Fumbling environment: Feb 4, 2007

Can Harper recover the environment ball?

Is this really what federal campaign finance reform legislation was intended to do? Give the Conservatives such a bulging war chest they can afford to buy time tonight on the year’s highest rated, most expensive TV spectacular in order to try and sack the new Liberal quarterback before his team breaks from the huddle? Before the real game of the next federal election campaign officially begins?

The three ads the Tories rolled out last week — tackling (not unreasonably) Stephane Dion’s failures to deliver more than promises when he was environment minister; attempting to link him (patently unfairly) to the sponsorship scandal; and dissing him (the jury’s still out) for his lack of leadership skills — would not have been out of place during an election campaign in which the Conservatives were attempting to unseat the governing Liberals.


Earth to Stephen Harper. You won. You’ve been in government for a year now. What have you really done besides fumble the environment ball?

Can you say Rona Ambrose? Should you? Kyoto (the accord, not the dog)? How about a Clean Air Act that was so fatally flawed you had to ship it off to a parliamentary committee after first reading in hopes of getting it retrofitted it enough to somehow convince someone somewhere you take the environment seriously? Oh, yes, and speaking of retrofitting, how about the EnerGuide retrofitting program, which was designed to help Canadians make their homes more energy efficient and which your government killed last year to make more room in your next budget for tax cuts for the wealthy? Oh, that EnerGuide program.

As John Bennett, a senior policy adviser with the Sierra Club of Canada, told CTV News recently: “The Conservatives threw out the best of what the Liberals did [on the Clean Air Act] and kept the worst.”

To be fair, Stephen Harper’s Tories have recently sniffed the prevailing environmental winds — or at least read the polls that say Canadians now believe the environment is government’s job one — and begun to pretend that they care too.

Do they? Harper’s own track record on the environment isn’t mixed. It’s awful.

In Opposition, Harper doubted the “tentative and contradictory” science of climate change on ideological grounds. In a fund-raising letter he wrote in 2002, which the Liberals — in a letter-tit for a TV ad-tat — gleefully released this week, Harper called Kyoto a “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” His larger goal in trying to derail its implementation, however, was as pragmatic as it was political. He also wanted to help out his powerful friends in the Alberta oil and gas industry, who don’t want regulation to get in the way of opening up the oil-rich and profit-richer tar sands.

Oops. Wait a minute. Didn’t I just do what I accused the Tories of doing a few paragraphs earlier — trotting out yesterday’s news instead of responding to today’s concerns? I did. Sorry… Sort of.

So let’s accept that Stephen Harper’s sudden political environmental retrofit — “this government… accepts the science” — is about more than public opinion polls and bright green ties.

Will his government now reverse field and support an opposition motion that calls for the Kyoto treaty to be implemented? That vote is expected Monday. If not, will his government at least come up with its own aggressive emissions-cutting targets to replace what it has rightly dismissed as weightless Liberal promises?

Will Canada’s fresh-faced environment minister, John Baird, do more than genuflect at the altar of the “unequivocal evidence” climate change is real? Will he, for example, support French President Jacques Chirac’s call to set up a new United Nations agency to deal specifically with environmental issues?

And will Harper himself do more than simply agree to show up at an expected United Nations summit on climate change? Will he put pressure on what he has called the “major emitters,” including his friend in the White House, to rein in their greenhouse gases too?

There’s still time — to torture the football image once more — for Stephen Harper to recover the ball and run it, if not for a touchdown, at least for a first down. That would involve much more than trotting out yet another attack ad. It would mean doing what Canadians elected him to do. Govern. What a concept.

Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel, Reparations.

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