Friday, November 21, 2014

Interesting Times for the Green Party in Sudbury

Luckily, it doesn’t happen very often – but when it happens, you can actually feel everything start to slip sideways.  It’s not unusual for me to work on a blogpost over a period of days – or even weeks and months.  It had been my intention to polish this post and publish it on Thursday evening, the 20th of November.  However, events from earlier in the day – specifically, Sudbury NDP MPP Joe Cimino’s resignation from our provincial parliament – left me doing a bit of a rethink. 

Cimino cited no specific reasons for stepping down, although the media has reported that it appears his family life was being squeezed by the demands of his new job (Cimino came to represent the Sudbury riding in the June, 2014 election).   While the words “personal health” have been used by Cimino, the context remains somewhat unclear.  Cimino, though, has asked the public to respect his privacy and that of his family’s at this time (see: “Cimino quitsas Sudbury MPP, citing personal reasons”, the Sudbury Star, November 20, 2014).

Anyway, yesterday just didn’t feel like an appropriate day to publish a blog about how the Green Party in Sudbury now has the time to gear up towards the federal election.  Yesterday wasn’t a day for partisan politicking.  But yesterday has come and gone – and if anything, with yesterday’s unexpected news taking us all in Sudbury just a little sideways, it’s no longer  a time to remain silent.  While some of what I’ve written here clearly requires modification in light of the new reality, I’ve thought it best to leave the post generally as is (save for the addition of this introduction), with the hopes that my readers won’t hold me to anything I’ve written – specifically about planning and timing.

After this post, let the by-election begin.

May You Live in Interesting Times

It’s been an interesting month for me and my Party locally.  With municipal elections in Ontario having wound down, there’s been an exclusive focus on gearing up for the next federal election – tentatively scheduled for October, 2015.  And exciting things are starting to happen!

Dr. David Robinson

Last week, Laurentian University Professor of Economics, Dr. David Robinson, publicly confirmed that he was going to seek the Green Party of Canada’s nomination in the Sudbury riding (see: “Professor seeks Green Partynomination“, the Sudbury Star, November 14, 2014).  Speaking to the Northern Life earlier this week, Dr. Robinson shed some light on why he, a lifelong New Democrat, has made the move to the Green Party.  It’s not surprising to me that Dr. Robinson’s primary motivation has to do with climate change – and significant concerns that Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats simply don’t have their act together on how to tackle the climate crisis (see: “David Robinson seeks Green Party nomination”, the Northern Life, November 17, 2014).

I’ve known for a while that Dr. Robinson was considering taking this step – I’m glad to see that he’s made up his mind, and very glad to see that he’ll be seeking the nomination.  Earlier this summer, David was instrumental in helping grassroots members of the Party develop a comprehensive policy for the Ring of Fire.  Ultimately, this policy was proposed to the Party’s membership at our General Meeting in Fredericton, New Brunswick this past August, where it received overwhelming approval (see: “Development of theRing of Fire”, motion presented to Green Party membership).  Dr. Robinson is currently the Green Party’s shadow cabinet critic for the Natural Resources portfolio.

Developing the Ring of Fire

By adopting this comprehensive and progressive policy for the sustainable development of mining, energy, social and educational infrastructure in Northern Ontario, the Green Party has really demonstrated that it understands regional development centred on an extractive resource-based economy.  Unfortunately, at this time, few have been paying attention to our Party’s call for a dynamic approach to development.  That may begin to change, as Green MP Bruce Hyer stands for re-election in the riding of Thunder Bay – Superior North.  I’m pretty sure that Hyer will be engaging with voters on these issues.

The NDP is certainly trying to up its game on the Ring of Fire, in a bid to catch up to where the Green Party is at.  Recently, Tom Mulcair appointed former Ontario provincial NDP leader and prominent Northerner Howard Hampton to be a special liaison to his Party on the Ring (see: “Howard Hampton to advisefederal NDP on Ontario’s Ring of Fire”, November 5, 2014).  While Hampton’s duties aren’t defined, what is clear is that the NDP is eyeing Hyer’s riding, and considers all of Northern Ontario as being in play for them in the next election.

