Science, planet lose in Canadian election

Canadian scientists, and climatologists in particular, are probably among the most depressed this morning following Tuesday's federal election, in which the semi-governing Conservative Party was sort-of re-elected to another parliamentary minority.

In Canada, minority governments don't command enough seats to ensure passage of legislation, but for some reason no one seems to think that means a coalition is required. None of the opposition parties will entertain the notion of a governing coalition, so in all likelihood nothing in the way of consequential legislation will be passed for the next few years.

That's about the best spin that the 120 scientists and 230 economists who recently signed public letters calling on Canadians to reject the Conservative Party's record on science and climate policy can hope for. More realistic interpretations involve the unfortunate truth that Canadians have effectively rejected strong action on the climate front by reinstalling, with a slightly larger contingent of MPs, the party with the least progressive environmental policies.

The Conservatives won only 37% of the vote (which is even smaller than it looks, given that only 59% of eligible voters turned out). The Liberals, who pushed a "Green Shift" plan that would hike taxes on bad things like fossil-fuels and reduce taxes elsewhere, got only 26%, the lowest in the party's history. Their leader, Stephane Dion, is almost certain to be dumped at the first opportunity. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason began his post-mortem of the election with these depressing words: "It may be some time before we again see a political leader in Canada brave enough to build a campaign platform around saving the environment."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest is also said to be mulling an election call, and he too must be thinking just how hard he wants to push the environment at a time when people seem to be thinking about anything but.

To be fair, many Canadians did vote for the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, both of which consider climate change and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions important. Still, the environment was not a winning issue on the campaign trail for any party even before all hell broke loose on Wall Street.

What about the Greens? Didn't they attract a record level of support (6.8%)? Yes, but even as its leader showed in national televised debates that she has a better grasp of the issues than the big boys, her party still attracts a fair number of candidates whose day jobs include homeopath and other pseudo-scientific pursuits.

It's sad. In a country that should be leading the charge toward clean energy thanks to its enormous natural and renewable resources, educated workforce and relatively healthy economy (the most stable banking system in the world, by some accounts), we have another government that has consistently shown a preference for fossil fuels over renewables. The Conservatives' political roots are in Alberta, where the development of the tar sands guarantee that Canada will never meet any emissions-reduction goals, no matter how modest, and the party shows no signs are growing beyond that narrow view.

Oh well, at least, we can look forward to next month's U.S. elections. Here's Gary Mason again:

Despite last night's result, I still think Mr. Dion's desire to build an economy for the 21st century centred on energy independence and becoming a leader in green technology is precisely what Canada needs. Until the recent financial crisis, it's something U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama talked about often on the campaign trail.

He understands that rebuilding the U.S. economy around clean, renewable energy sources, a strategy that must extend to the automobile industry, will help create jobs and allow Americans to be free of the tyranny of Middle Eastern oil prices. The U.S. is a nation of innovators and it will innovate its way to the forefront of green technological advances, mark my words.

And once again, cautious Canada will be playing catch-up.


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Canada needs to change a few things...

The Left is much too fragmented. The Conservative party is alone on the right; every other party leans left, fragmenting the vote. There's even a provincial party (Le Bloc Quebecois) who couldn't form a majority government even if it won in all the ridings where it presents a candidate.

While the NDP and Green Party might have good intentions toward the environment, they, as you pointed out, attract too many "fringe" radical left elements. The Liberals are the only plausible alternative government, but I think they're still paying for the scandals that rocked their last two turns (with Chretien and Martin) in power. Too many faces from that time are still around, and Stephane Dion (the current Liberal leader) is one of them. Dion has the added problem of being widely hated in Quebec (for his strong federalist views) and relatively unknown in the rest of Canada. He also speaks English very poorly, which doesn't help.

I don't see it happening anytime soon, but what's needed is a melding of the parties on the Left, and an election where the Bloc fails to win many seats; causing it to fade to irrelevance. Right now, it's a convenient place to "park your vote" when no other party appeals to you.

That, or we need to change our electoral system to use successive "turns" to slowly eliminate candidates like man European nations do.

If not, I'm afraid we're looking at many more minority governments. Not a bad thing in itself, as it can make for prudent coalition governing (it's working pretty well in Quebec, where Jean Charest is also heading a minority government); but it also prevents the government from making "paradigm" shifts in policy. Anything that rocks the boat too much is frowned upon.

