Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Speaking Against the Proposed Barrydowne Highway

Last night, I attended a very interesting public meeting on routes proposed for the Barrydowne Extension. If you're not from Sudbury, you're probably not familiar with this issue, which, along with its partner, the Maley Drive Extension, has been around now for about 20 years or so. However, if you live in an urban or suburban centre, you've probably run into the issue of extending roadways as a means to alter existing traffic flow. I'm reminded of what's currently going on in Ottawa with the Terry Fox Extension.

Some quick history and geography for background: New Sudbury is a suburban enclave on the old City of Sudbury's northeast corner. It is somewhat separated from the rest of Sudbury, and there are only a few major thoroughfares along which Sudburians can travel from New Sudbury to the older parts of Sudbury: you can travel west along Lasalle Blvd., and then south along Notre Dame; or you can travel south along Barrydowne Road (or Falconbridge Highway, which is a little further out), and then west on the Kingsway. That's pretty much the grid.

To the northwest of New Sudbury is the community of Garson, which has turned into a fairly suburban community over the past several decades, although it does have an older section. If you're travelling from Garson to Sudbury, you'll use the Falconbridge Highway, and either continue south to the Kingsway or head west into New Sudbury along Lasalle. Needless to say, at certain times of the day, all of these roads are quite congested, and especially Lasalle Blvd., which is the only east-west link north of the Kingsway.

North of Sudbury is the Valley. This sprawling series of communities consists of Val Caron, Val Therese, and Hanmer. About 25,000 people live there, and mostly on very large residential lots. If you live in the Valley, there are only two main ways to access Sudbury: you travel straight down a road which turns into Notre Dame, or you head around through Garson, and end up on Falconbridge. Neither way is direct from Hanmer. Picture a big circle, with Sudbury at the bottom and Hanmer at the top. The idea of the Barrydowne Extension is that instead of travelling along the circumference of the circle, this new road will connect the two communities through the diameter. And suburban New Sudbury will find itself at ground zero for this traffic.
When New Sudbury was built, apparently Barrydowne Road was only a two lane road. It headed north from Lasalle, and served the interior curvilinear cul-de-sacs and collector roads. It terminated essentially in the middle of nowhere, although Maley Drive was ultimately built so that Barrydowne doglegged to the east at Maley Drive, and connected with Falconbridge, the main highway between Sudbury and Garson and other communities (including Falconbridge, Skead and Capreol). When Cambrian College was built on Barrydowne, the road was widened to four lanes, and slices of property belonging to residential owners were expropriated at the time for the widening. Barrydowne has since turned into a bit of an arterial road, yet with people's driveways accessing directly on to the street, it still retains its residential feel to an extent.

The City has been moving ahead with extending Maley Drive westward from where it currently terminates at Barrydowne, bringing it all the way over to Notre Dame and beyond. There is to be a cloverleaf interchange at Maley and Notre Dame. The stated intent of this extension is to free up traffic along the Kingsway and especially Lasalle, which are the only two east-west corridors in the northern part of the City. People travelling from the Valley will now be able to use Maley Drive to access the shopping centres in New Sudbury along Lasalle at Barrydowne, and further south at Barrydowne and the Kingsway. The problem is, though, to do so, they'll be travelling through the very residential section of Barrydowne north of Lasalle, or filtering through some of the side-streets. Truck traffic may opt to head all the way over to Falconbridge, which would probably be a good thing, because Lasalle Blvd is currently quite clogged with trucks. However, with other options available to motorists and truckers alike, it's no surprise that the residents of New Sudbury are concerned about adding to the already extant traffic woes on what were supposed to be residential collector streets at best.

What is a surprise is that the residents of New Sudbury have been rather silent and unorganized in their opposition to Maley Drive, which is sure to change the character of their neighbourhood. Right now, it looks like Maley Drive is a done deal, although I heard last night that the City is still looking for funding partners from senior levels of government.

Enter the Barrydowne Extension, which will act as a Highway from Hanmer. And that's not an exaggeration. We learned last night that this new road, whatever route it is to take, will be a four lane divided highway, cutting straight through the wilderness for about 10 km. This will shave considerable distance on the round trip from Hanmer to New Sudbury. But it will strand motorists in a very residential section of New Sudbury with little choice but to clog Barrydowne Road between Maley Drive (where the divided highway is to end) and Lasalle Blvd. Again, this section of Barrydowne includes churches, Cambrian College, and numerous residential homes, mainly in the form of single-detached housing.

