Battleground 2015: NDP vs. Conservatives on energy and environment

Mulcair says he could be talked into considering a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade mechanism

“It would be senseless,” Tom Mulcair said Sunday at the NDP debate in Montreal, “to stop developing the oil sands, but we should stop subsidizing them and we should internalize the carbon cost,” that last bit a slightly insiderish way of saying some sort of carbon-emission pricing mechanism should attach to oil sands products. This falls well short of wild-eyed extremism; as Mulcair likes to point out, the Conservatives have considered, but not implemented, ending subsidies to oil-sands development that were implemented under Jean Chrétien, and Stephen Harper spent the 2008 campaign pretending to offer a carbon cap-and-trade scheme, which it later took three successive Conservative environment ministers to bury without a trace.

But Mulcair’s rhetoric, like most politicians’, often jumps ahead of his substantive positions. In Montreal he mentioned that in 2010 he wrote the foreword to a book by veteran journalist Andrew Nikiforuk whose French title translates to English as “Oil Sands: Canada’s Shame — How Dirty Oil is Destroying the Planet.” (Skipping slightly off topic, one notes that Nikiforuk’s next opus is titled “The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.”)

During the debate, Mulcair allowed as how he could be talked into considering either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade mechanism for, well, internalizing carbon costs, depending on circumstances. He can expect the Conservatives to start claiming he would do both. It’s important to note that Mulcair is hardly alone. A strong consensus unites the opposition parties’ leadership candidates to the effect that the oil sands’ environmental cost is unacceptable and that oil exports must be sharply curtailed. Nathan Cullen, whose riding includes Kitimat where the Northern Gateway pipeline would wind up, can hardly believe his luck. He’s calling on New Democrats to help him stop Gateway.

So that’s the NDP. Meanwhile, over on the other side, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver will on Monday deliver a keynote address to the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, on what a news release called “the government’s plan to streamline the approval process for major economic projects across Canada. In addition, Minister Oliver will highlight Canada’s leadership role in exploration, mining and processing, which alone employees [sic] more than 320,000 people across the county (not counting related support sectors).”

Note that the word “environmental” didn’t make it into that release before “approval.” I’m guessing Joe Oliver won’t be writing the foreword to The Energy of Slaves.

Elsewhere in the news, we note that Environment Canada has assigned a director-general-level civil servant to spend a year working for a consortium of companies with business in the oil sands. And the Fisheries Department walked away from $8.3 million for habitat development because it comes from one of those foreign-based environmental NGOs that Joe Oliver likes to warn against.

A few weeks ago, dizzy with jet lag, I wrote that Stephen Harper’s China trip was about going all-in on a resource-export-driven economic policy, designed in part to sharpen differences with the opposition and especially with the NDP. In the short time since then, the Conservatives have if anything moved faster on that agenda, while no NDP candidate shows any sign of walking away from the fight these stark policy differences imply.

Certainly the NDP has a track record on this front. In the famous and well-loved “exploding cartoon child’s head” NDP Quebec ads from 2008, the NDP suggested that besides making our children’s heads explode and torsos dissolve, a vote for the Conservatives would “make us slaves to the oil men.”  Oh, you know what? Let’s look at that one again.

It is impossible to believe this cluster of issues — energy, the environment, trade — will not dominate the next election campaign whenever it comes. The differences between the two largest parties are stark and the stakes are high, whether you prefer to measure dollars or carbon emissions. When I say this, I’m in no way minimizing the possible political fallout from the so-called robocall controversy. That story is trouble for the Conservatives. But if none of the parties is particularly distinguishing itself with its parliamentary conduct, distracted voters could well conclude it’s an ethical wash and none of the parties has a credible claim to be able to provide more high-minded government. Such a campaign could look a little like 2011’s, which began with Parliament finding the Harper government in contempt and ended with voters increasing the Conservatives’ margin of victory.

Perhaps the Liberals will find some middle ground between the NDP and Conservatives on the energy-environment nexus, but it hardly matters. If the Liberals quadruple their seat count in the next election they still can’t form a majority government. You may be bored of the Conservative-majority-or-coalition-chaos frame from 2011, but it won’t go away in the next election, which means NDP clarity on these issues will trump artful Liberal vagueness.

Three months after the 2008 election Harper had chosen the frame he would use for the next election. Ten months after that election, I am convinced he knows how he wants to run the next one. The battle line runs right through Fort McMurray. For now the NDP seems to relish a fight on those terms.