National Column: Honest talk from an environment minister who’s feeling the heat

by Tim Harper

You can leaf through a calendar and point to a number of spots where a Liberal government seemingly on cruise control is heading for some heavy weather.

You can choose legislation on assisted suicide or electoral reform or the future of health care Catherine McKenna, the federal environment minister, made that clear at the just-concluded Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit where she delivered the type of blunt talk one doesn’t come to expect from politicians.

She sat on a panel with two other women – and that in itself was both notable and positive. Alberta environment minister Shannon Phillips and Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer joined her and they all spoke of collaboration, respectful discussion and “tantrum-free zones” as the way ahead on climate change.

But Phillips reminded the Ottawa crowd that people are hurting in her province, that $10 billion in royalty revenues have disappeared, that good-paying oilpatch jobs are gone, that homes and vehicles are being lost, that domestic violence is rising and charitable donations are down.

McKenna wants to lead the transition to a low-carbon economy, but she is dealing with diverse provincial economies, raw political sensibilities and those in the oilpatch who are not just hurting economically but are starting to believe this Liberal government would just as soon leave the bitumen in the ground and move ahead without them.

“I’m a realist on this. There are a lot of people who have lost jobs in Alberta,” McKenna said. “That doesn’t mean we destroy our planet, but we need to be thoughtful of how we move forward.”

And she also realistically told the audience that there are still many Canadians who don’t see climate change as a threat, or who are “a little bit there.”

The federal government is the regulator and it can impose its carbon will on the provinces, but bringing the federal hammer down is a great way to split the country, McKenna knows.

“If we do something overnight that has a huge, immediate dislocating effect on the economy where tons of people lose jobs, I’m losing everyone. I’m losing them,” she said.

And she acknowledged the political dynamite her government is handling.

“I don’t want this to be a national unity crisis,” she said. “I get nervous about the way the conversations sometimes go, that it’s east versus west.”

The Trudeau government has raised the environmental stakes, taking a huge delegation to the Paris climate talks shortly after the election, holding a first ministers summit (the first in seven years) on the climate and crowing that “Canada is back” on the environmental file.

But when first ministers met again to discuss potential climate pricing regimes last month in Vancouver, a lot of lustre was lost and the heavy sledding began.

McKenna and her government might find itself in a slightly better place Monday.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is expected to easily win a third majority in one of the sleepiest, quietest and most predictable provincial election campaigns in recent memory.

Wall will again be fÍted as the real opposition leader in Canada and he carries muscle that far outstrips the size of his province.

He is the leader of the anti-carbon tax, pro-pipeline forces in this country and his has been the loudest voice when it comes to the need for putting resource jobs ahead of green initiatives.

But he is also a pragmatic and shrewd politician who may moderate his view now, with another majority in his pocket and a mid-mandate job change expected by those on both sides of the Saskatchewan political divide.

The clock is ticking. After the Vancouver meeting, working groups were formed and a plan is supposed to be presented in about five months.

There is a group looking at carbon pricing, a group plotting adaptation, another one looking at other ways to mitigate emissions and yet another looking at growth and innovation in a greener economy.

All premiers and territorial leaders recognize the need to take action – British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have undertaken some form of carbon pricing – but they are not united in how to get there.

Canadian actions remain well below their government’s soaring rhetoric on this file.

“There will be hard conversations,” McKenna said. Here’s hoping they are also “tantrum-free.”

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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