After seeing the plans for the Barrydowne Highway last night, I was reminded a little bit of how the Allen Expressway terminates abruptly at Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, in a fairly residential neighbourhood. Of course, at the time of the Allen's planning, the Spadina Expressway was supposed to cut through the heart of that residential neighbourhood, and was only stopped when residents banded together. Today, the situation on the ground there isn't the greatest, with traffic from the 401 forced to filter through the side streets south of Eglinton, or more often, just clog up Eglinton.

The difference with the Barrydowne Highway, though, is that there will be an extremely limited number of choices for motorists: they'll be able to head east or west along Maley Drive (although that won't really take people anywhere much; since the destinations are in New Sudbury, there's little point in heading away), or they'll be able to filter first eastward along Maley to Lansing, and through that residential neighbourhood down to Lasalle. The truth is, I can't see how most motorists would do anything other than to continue to head down Barrydowne to Lasalle, given that Wal-Mart and the New Sudbury Centre mall, and the power centre are all located on Barrydowne south of Lasalle.

If the Spadina Expressway was going to be a divide in an established residential area, the Barrydowne Highway is going to completely transform the traffic situation in New Sudbury.
At last night's meeting, which was ostensibly about route planning (although I don't think that the differences between the route options were ever discussed, including by the engineering consultant presenting...not that there was that much difference between those routes), the residents of New Sudbury went off on the City for entertaining what, in their minds, is a crazy idea which will destroy their community. The City listened, and to its credit, provided good responses when it could, even though most of the questions were clearly outside of the scope of what the public meeting was supposed to be about.

4 municipal councillors were in attendance to witness the fireworks, including Councillor Ted Callaghan, whose ward will be most impacted (although Callaghan won't be returning as Ward 8 Councillor, now that he's thrown his hat in the ring to contest the Mayor's position); Councillor Landry-Altman, from nearby Ward 12 (which includes the western part of New Sudbury along the top of which Maley Drive will run) was also there, along with exurban councillors Ron Dupuis (Ward 5; the southern part of the Valley) and Councillor Andre Rivest (Ward 6, Hanmer), who has been instrumental in moving the Barrydowne Extension issue forward through this term of Council. Also present was Leo Bisson, who is running for the position of Ward 8 Councillor, to replace Ted Callaghan. A meeting was held in Hanmer the night before, which I did not attend; however, I heard that the tone of the meeting there was substantially different from the tone of the New Sudbury meeting.

In short, residents were furious. They did not understand why consultation was taking place on this matter now; it appeared as if Barrydowne was going to be another “done deal” despite years of opposition. We learned from the City that the 2005 Transportation Study, prepared as background for the City's Official Plan, identified the Barrydowne Extension as a potential way of alleviating traffic volumes along Notre Dame, coming into the City from the Valley. That study, which may have been in part based on bloated population projections, called for further studies, and Council has continued to move forward. The Route Planning Study, prepared by AECOM Engineering, was the next step. The proposed routes were overflown by helicopters and mapping was prepared, including topographical cross-sections. All in all, when asked, the staggering price of $100,000 was offered up for the completion of this one study. Yet when asked about environmental features, such as wildlife habitat or significant wetlands, through which these proposed routes were to traverse, AECOM admitted that wasn't part of their mandate, and that consultation with outside agencies (presumably the Conservation Authority and the Ministry of Natural Resources) would only occur after the preferred route was selected for protection.

More than anything else, that really stung me. It boggles my mind that those charged with assessing the best route would leave those sorts of “environmental details” to a later date, while the engineering considerations (and there are many) for both suggested routes have received almost all of the attention. The blasting of rock and filling of wetlands seem to be more important to building a highway than the impacts on the natural features along its route. Again, I think the people of Ottawa opposing the Terry Fox Extension are familiar with this. No doubt it happens all of the time, because we treat the natural environment as an after-thought.

It also appeared that the residents of New Sudbury were going to be treated as afterthoughts as well. Unlike the fish, the birds and the deer, however, New Sudbury residents can actually voice their concerns, and get themselves organized to save their neighbourhood.