As for the environment, while Canada is a large country surface-wise, we have a small population. Many people feel that since we account for about 3% of the world's emissions, doing all we can to reduce them - especially anything that might be construed as economically costly - will simply be useless until we're sure that the US, China and India are also on the same page.

In Canada, minority governments don't command enough seats to ensure passage of legislation, but for some reason no one seems to think that means a coalition is required. None of the opposition parties will entertain the notion of a governing coalition, so in all likelihood nothing in the way of consequential legislation will be passed for the next few years.

This betrays little understanding of how minorities actually work in the Canadian parliamentary system. Actual coalitions (federal or provincial) are very rare in Canada. What happens in minority situations are agreements on specific issues.

To take only the most notable counter-example, the 2 minority governments of Lester Pearson (1963-68) produced universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Student Loans plan, a new national flag, and the reorganization/unification of the Canadian armed forces.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

my point is that minority governments no longer work at all. Yes, they have in the past, but not any more.

Again, a curious statement. Most of what Harper said he wanted to do was passed during the just-expired minority. His pre-election contention that the house had become dysfunctional was due to his desire for a majority, and was pretty widely scoffed at.

If there is recent evidence that minorities don't work any more, I'd be curious to hear it.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

Scott, to make your point you need some examples of successful major policy initiatives from this last government. Harper may indeed have gotten most of what he tried for, but did he try for anything big?

In a functional sense, I'll agree that the minority "worked," as evidenced by the fact that the other parties publicly decided to not pull the trigger on a number of occasions, finally leaving the timing to Harper.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

I don't know how much the environmental policy had to do with anything in this election. I voted Conservative for one reason, and one reason only. The last time the Liberals formed the government, they misappropriated over one hundred million dollars of the taxpayers' money. Heck, that's putting it generously. They laundered over $100,000,000, turning it into kickbacks to the party. Fuck, they stole it. A hunnerd mil. Straight out ripped us off, and I'm still pissed about it. The current crop of Liberals on the hill are not far enough removed from the Chretien crew to be trusted with control over our money again.

Maybe by the next federal election the Liberal party will have evolved enough to stop reminding us of the Chretien cronies, and allow us to consider other policy points. But they still have some housekeeping to do.

Paul, depending on your riding, there may have been other non-Liberal, non-Conservative options that had a chance. For instance, my own riding (Edmonton-Strathcona) managed to be the *only* non-blue Alberta riding... because going into the election, our NDP candidate was the strategic choice for taking out our incumbent never-quite-left-the-Reform-party Conservative. I identify more with the NDP than the Liberals or Greens (although my distance from the Greens comes from baggage they've never quite shaken from the homeopaths, i.e. opposition to all GM food, and what Layton did in BC *really* irks me), but I would have voted NDP in this riding regardless due to that. (It was close, too -- a margin of just 400 votes.) A vote against Conservative isn't a vote for Liberal.

As for the Libs, though -- I agree. This was the first time in recent memory they've tried something new with their party (the heavy focus on greening the economy), but it was still a party plagued by the albatrosses of their past. I don't trust them, but personally I'd prefer a Green-Shift-mandated Liberal party to RepubliCon Butt-Buddy Harper at the helm, especially with carbon being such a key issue. (For instance, Conservative environment minister Baird didn't know what the difference between cap-and-trade and a carbon tax was when asked in committee, and Harper's environmental platform sounded like his reference was Captain Planet rather than the IPCC (it actually mentioned nuclear and toxic waste dumps but didn't mention 'climate' 'emissions' or 'carbon' anywhere).)

The one moral I can see coming out of this election is that electoral reform should be prioritized. By my calculation:
Conservative: 38% of the vote / 117 seats deserved / 143 won
Liberal: 26% of the vote / 81 seats deserved / 77 won
NDP: 18% of the vote / 57 seats deserved / 37 won
Bloc: 10% of the vote / 28 seats deserved / 49 won
Green: 7% of the vote / 23 seats deserved / 0 won
Sadly, as the Conservatives and Liberals both win more often than they lose on first-past-the-post, it's unlikely either of those parties are going to vote to change this.

