by Thomas Walkom
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government talks a good game – particularly in the areas of human rights and climate change.
But it never quite delivers.
Over the last few days, the prime minister has been in Asia where he has had the chance to confront two notorious human-rights violators: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Burma’s de facto government leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was in Bonn, where she pressured other governments to get serious about fighting climate change.
On the face of it, both were promoting what the Liberals call progressive values.
Indeed, Trudeau said he did “mention” human rights to Duterte when the two ran into each other on the sidelines of an economic summit in Manila. Duterte is accused of having more than 7,000 suspected drug users and pushers murdered without trial since he became president last year.
A few days earlier in Vietnam, Trudeau had what his special envoy to Burma Bob Rae called a “tough” conversation with Suu Kyi. Her government is waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee Burma.
In both cases, saying something is, I suppose, better than saying nothing. But in practical terms, Trudeau did no more than U.S. President Donald Trump – who, according to a spokesperson, also discussed human rights “briefly” with the monstrous Duterte.
The prime minister did not, for instance, warn Duterte and Suu Kyi that they could be subject to Canadian sanctions unless they mended their ways.
In fact, Trudeau said, he pointed out that no one is perfect and that Canadian governments, too, have done bad things in the past.
Which, while historically accurate, doesn’t help either Duterte’s victims or the Rohingya.
While all of this was going on in Asia, McKenna was in Germany promoting a scheme to phase out coal-fired electricity generation globally in order to reduce carbon emissions.
She pointed out that Canada has already made a start on this – which indeed it has.
The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper came up with a plan to phase out most coal-fired generation. The Trudeau government accelerated it. Ontario has closed its coal-fired plants and Alberta has promised to do the same.
But Canada is not phasing out coal.
First, the federal government plans to exempt coal-fired generating plants that are able to reduce their emissions significantly through new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage. This is perilously close to the notion of clean coal that Trump is mocked for discussing.
Second, Canada continues to mine and export coal for other countries to burn. In 2015, it exported more than 30 million tonnes, mainly to Asian steelmaking plants.
All of which is to say that McKenna’s crusade against coal, while welcome, isn’t exactly as advertised.
But then little in the climate-change struggle is. The UN has reported that the carbon reduction targets secured under the much-ballyhooed 2015 Paris Accord are grossly inadequate and that much more must be accomplished if the world is to keep global temperature increases within safe bounds.
More to the point, most countries – including Canada – do not have mechanisms in place that will allow them to reach these targets. Ottawa’s proposed $50 per tonne carbon tax, for instance, is nowhere near high enough to do the job. Some experts say it would have to reach $200 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions to be effective.
For the Trudeau Liberals, climate change and human rights are defining political principles. To maintain their reputation as a so-called progressive party, they must be seen to be on the correct side of both.
That’s why they talk about them so much.
But as the events of the past few days have illustrated, they are not always willing to match their actions to their rhetoric.
Yes, Trudeau is opposed to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and ethnic cleansing in Burma. But he’s not opposed enough to do anything substantive about them.
And yes, McKenna has good intentions when it comes to fighting climate change. But she too is
reluctant to grasp the nettle.
Perhaps these are the occupational hazards of being politicians. Or perhaps they are the occupational hazards of being Liberals.
Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services