It wasn't all negativity last night. Some really good alternative suggestions for the very real traffic problem in New Sudbury were proposed by some of the residents. One enlightened resident suggested that the City look at putting funds into transit so that residents of the Valley would have better choices when making their way into the City. Currently, bus service to and from the Valley leaves a lot to be desired. It was also suggested that instead of focusing growth in the Valley (which is primarily car-oriented, very low density residential..which might explain the lousy bus service), why not either focus development within areas of the City which are more transit-supportive, or help Valley communities intensify, so that transit can become a more viable and economic option. Catering to car-culture, in times of rising gasoline prices, just didn't make sense any more. And no, this comment was not made by me!

The response was, of course, that this wasn't the mandate of this Study, and that you could bring those things forward at the review of the next Official Plan, or perhaps the Environmental Assessment process, blah blah. Essentially, these sorts of issues are too big for the City to grapple with, unless there seems to be some clear political direction. In a City where senior staff believe the City should be looking to the province to regulate drive-throughs in the same way that the province regulates smoking and pesticide use, I don't have a lot of hope that anyone is going to try to address changing our culture of building cities for cars rather than for people. At least, certainly not on their own initiative.

So that leaves it up to the people. We need to be bold, and we need to step forward and tell our elected officials that this isn't what we want for our community. I know that many people are skeptical of this approach. We often hear that “City Hall” just doesn't want to listen. There's some truth to that, but it's not always that way. Many municipal councillors really don't have an agenda beyond trying to do what's right or best for their constituents. For example, Councillor Rivest, I'm sure, believes that the Barrydowne Extension is a good thing, because it will mean easier access for his constituents to shopping and recreation in Sudbury. Councillor Landy-Altman and Candidate Leo Bisson may have serious concerns because of what will happen to their New Sudbury constituents.

For me, this isn't an issue which pits the access needs of Valley residents against the desires of New Sudbury to limit traffic volumes in their neighbourhoods. It's much bigger than that. It's about how we build cities, and for whom. It's about what priorities we, as residents of a City, have for our community. It's about the need to start thinking more about people, and less about cars, because frankly, there just aren't going to be as many cars on the road in the coming decades, as gas prices and poverty increase.

I believe that the cost of building the Barrydowne Highway could be better invested in things this City needs: more transit, better alternative transportation opportunities, such as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. The goal should be to create a healthier, more eco-friendly community, rather than to continue to facilitate a car-culture, which will increasingly become the realm of the rich. Already in sprawling Sudbury, one third of our driving age residents rely on other forms of transportation to get around. Many of these people are living on fixed incomes. The Barrydowne Highway (even with bikes permitted on the shoulder) will do little for these members of our community. It will not contribute to creating a vibrant, healthy, sustainable community.

Luckily, the residents of New Sudbury have finally decided to get themselves organized. A few people volunteered to take this task on last night, so that residents could speak with a clear and united voice in opposition to this costly, neighbourhood destroying highway. When people band together, we can achieve remarkable results. There is still time to kill this highway. I expect that Sudburians from across the City will see the folly in proceeding, especially when a price-tag is attached. Right now, Maley Drive is up to an anticipated cost of $111 million, with the City intending to be on the hook for about $40 million or so (and currently without senior levels of government as funding partners, which may be troubling to the City given the orgy of roadwork which the feds have financed here already). How much might the Barrydowne Highway cost, in total? At least another hundred million, possibly several.

It's also time to begin treating the natural environment and greener transportation alternatives as more than just afterthoughts in the transportation planning process. For too long, building roads has been about engineering, and not about impacts on social matters, such as communities, or the natural environment. When you go out to the public and ask for input on preferred routes, it should no longer come as a surprise that the first question you're going to get is why on earth are you thinking about doing this in the first place, and have you explored any other alternatives? Are the population projections from the Official Plan playing themselves out now, 5 year later on? And do they continue to be supportable given the current and expected economic climate?

No, the Barrydowne Highway isn't what this City needs. All of the rest of us need to take a cue from what's going on in New Sudbury, as this issue is bigger than Wards 8 & 12; it effects all of us, because we pay taxes, and because we live here and dream of how great our community could be if we began to shift its priorities.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Sad Day for Local Democracy in Greater Sudbury: City Shuts Down Public Input into Changes to Proposed Zoning By-law Related to Drive-throughs

I just returned home from a local council meeting. Or, more correctly, the continuation of a meeting of Planning Committee, which is a Committee of Council, consisting of 5 council members; they make recommendations to council on various sorts of land use matters. A meeting on the City's new zoning by-law was held on June 1st, and most of the issues related to the zoning by-law appeared to have been resolved, except for a matter related to rooming houses, which did get resolved at the meeting. However, out of the woodwork and at the last minute, there arose a new issue, brought to the City's attention by the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA). They were very concerned with the City's modest proposal to regulate drive-throughs.

