By Aaron Freeman
Election fever has gripped Parliament Hill. Every election has its victims, but the first victim of this election would be Canada’s environment.
A March 19 federal budget will kick off the last week of the recently announced Quebec election campaign. It is expected that the Conservatives will shower Quebec with budget cash, allowing Premier Jean Charest to make the argument that he, and not the Parti Québécois, can deliver the goods for Quebeckers. According to the playbook, on the heels of a separatist defeat in Quebec, Harper would then be able to claim that the Tories are best placed to make federalism work, providing the Conservatives with much-needed credentials as a national party that can keep the country together.
Although the Conservatives claim not to want an election anytime soon, only time and public opinion polls will tell. Dropping the writ in the fall would be difficult, with Ontario voters already heading for the ballot box in mid-October. So many expect Harper to use a Charest victory in Quebec to take the newly minted and untested Stephane Dion to the polls (and, perhaps, to the cleaners) soon after Quebeckers vote.
Arranging the defeat of the government will be challenging. If the plan pans out, the Bloc, with their Parti Québécois brethren having just been defeated and almost certainly preparing for a new leadership race, will be loathe to hit the federal hustings. And the Liberals and NDP don’t have enough votes to bring the government down on their own.
The Conservatives could make the budget unpalatable to each of the opposition parties, perhaps by overloading it with tax cuts at the expense of social spending. Or they might seek a dissolution of Parliament from Governor General by arguing that the pesky Liberals are making governance impossible, tying Parliament’s hands on Kyoto through a soon-to-be-passed private member’s bill requiring the government to come up with a plan to meet our international obligations. Various other opposition bills working their way through Parliament will force the government to implement the First Nations Kelowna Accord, spend official development assistance exclusively on poverty eradication, and ban several categories of harmful chemicals.
However they engineer a defeat, Canadians could be in an election as early as April.
While environment will likely figure prominently in an early federal election campaign, it is the environment that will suffer most from a spring campaign.
There has never been greater potential for meaningful progress on environmental issues than right now. Around the table at the legislative committee charged with redrafting the government’s Clean Air Act, there appears to be agreement on the need for binding national air quality standards, in line with global best practices. This measure alone would arguably be the most significant federal advance on the environment in two decades. Currently, Canada has only toothless voluntary standards, and while the major problem is that they are unenforceable, they are also weaker than the standards in other jurisdictions. The ozone standard, for example, is more than eight times weaker than the U.S. federal standard.
Similarly, the committee can, if it so chooses, draft Canada’s first serious plan to reduce domestic greenhouse gasses. The bill can establish meaningful targets for large industrial emitters. It can set mandatory auto emission standards in line with California, several other northern states, and, as of earlier this month, the province of British Columbia. And it can mandate new efficiency standards for appliances and machinery. Canada is so far behind on meeting its climate change obligations that moving to the front of the pack is no longer a reasonable goal, but these measures would at least show the world that we are prepared to do our fair share.
Meanwhile, committees in both the House and the Senate are examining Canada’s overarching pollution law, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). There is broad recognition in both committees that the Act needs major improvements.
There has even been progress on endangered species, a seemingly perpetual bad-news story for the government. In recent weeks, in response to a lawsuit launched by environmental groups, the federal government announced that it will reject its previous decision not to identify the critical habitat of several species at risk. Failure to identify habitat makes protecting that habitat impossible, and is contrary to the Species At Risk Act. The government’s turnaround could signal a willingness to implement the Act cooperatively with conservation organizations (who, incidentally, have more experience and devote more money toward protecting endangered plants and animals than the federal government).
To a large degree because of polling that shows Canadians’ concern for the environment has skyrocketed, there is tremendous potential to make progress on all of these files, and others.
But an election could kill much of this momentum. Whoever wins, they would be starting all over on these issues. A new Parliament won’t likely sit before the fall, so it is almost certain that an election would nix the chances of having a climate change plan in place by January 2008, the start of the first phase of the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the progress made by the committees looking at CEPA over the past year will be lost as committee membership changes. And movement on other issues will be similarly stalled.
Parliamentarians should feel a sense of urgency on these files, but the House environment committee has yet to report on CEPA, even though they stopped hearing testimony back in December. The committee examining the Clean Air Act doesn’t plan to report back to the House before the end of March, nearly two weeks after the budget is introduced. And although the committee was struck nearly three months ago, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals are disclosing what they would be willing to support.
For those preferring to score partisan points rather than make real progress on the environment, an election would be a godsend. For the rest of us, we should fear an early election – and punish the politicians who take us there.
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.