Monday, October 19, 2015

Federal Elections and Canadian Studies

Elections are for pundits. They aren't really *for* them except in the sense that pundits love them. Their can be -- and is -- endless hours of meaningless speculation about who is doing well or saying what or who has gaffed, etc. Sports metaphors -- most unfortunately -- abound. There are, as well, endless polls on which to speculate, sometimes trials or data that can convolute matters, and all this occurs daily, as if what pundits said, daily, was important. But, if you were to ask these pundits why what was going on -- why is this election -- important, my bet is that most of them would stall out. And, what they would repeat to us is the standard stuff that a high school student might ape back on their civics test: democracy, choosing the prime minister, leadership for the next X years, where the country is going.

These are not inherently bad answers, even if they are trite. The problem is that they don't get us past trite and because of that, what might be important in this election is not being discussed, at least in the mainstream media. What I want to suggest is that there are several "storylines" (to use the jargon) that are important and are being under-reported, but to which we should pay attention because they signal a transition -- or, a potential transition -- in Canadian politics and public life. In addition, there are strong potential continuities that also bear comment and, potentially, concern. What are these storylines?

First, oil, taxes, energy and the environment. The Conservatives made hay again Stefan Dion by preaching the gospel of the tar sands. All Canadian federal governments have been, more or less, committed to the tar sands since their development started. The Liberals developed a practiced ambiguity that worried big oil and alienated some Albertans, but in practice they did nothing to stop the flow of oil from the Alberta tar sands to the US. The Conservatives hyped up this agenda by trying to build the northern gateway, lobbying relentlessly for Keystone, and sending the Minister of Natural Resources on tours of Europe to try to encourage European governments to not call tar sands oil "dirty oil" because this label would create (a) bad PR, and (b) potential lost sales. In other words, the Tories upped the Grits public indifference and practical non-interference policy to one of unmitigated support, branding anyone who suggested that the tars sands were anything but good as a wrecker of the economy, jobs, the future, family security, personal income, etc. And, this plot line was good enough to sway some voters and maintain a solid base of support in western Canada (well, more than solid) because unmitigated support for the oil industry could be rebranded as support for the west. To flip the old Reform Party saying: the west was finally in.

This plot line began to change some time ago, in slow almost unnoticeable ways. I think I noticed it on campus when it became evident that the Divest movement was picking up support and was going to eventually force serious rethinking of institutional investment priorities. It has not had this effect yet at Mount A, but it certainly has at other schools and, I think, eventually, even Mount A will realize that it cannot continue unethical anti-environmental investments (even if they do make money).

But, Divest was just a small sign. The bigger signs were the provincial elections in NB and Alberta. The NB election was about energy and, in particular, it was about fracking.  The provincial Tories focused on one issue and one issue only (in the process determining the scope of public discussion and making a mockery of an election in which there were other issues to discuss). And, they secured a certain amount of support through this focus. They argued this: environment be damned (although they said it nicer than this) because "we need jobs" and so we are going to frack regardless of what the science says and regardless of environmental harm and (as it turned out) regardless of whether or not that fracking is on aboriginal land. Acknowledging that the Tories were unpopular going into this election, what one can say is that this strategy did not work. The Conservative vote dropped by something like 13 or 14%, they lost government, and key ministers responsible for promoting fracking went down to defeat. The Green Party scored an historic victory in Fredericton and provincially captured something like 6.5% of the vote with strong areas of support on the Northumberland coast (where fracking would have occurred). In my riding, the Greens captured 15% of the vote. This followed a 2013 BC provincial election in which the Greens  took a seat and won over 8% of the vote (which was actually not an historic high) and preceded another historic win of a single seat in PEI.

Now, no one is about to argue that we are going to get Green governments. Here is what I want to point out. This movement in the vote is a minority movement. But, it has an effect because it is indicative of a broader trend -- just like Divest is. The easy acceptance of environmental destructive energy production/job creation is no longer so easily accepted. The Liberals won the provincial election in NB by maintaining the same studied indifference of their federal cousins in this election with regard to dirty energy production; that is: they were neither for it, nor against it. Instead, they proposed a moratorium on fracking that gave scientists time to study the issue and make better informed determinations.

And, that is good enough for most people because (a) it means that there will not be fracking in the short term and (b) the government (ideally) will be lead by science in terms of the effects of fracking (something rejected by provincial Tories who claimed that the scientific verdict was already in and that it was safe) and ignored by the feds, who pulled Canada out of Kyoto and made the country into an international laughing stock by virtue of their environmental policies.