I was at the meeting on the 1st to discuss another matter (one I had blogged about earlier related to neighbourhood gardens, the fourth item in this blogpost). I was not particularly familiar with what the City had proposed to do, through zoning, to regulate drive-throughs, but from what I gathered it amounted to the following situation:

Currently, there are no restrictions on drive-throughs anywhere in the City. The City has an Official Plan which has a policy prohibiting drive-throughs in the downtown core, and one of the things the new zoning by-law would do would be to cast this prohibition into law. Further, drive-throughs, now identified as a specific land use, would be restricted to certain zones (C2 and C5 zones) whereas now they are able to locate just about anywhere. Also, there would be queuing requirements for the first time, meaning that new drive-throughs would need enough space on the ground for 13 vehicles to line up. And new setbacks from residential uses were also proposed: 15 metres from queuing lines to residential lot lines, and 30 metres from order boxes.

After almost 6 months of public consultation, ORHMA wrote a letter to the City, received on the day of the final public meeting. ORHMA took issue with just about everything proposed by the City. Up until that point, a local citizen's organization (of which I am a member) called The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury was the only person or public body to be on record about drive-throughs (The Coalition essentially said, “That's a good start, but really you should be regulating drive-throughs in certain identified high-traffic pedestrian, cycling and transit areas of the city, as drive-throughs have an impact on the pedestrians and cyclists and buses trying to get to where they are going due to vehicles queuing onto streets).

After listening to ORHMA's presentation at the June 1st meeting, I couldn't help but jumping up and speaking about this issue, as it was apparent to me that ORHMA's request for change was going to be taken seriously. A number of local fast food restaurant owners also spoke in favour of the changes requested. I didn't want Planning Committee to hear only one side of the issue, so I opened my big mouth and stepped right into it.

Interestingly, I had written a letter to the Sudbury Star just a few days before, based on a report prepared by Statistics Canada which arrived at the conclusion that Sudbury is the second dirtiest city in Canada when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles. I posted this letter to my blogsite on May 26th, a couple of days before the meeting, so some of the numbers were fresh in my mind when I gave my off-the-cuff presentation. The Sudbury Star published my letter a week and a half ago (under the better and more concise headline: Sudbury second dirtiest city in Canada), which was timely, because I was urging people to come out and support the Sustainable Mobility Plan, prepared by Rainbow Routes. Council accepted this Plan last Wednesday night, June 16th. The plan calls for the City to make a priority of establishing more pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and improvements to transit.

Back to June 1st. I talked a lot about climate change and how personal vehicle use contributes. I told Planning Committee that we can't stop vehicles from idling in many circumstances, such as when they are stuck in traffic or at rail crossings; decisions to idle or not are really up to the owner of the vehicles. What we can do, however, is create fewer opportunities for idling vehicles. Drive-throughs are a convenience, and one we now know we can live without. This convenience is needlessly contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't matter if cars become more fuel efficient, the fact is that vehicles cued in lines at drivethroughs almost invariably emit greenhouse gases when there is no good reason for it.

I indicated that I supported somewhat what the City appeared to be trying to do, by providing regulations which would make it a little more difficult for new drive-throughs to locate. A step in the right direction, if a very small one. Ultimately, Planning Committee deferred making a decision on this matter, and directed staff to meet with both ORHMA and the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury. Those meetings took place, and each side was able to expand on their issues and identify possible solutions.

City staff appear to have worked with ORHMA to address many of their issues, and proposed changes were provided to the public through a staff report released late on Friday afternoon (Planning Committee confirmed that they received the report at the same time). Gone was the approach of identifying drive-throughs as a specific use, and adopted was ORHMA's call to treat them as accessories. This seems a small change, but what it does is opens up all sorts of locations where drive-throughs can now choose to locate as-of-right, without going through a rezoning process. All commercial and industrial zones are now in play, whereas for 6 months up until last Friday, anyone picking up the draft zoning by-law would have seen these uses restricted to only C2 and C5 zones.

Setbacks were reduced to only 15 metres from residential lot lines. Queuing lines were down to 8 vehicles. Agreed, that this is still better than what we have today (no regulation), but it falls short of what Sudburians might have expected had they been reading the draft by-law.

