From centre stage to the micro-campaign

Simon Jackson on how at least some environmentalists are conserving their powder for another day.

What happened to the environment as a campaign issue?

In unveiling his policy for a carbon tax, he said, "I'm proposing to cut taxes on the clean fuels to create a powerful incentive in the market place. It's tax shifting, not tax increasing."

But wouldn't a carbon tax be politically risky? "Risky? That's what leadership is all about."

Apparently not.

This is not a quote from Stéphane Dion, advocating for his doomed Green Shift carbon tax during the 2008 election campaign. It is from Michael Ignatieff, during his first bid for the Liberal party leadership in 2006.

One Liberal electoral drubbing and an economic downturn later, finding a current quote from Ignatieff in support of — or even commenting on — the carbon tax is impossible.

Too politically risky, you might say. He is certainly not alone.

With the exception of the Greens, who are willing to be bold on the environment (because not to be would be risky), the issue is an endangered species at the national level.

The Conservatives don't even mention the environment on their website. (Are they unaware of "Teddy Roosevelt conservatives" or Preston Manning's "Green Tories"?)

And while the Liberals are talking cap-and-trade, it's a significant step backwards from the carbon tax and everything else they offered last time. Plus, the environment is about more than climate change.

Depressing, isn't it?


It's hard to believe that only three years ago, the environment was the top policy issue in the country. Today, it barely registers in public opinion surveys.

Stephane Dion's green message didn't exactly resonate with voters in 2008. But was that the message or the messenger? (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Of course, the economic downturn in 2009 shifted the focus from long-term planetary survival to short-term family survival — that's human nature and entirely understandable.

The Liberals' electoral shellacking didn't help the issue either (though that had more to do with the messenger than the message, in my opinion).

But if 2008 was the environmental election, 2011 may well be the anti-environmental election, at least on the national stage.

Still, with a race as closely fought as this one looks to be, every swing riding becomes important. Which means that small groups of green voters may yet tip the scales.

For starters, if the Conservatives are to win their coveted majority government, they can ill afford to lose any seats.

That would include Saanich-Gulf Islands, held by the current minister of state for sports, Gary Lunn, and being challenged by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, once again trying to play the role of giant killer.


While May failed to unseat Defence Minister Peter MacKay last time on the other side of the country, her chances here on the West Coast are much improved for one reason: Lunn's victories come with the slimmest of margins.

To win, though, she will have to do what no other green (or Green) candidate has accomplished and convince the riding's residents to vote strategically.

Taya Hill, 10, takes part in an anti-Enbridge pipeline protest in Kitimat in August 2010. The pipeline proposal to connect oil sands crude to Asian markets has united native groups and West Coast environmentalists worried about offshore spills. (Robin Rowland/Canadian Press)

Saanich-Gulf Islands is a naturally green community. But environmentalists and so-called progressives have never had much success with the concept of strategic voting before during a full-scale election campaign.

But given that this is likely May's last chance as leader (if she doesn't win), there could be a little extra sympathy for her in the mix and being ultra-green shouldn't hurt.

Half a continent away, environmental politics may also have a role in a handful of those vote-rich 905-region ridings of suburban Toronto.

For years, this area, along with a few others in Southwestern Ontario, have been ground zero in the battle over the great oil sands debate.

On one side, you have both progressives and small-c conservatives who are also conservationists at heart and have a strong dislike for the "tar sands" — as it is branded by the always publicity conscious Greenpeace.

On the other side, you have many ethnic groups and human rights champions who are beginning to embrace the concept of "ethical oil" — conservative commentator Ezra Levant's re-branding of the oil sands as a more politically appealing source than Middle East oil.

This latter message has been adopted by the Tories, especially by the minister of environment, Peter Kent, not so coincidentally an MP from Toronto's 905 region.

The Ignatieff Liberals are also in favour of the oil sands now, which could turn some votes away to the NDP or the Greens.

The Grits seem to be staking their environmental credentials more on opposing the proposed Enbridge pipeline, which would send crude from Alberta to the B.C. coast for shipment to China.

High profile environmental campaigns have targeted the 905 region in an attempt to create political pressure to stop the pipeline, which would spur growth in the oil sands.

And though this debate has become far too simplistic, the theory is that it could still become a determining factor for enough environmentally motivated voters to compose the margin of victory — or loss — in a few chosen seats.

The long game

There is also one other area, if you're playing the long game, where the environment could gain profile.

If the results do mirror those of 2008, there is likely to be leadership change at the national level, those once-in-a-decade opportunities to reshape the political landscape.

Potential candidates such as the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, the Liberal's Justin Trudeau and the Conservative's Jim Prentice are all people who have put forward innovative ideas on the environment.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that they will find an interested, green voting bloc out there once the current atmosphere has cleared.

After all, environmentalists and conservation groups had some success in the recent Liberal leadership race in B.C. They didn't crown a winner, but they can claim to have blocked the candidate least receptive to green issues.

There is no question that, of the current crop of leaders, environmental vision is lacking, but that doesn't have to be the case for the next one.