Canada is set to go to the polls for the third time in five years. But what will it mean for the environment and, specifically, for the spirit bear?
Politically-risky, but leadership-required policies on the environment appear to be a no-go zone for most of Canada’s major political parties.
Of course, for smaller parties, like the Greens, who are willing to be bold on the environment, well, with nothing to lose, not being risky would be risky.
It’s hard to believe that only three years ago, the environment was polling as the top policy issue in the country. Today, it barely registers in public opinion surveys.
Of course, the economic downturn of 2009 shifted the focus from long term planetary survival to short term family survival – that’s human nature and more than understandable.
The Liberals embracing the environment and subsequently receiving their worst electoral showing didn’t help the issue either (though that had more to do with the messenger than the message).
If 2008 was the environmental election, 2011 may well be the anti-environment election – at least on the national stage.
With a public still jittery about the health of the economy and political parties hypersensitive to a slide of even one percent in the polls, given the small margin for gains available to all, this is a campaign that will be dominated by the economy and leadership rhetoric.
That said, with most political observers believing that this election will render near identical results as the last election, every swing riding becomes that much more critical for every party as they search for elusive gains.
And in these few ridings, with an eye to getting out the vote, it is possible the environment could yet become a factor, albeit without the high profile of mainstream media coverage or questions in the leaders debate.
For starters, if the Conservatives are to win a narrow majority government – their best case scenario in this election – then they can ill afford to lose any seats, including Saanich-Gulf Islands, held by current Minister of State for Sports, Gary Lunn.
Once again Green Party leader Elizabeth May is trying to play the role of giant killer, taking on Lunn in her quest to find the Green’s their first elected Member of Parliament.
Though she failed to unseat Peter MacKay in a riding that was clearly a conservative stronghold in the last election, this time her chances are much improved for one reason: Gary Lunn always wins with a minority of votes.
The opposition vote in Saanich-Gulf Islands is divided between the Grits, the NDP and the Greens to the point where Lunn is usually elected with less than forty percent – one of the lowest winning percentages in the country.
While she’ll have to run against an NDP and a Liberal candidate (unlike last election), in this green-conscious riding, should May put forward a strong vision for environment that resonates on a local level, it is entirely possible she can do what no other ‘green’ (or Green) candidate has accomplished and convince the riding’s residents to vote strategically to give her the win.
Of course, environmentalists and so-called progressives have never had much success with the concept of strategic voting during a full-scale election campaign, but with a focused effort and one of their own to root for, this could be their best shot of success.
It also could be May’s last chance as leader, providing extra motivation for her supporters.
In Ontario, the 905 region will be a prime battle ground between the Liberals, fighting to hold their seats in their attempt to form a slim minority government, and the Tories, who, again, will be looking to make inroads toward a majority.
In this micro campaign, the environment could resonate with swing voters.
For years, this area has been ground zero in the battle for hearts and minds of citizens in the great oil sands debate.
On one side, you have small-c conservatives who are conservationists at heart and have a strong dislike for the “tar sands” – the brand created by the likes of Greenpeace who feel the environmental bar in this country can and should be raised.
On the other side, you have ethnic minorities and human rights champions who are beginning to embrace “ethical oil” – conservative commentator Ezra Levant’s re-branding of the oil sands that recognizes that this oil source is more ethical from an environmental and human rights stand point than the oil being imported from virtually everywhere else in the world.
The latter message has been adopted by the Tories, especially by Minister of Environment Peter Kent (not so coincidentally, an MP from the 905 region).
The Liberals are also in favour of the oil sands – and that could turn some votes away to the NDP or the Greens.
But they haven’t gone as far as the Tories in their embrace of the controversial oil source and the Grits have come out against the proposed Enbridge pipeline that would send crude from Alberta to the BC 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 that would spur growth in the oil sands and potentially endanger the waters of the Great Bear Rainforest and the spirit bear, which inhabits the region.
Though this debate has become far too simplistic and is a tug of war for really only a handful of votes, it could be a determining motivational factor for enough voters to compose the margin of victory – or loss – in a few 905 seats.
There is also one other area – if you’re playing the long game – where the environment could gain profile, in this case, due to the election, not during it.
If the results do mirror those of 2008, this is likely the last election for most, if not all, of the current party leaders.
A leadership race within in all of Canada’s major political parties would be a once-in-a-decade-or-more opportunity to re-shape the political landscape.
Possible leaders in all parties – like the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, the Liberal’s Justin Trudeau, and the Conservative’s (or former, in this case) Jim Prentice – are all dynamic candidates who have put forward innovative ideas on the environment.
Conservationists, fresh off playing an intriguing role within the BC Liberal leadership race (potentially having not elected Christy Clark, but strongly contributed to stopping the election of Kevin Falcon), might have their best shot of getting their supporters to become members of political parties so that they have a say in determining the leaders.
There is no question that of the current crop of leaders, environmental vision is lacking, but that doesn’t have to be the case in the next election.
So while the environment won’t be on the national campaign agenda, it could be a factor in individual races.
And those races will go a long way toward deciding if the next campaign does engage Canadians in a true debate on the state of our environment.