What all of this means is that the City will accomplish its goals regarding drive-throughs by using a process called “Site Plan Control”. This is not a public process. There is no opportunity for meaningful public input. It's a discussion between the City and a developer, which, if the developer does not like, they can bump up to the Ontario Municipal Board, where it remains a process which provides no opportunity for meaningful input by the public. Had the starting point been an application to rezone, it would have been a public process. For all drive-throughs proposed outside of C2 and C5 zones, the public would have had an opportunity to be engaged under the original draft by-law; under the new proposal, too bad so sad, the door is closed and the public is being kept out.

A number of speakers identified this approach as a significant change from what was originally proposed. I was one of them. I suggested that it was incumbent on Planning Committee to take this back to the public. It was not right for this change to go forward now because ORHMA showed up at the last minute, and worked with staff to achieve just about everything that they wanted. And, having only a weekend to notify the public through the internet about this issue, it was simply unreasonable and undemocratic to move forward.

I didn't think that Planning Committee was going to be swayed by this argument, because they have other timelines to keep. So despite the fact that the draft by-law was experiencing this comprehensive change with extremely limited input from the public and at the very last possible moment in the public consultation process, it was not enough to sway 3 of 5 councillors from voting to accept the new changes and put an end to this process.

Councillors Calderelli and Berthiaume, at least, were not in favour of moving ahead at this time. Councillor Calderellli went so far as to suggest that she did not support the proposed changes, that they did not represent the values of our community as they relate to building sustainable, healthy communities. But Councillors Craig, Rivest and Dutrisac (who had been wavering) ultimately voted to accept the changes.

Now, the truth is, I doubt very much that I would have been satisfied with any outcome here, short of outlawing all new drive-throughs in the City, and that just wasn't in the cards. What I at least thought that Planning Committee might do is take this issue back to the public, in a similar manner in which the Rooming House issue played itself out. Given that the expression of concern from ORHMA arrived at the 11th hour of the public consultation process, and given that staff's proposed changes had been available for public consumption for 3 days, two of which were on the weekend, it seemed sensible to me that Planning Committee go and solicit more public input on the significant changes proposed. But was more expedient to simply move ahead. They didn't even want to hear any other voices.

This was a very sad night for local democracy, no matter what your feelings about drive-throughs. When our elected officials shut the door on a severely flawed public process, the interests of the community are not served. I'm not naive enough to think that the ultimate resolution of this issue might have been any different than the one arrived at tonight, but without the benefit of hearing from the voices of the public who have been engaged in the public zoning process, the interests of our community can not have been served. You can't bait and switch at the last minute, substituting one approach for another at the very last minute, and say that the public had an opportunity to voice their opinion. There simply was not enough time.

What I hope to take away from this is that the City is at least taking some very modest steps to further regulate drive-throughs. The existing prohibition on drive-throughs in the City's downtown core was a positive start, and now some very small restrictions related to setbacks and queuing requirements are beginning to create a body of policy and regulation in this City which is moving this issue in a particular direction. The 5 year review of the City's Official Plan will be starting in just a few years. Time enough for those of us concerned about climate change to get out act together. I have no doubt that the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association will be lobbying the City to remove the prohibition, and maybe even making an argument that drive-throughs are actually good for lowering emissions (I understand that they have the studies!). We will be ready to take them on, and we will be ready to tell our Council that combating climate change has to occur at all levels of decision making, including the municipal level. Drive-throughs are a part of the culture of convenience which we can no longer afford to indulge. Their time has come and gone.

We will be ready in 2012 for the 5 year Official Plan review. Game on.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is the Green Party Ready for a Shot-Gun Wedding of the Liberals and the NDP?

It’s beginning to look like something serious really is going on behind-the-scenes with the Liberals and NDP. Today, CBC News is reporting that talks are on regarding a possible merger: Liberal-NDP Insiders Talk Merger. Liberal insider Warren Kinsella, former advisor to Jean Chretien, is reported by CBC as saying, "The reality is that we (the Liberals) are in a bad position. Serious people are involved in discussions at a serious level." So, it really does look like the potential of a merger is being investigaed, as per Chretien’s "If it’s doable, do it" sentiment expressed last week.

The merger talks appear to be on, despite the apparent denial by both the Liberal Party and the NDP that talks are taking place. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, apparently had slammed the door shut on the possibility of a coalition with the NDP, not to mention to a merger. Why should Ignatieff be honest with Canadians about what’s going on behind closed doors? These parties have never been truly honest with Canadians about what they would do if they formed government, so why start now?