(On a side note, the Daily Show ran a segment on our election yesterday. They only mentioned Harper and Dion (not even their parties, except to compare the Conservatives to "Gay Nader Fans For Peace"), and reported the vote margin between those two as if it were the whole story. It's no wonder the Americans don't seem to understand much about Canadian politics.)


It really depends on your personal reasons for selecting a candidate to vote for in your riding. Where I live, I'm sure I would be happy with the local representation I received from either the Liberal or the Conservative candidate. NDP wasn't an option here, even if I agreed with them idealogically - which I don't - as the local candidate for them has been for as long as I can remember, and basically phoned it in. Hardly put any signs out, didn't respond to media requests.

However, given my above statement that my primary goal when voting was to prevent the Liberals from forming the next government, and none of the other parties had a realistic chance of doing so, in my case, a vote for anyone other than the Conservative Party was effectively a vote for the Liberals.

Paul, you cut off your nose to spite your face. Why would you vote in a party that has bad policies in order to get back at people who are no longer running? Paul Martin - gone. Jean Cretien - gone. Sheila Copps - gone. Who are you trying to get back at? If you can't actually vote for relevant reasons then it would have been better if you had stayed home on election day. The Liberals and the Greens were the only parties that had genuine, principled, intelligent leaders who were honest and straightforward, leaders who truly seem to be into it for the right reasons. You seem, by your disgust with Cretien-era corruption, to want that sort of government. Yet how do you reward these leaders? By voting for that slimy stooge Harper! You sent the message that you and others like you don't appreciate honest politicking and that you can't grasp a policy based campaign. You have killed any hope that we will see, in the near future, more of the type of leaders that ought to appeal to you as well as any hope for relevant action on the environment. Besides that, 100 mil (and I accept that figure only for the sake of argument) is small in comparison to what Harper's inaction on climate change will cost us (never mind his pandering, backward, anti-science crime bills). You can't compensate for previous corruption by picking bad policies now, policies that are put forward by a party that disregards science in favour of pandering to the conventional wisdom of the lowest common denominator. That is not leadership. That is not governing in a democracy. That is exploiting a democracy to gain power. This type of politics is cynical, shrewd, counterproductive, anti-intellectual, and undermines the Canadian soul; these are the hallmarks of a Harper government. Thanks for that Paul and thanks as well to all of your conservative friends.


I didn't say I felt the Conservatives had bad policies. I said that, while environmental concerns are extremely important, they were not the most important issue to Canadians in this election. Fiscal policy is on everyone's mind right now, and the Conservatives do that better than the Liberals. And far, far better than these Liberals. Sure, Chretien's gone, but don't for a minute think that this is some kind of "new" Liberal party. I voted for the party who, over the last couple of years, has made consistantly good fiscal policy decisions, resulting in Canada being among the countries best positioned to weather the current economic storm. One of the very best in the world, according to the IMF.

And quite frankly, I don't believe the Liberal's environmental policies were all that impressive anyway. I don't think anyone, anywhere, is going to do what really needs to be done for the world's environmental health, because to do so would be political suicide. That's not a good thing, but it is the unfortunate truth right now.

One thing I don't see mentioned here is the cynical attack Jack Layton and the NDP have launched against Dion's Green Shift. Layton spent almost all his time in BC condemning carbon taxes using the exact same language as Stephen Harper. Saying he would go after the "big polluters" and somehow keep fuel prices low while combating climate change. I simply refuse to support either the federal or provincial NDP as long as they continue to pursue their "axe the [carbon] tax" rabble-rousing campaign strategy, even if they eventually produce a detailed and credible climate change plan. They've lost my trust.

There are a bunch of gay canadian liberals here. Ewwwwwww. You goobers can stay here with your finger up your ass and figure out why liberals can never win because of their own inherent stupidity and lack of common sense . I need to go get a shower after trolling this site for 5 seconds. Mary

Thanks for your comments, Mary, and for your scintillating wit. We'd really rather you'd showered before you came. I think we need to open a window around here.

Here is a typical liberal approach to get something done. Real Big Picture thinking stuff here. "Barack Obama and Joe Biden will make a national commitment to weatherize at least one million low income homes each year for the next decade." hahahahhaahahaha

By James is a Goober (not verified) on 23 Oct 2008 #permalink