What this shows us is a couple of things. #1) The times have changed. What worked four and eight years ago in terms of swaying votes with the promise of riches while ignoring the environment no longer works. Those people who are going to vote for parties that support environmentally destructive policies have already made that decision. They have already decided that short term profits are more important than long-term sustainability or they simply don't believe the science that they read with regard to environmental degradation. I suspect that this group was already voting Conservative.  Non-aligned voters who had been swayed by this argument no longer seem as easily swayed. They seem better informed about environmental issues, less willing to accept the idea that "disaster will fall" if environmentally destructive policies are not followed, and more willing to trust in the science of the matter, as opposed to ignore the science in favour of supposed economic gains.  What we have, then, is a better informed electorate -- or, what we might more accurately call a section of the electorate -- that is unwilling to easily accept environmental destructive policies and is looking for an alternative.

#2) The Tories have not realized this. It could be argued -- or, at least this is an argument I try to make in a course I teach -- that oil made Stephen Harper. It did not make him. He's not some Gollum called forth from the ground, but it clearly played a role in his victory  and he's reluctant to abandon it despite the signs that Canadians want some other policy. Hence, Harper and crew have stuck to their guns and ignored this plot line or tried to tell us that it does not exist. This is the reason that they have made war on the provincial NDP government of Alberta, a very new government. Harper's argument was, of course, silly and no one fell for it even if he and his followers (I have no doubt) believed it with every fibre of their being. His attack on provincial premiers -- particularly trying to blame ones who had been in office for a matter of months -- for economic woes that he himself was blaming on international trends went looked at federally seemed ... well ... let's call it ... odd. But, the attacks on the NDP make sense from the perspective of energy politics. They failed, and in this sense did not make sense, but they were consistent with federal Conservative views.

What was the Alberta NDP's high crime: to suggest that the oil economy had was now past its best before date. The Alberta NDP -- let us be clear -- is pretty darned far from a radical party. Its policies are basically centrist and that was the key, one might argue, to their electoral success. They went to Albertans and said "folks, we need to diversify our economy. There are a whole bunch of reasons why the oil economy is not good for us, including environmental issues, and because of this we really do need to get our butts in gear and do something about it. That is going to take a reorganization of provincial finances. It may involve changes in taxes, but if we don't do it, we really will just get ourselves deeper and deeper into both economic and environmental trouble." That was the message and, you know what, a large section of Albertans said "hmmm ... that might make sense. I didn't think that way a few years ago but now ... knowing more, looking at the instability of the oil economy, and  looking at the science of the tar sands ... well, hmm, this might be a step we need to take."

That was the crime and that was why Harper and crew were up in arms. The oil industry, they told us in the federal election campaign, hates the NDP. Canadians replied "we knew that already, but that does not mean that the idea that we need -- both economically and environmentally -- to do something about oil is incorrect." There is a reason why Harper and crew didn't get this message that is something, I think, a bit more than ideology and bit more than politics. I'll blog on that in the future. Right now what we can say is that the plot of energy politics changed -- a new storyline developed -- and that storyline is important for Canada.

There was a moment, early in the election campaign when I think I first realized that the plot was shifting. I think it was on CBC but it might have been CTV. I don't really remember which news network I was watching. Linda McQuaig, running for the NDP, very carefully and very precisely explained that Canada would likely need to leave oil in the ground if we were to meet any reasonable environmental commitment. The Tories  railed. They had, I suspect they thought, their smoking gun against the NDP, then doing fairly well in the polls.  It was, I think they thought, an "a-ha" moment, perhaps akin to Dion's carbon tax. A high profile NDP candidate had explained that full and complete development of the oil sands might not go ahead. Canadians would be ... well, I don't know what they Tories thought Canadians would be  but they clearly were not well prepared for what Canadians actually were: generally in agreement. The plot lines of this election runs through that moment. It runs back to the NB provincial election to Divest and the increased popularity (marginal though it is) of Green candidates. It will run forward past this next election.

Let us be clear: Canadians have not embraced the environment as their cause. They will elect one Green MP in this election but the discourse has changed. A larger section of the middle and working classes are better informed and less willing to sanction environmentally destructive policies. They may not vote Green but they won't vote Tory either. And this is a storyline to which we should pay attention because it is optimistic. Its a good news story ... unless you are a Conservative. Canadians don't know which way they want to go into the future, but they know which way the don't want to go. And that is one of the things we can learn from this election.
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