I’m not certain that a merger between the Liberals and NDP would be in the interests of Canadians, but I’m leaving the door open to the possibility that it might be. Certainly, any party being led by Michael "Tar Sands Forever" Ignatieff is, in my books, a non-starter. The Liberal Party of Canada, as currently constituted, has nothing of value to add to the Canadian conversation about the future which we need to engage in...other than to pipe up and say, "We’re not the Stephen Harper Conservatives!", which might be the single valid point they bring to the conversation. Still, that’s not enough.

The NDP, however, occupies a bit of a different location on the spectrum of addressing many of the issues the Liberals and Conservatives both fail to acknowledge as important issues. Certainly the NDP have been far more pro-active on climate change; it was an NDP private-members bill which eventually became the Climate Change Accountability Act, which while still a very flawed piece of legislation (it says little about how Canada will actually achieve the ambitious CO2 reduction targets it sets), is still a step in the right direction. From a policy perspective, the NDP has a lot to offer in terms of framing a conversation about the future.

From an implementation perspective, however, the NDP has traditionally proven itself to be another woeful example of how a mainstream party talks the talk while in opposition, but once in power, all of its ambition goes out of the window. Now, I know that the Federal NDP has never been in power, however it’s Provincial Partners have formed governments in B.C., Ontario, Saskatchewan, and most recently in Nova Scotia. By way of example, all of these Provincial NDP parties say that they believe in democratic renewal and the need to assess changes to our electoral systems, some with a bent towards implementing proportional representation to better elect a parliament which reflects the true will of voters. However, in power, none of these parties have done anything to actually address the democratic deficit (Liberal parties in both B.C. and Ontario held lop-sided referendums, but the NDP hasn’t ever walked their talk).

Further, the NDP continues to be mired in the politics of yesterday. It continues to view our political reality as carefully segmented into discrete issues: the economy; the environment; housing; etc. Although it has started to move in a direction of addressing all issues holistically through interconnected policy proposals (linking housing and poverty, for example, to building better communities), the NDP can’t seem to adequately wrap its head around why it’s important for local solutions to be discussed and implemented around matters which affect individuals. Truly, the NDP remains a party of "big government", looking for big solutions to problems which might better be served by more local initiatives. In the year 2010, to me, this is further evidence that the NDP remains stuck in the politics of the brown economy.

And finally, the NDP is very good with production value. They are a slick political machine, excellent at staying on message. I’m not sure that any government run by Jack Layton would be all that different than Stephen Harper’s in terms of command and control from the centre. The NDP have invested heavily in the sound-bite politics of spin. While one can argue that they’ve also experiences some real electoral successes from such investment, I would suggest that this is not the sort of politics that Canada needs to address the very real issues facing us in the next several decades. Partisan rhetoric and politicking will do little to lay the necessary groundwork to move Canada from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green economy.

If the NDP and the Liberals get their collective acts together before the next election or not remains to be seen. I strongly suspect that they won’t, and I don’t even think that they will have a riding-by-riding agreement not to oppose each other. I do, however, suspect that if the numbers work out after the next election, we could be in for a Liberal-NDP government, likely supported by the Bloc, and potentially by other parties (like the Greens) on an issue-by-issue basis.

However, what might happen if a merger proves to be successful? And how might that impact the Green Party? Of course, the answer to these questions would depend on the resolution of two big issues: what sorts of policies would the "Liberal Democrats" adopt, and who would lead the Party.

Regarding policies, given issues related to timing, the new Liberal Democrats might have to ask Canadians to trust them, while putting out a hasty and vaguely worded platform which would appeal to centre-left voters. Details likely would be filled in later. In many respects, this is where the Liberal Party seems to be headed today anyway: "Trust us, we’ll do well by you. Oh, and we’re not the Harper Conservatives". The Liberal Democrats, however, would be able to add the post-script, "We’ll get our act together in short order, when there’s a little more time, after the election when we form government". Essentially, voters will be asked to cast their ballots based on hope, rather than ideas. Since it’s already been suggested that elections are notoriously poor times to have policy discussions anyway, the Liberal Democrats could certainly pull off winning without saying much about what, exactly, they might do with the power they’re asking Canadians to give to them.

