers us a perfect storm. There is enhanced public awareness and the political stars at home appear to be aligning. Great expectations on climate are not misplaced.


Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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