The Leader question is much more relevant. A recent poll has suggested that Jack Layton, or even Bob Rae, would be a much better leader of a united Liberal/NDP government than Ignatieff. Since many Libs want to dump the underperforming Iggy anyway, I just could not see Ignatieff leading a new party. So...what about Jack Layton? I admire Layton, although I wish that he weren’t so slick and would actually address real issues rather than grandstanding. But I would have to think that as part of the Liberal concession, a leader would have to come from their ranks. So, what about Bob?

Now, I understand that Bob Rae has a lot of baggage, both with voters and in his own Party. He might even carry more baggage as a result of a Liberal/NDP merger, as I understand that there are many in the NDP who see him as a turncoat traitor (I wonder why). I don’t know if he would be palatable to a new party, but I think a Liberal Democrat party would be well-served.

Of course, outsiders should also be considered: how about Roy Romanow, or even Dalton McGuinty? McGuinty, in particular, would be well-suited to lead, given his more fiscally-conservative leanings.

Now, what about the Green Party? A Liberal-NDP merger would present both an opportunity and a threat to the Green Party. The threat comes from the notion that the "left" is uniting in an effort to dump Harper, so why should voters turn to the Green Party when the goal is to oust the Conservatives? Don’t discount this threat, as it’s very real. However, I believe that the opportunities for our Party are far greater.

Greens would be able to benefit by making a clear impression with Canadians that our Party offers an even more real alternative between a new form of science and policy-led democracy on the one hand, and partisan politicking on the other. With a platform which outlines what, exactly, voters could expect if they elected Greens, we would likely be ahead of an airy-fairy "vote for us, we’ll figure these things out later" Liberal-NDP merged Party. Further, we could use this opportunity to play up our fiscally-responsible approach to budgeting, including putting a price on carbon (and set out how, exactly, we would do that). Canadians, I would hope, would be able to compare our approaches to that of the other Parties: where we’ve given some thought to doing things, and doing them well and differently, the other parties continue to offer vague promises with little or nothing tangible attached.

Greens need to start thinking about how we would strategically place ourselves should the federal political landscape suddenly shift. As a first priority, we should engage in significant outreach to disenchanted NDP and Liberals, especially those currently in parliament. I’m not suggesting that Stephane Dion would be one of the disenchanted, but his personal politics have always appeared to me to be much closer with our party’s ideology than that of his own. At the very least, we should start courting him and others. And then there are the "blue Liberals" who might not feel at home in a merger with the NDP, and who could see the financially sound policies our Party has on offer.

To take advantage, though, we’ll need to have our Leader do the bulk of the work with sitting MP’s. We need to start outreach at lower levels right now, including at the EDA level in those areas like Sudbury where one or the other of the Liberal or NDP currently have an MP. If those two parties merge, there will be a few upset locals, including some currently nominated candidates, who may have to give up their dreams of parliament in favour of an incumbent from the "other side". Nominated NDP candidates with an environmental bent in particular might make excellent acquisitions. We need to start thinking ahead.

Now, some in the Green Party might think that ending up in bed with the Liberals and NDP would benefit Canada and the environmental movement. They may rationalize that if we added our 10% of the vote share to a United Left movement, the anticipated benefits from ousting Harper would outweigh our lack of involvement, so let’s jump on the bandwagon. To those Greens, I really want to point out that a united Liberal-NDP party would still represent the old way of thinking about politics, and more importantly, thinking about "big government" solutions to the many issues facing Canada today.

A Liberal-Democrat Party would surely remain beholden to the interests of corporate Canada at the expense of being able to move forward with real reform in areas where its needed. The "environment" (whatever that is) would remain a secondary afterthought, while the "economy" (whatever that is) would continue to be placed at the fore-front of policy and legislative initiatives. Instead of looking at the environment and the economy as parts of a wider system, the political culture of both of these to-be-merged parties would continue to lead Canada in a direction which is ultimately not beneficial for Canadians.

In short, if Greens want a green government, we need to encourage voters to cast their ballots for a Green Party. And right now, that’d be us: the Green Party of Canada. It won’t be the Liberal-Democrats.

While I agree that getting rid of the Conservatives would be a wonderful, liberating, and sublime experience, I’m not sure that there is a lot of real benefit with believing that a merged Liberal/NDP would take the real step which need to be taken to address the many issues Canada is facing. Both the Liberals and the NDP are part of the current problem with democracy in this country. I just don’t see how a shot-gun wedding of these two parties could truly be part of a solution.

(originally posted at Green Party of Canada blogsite)