Unfortunately, from a policy perspective, the NDP seems just as wedded to a “rip and ship” mentality as the Liberals and Conservatives are.  Being immersed in this topic, I can’t help but focus on the words which New Democrats use to describe development in the Ring – their focus on “growth” and their desire to “speed things up”.  It’s all code for ignoring the fundamental realities of sustainable development in the 21st Century.  The NDP seem content to develop the Ring as they would any other 19th or 20th Century mining camp – meaning without true regard to sustainability, the natural environment or to the indigenous peoples whose communities will be most impacted by development.  While I’m encouraged to hear New Democrats (and others) talk about creating a value-added stainless steel industry in the region, I’m hearing nothing from the NDP about alternative energy and climate change.

In fact, what I’ve been hearing out of the NDP with regards to other initiatives has me supremely worried about the NDP’s real commitment to the Ring of Fire.  Actually, I’ll give the NDP the benefit of the doubt here – I know that Northern New Democrats are committed to developing the Ring of Fire, but as with many things, I don’t believe that most New Democrats have quite worked out the dynamics of their own party’s contradictory policy proposals.  In short, when it comes to the Ring of Fire, like so many things with the NDP, it’s one step forward, one step backwards.

So let me back up and explain. 

Flaws with NDP Cap & Trade Scheme

What Dr. David Robinson identified as being a concern for him with Tom Mulcair and the NDP is that party’s decision to continue to call for a cap and trade scheme as part of their platform to address climate change.  There are many huge concerns with cap and trade – from the development of the infrastructure to make it work, to the price of carbon credits, the use of offsets (or not), all the way to figuring out whether emissions have actually been reduced.  The European market has been a pretty big failure, and the Chicago market collapsed altogether a few years back.  In short, cap and trade is an overly cumbersome and expensive mechanism to reduce emissions – one that disadvantages small businesses and favours rich multinational corporations. 

The NDP likes cap and trade, however, for two reasons.   First, it hides costs.   A cap and trade scheme allows the NDP to pretend to voters that only “polluters” will pay, meaning those large emitters participating in the trading market.  And sure, that’s true – to an extent.  But ultimately the costs are going to be passed on to consumers.  The NDP, however, doesn’t want you to think about that.  In its world of game-playing and spin, the NDP wants voters to believe that we can reduce emissions at no costs to average working families.  And that’s just bunk.

NDP’s Ideologically Motivated Disdain to Carbon Taxes

The second reason that the NDP likes cap and trade is because it’s not a carbon tax.  The NDP really doesn’t like the idea of taxing carbon, and as near as I’ve been able to determine, their dislike of a carbon tax can be traced back to the NDP’s fundamental misunderstanding of economics – an area which has never been a strong suit for the New Democrats.  The NDP continues to believe that a carbon tax is a regressive tax (maybe it’s just the word “regressive” that the NDP doesn’t like) because it’s a tax on consumption.  Regressive taxes typically end up hurting those who are less well off more than they do those with higher incomes, because those with lower incomes tend to spend more and save less – they tend to consume more as a percentage of their income than the rich do.  For example, the price of bread is the same for both the rich and the poor, but buying that loaf of bread will use up more of poorer person’s income than it will a rich person’s.

However, a tax on carbon pollution isn’t exactly a typical consumption tax, as it would apply only to some consumables (actually, it would likely have an impact on many consumables, including that loaf of bread.  But many isn’t all).  If citizens decide to choose goods and services with lower carbon intensities, they’ll be paying less in terms of a tax on carbon pollution.  The fundamental difference between a carbon tax and other forms of consumption taxes (like sales taxes) is that it wouldn’t be universal.  If you want to avoid the tax, simply choose different goods and services.  In that respect, a carbon tax is actually more like a sin tax – a tax on cigarettes, for example.

However, it’s true that the range of goods and services which a carbon tax would impact is likely to be extensive, and right now, consumers may not have that many options to choose lower-intensity goods and services.  Energy is often cited as an example where substitutions simply can’t be made.  But the reality isn’t actually as black and white.  Even with energy products like gasoline and heating, there are options.  Drive less.  Take the bus.  Turn down the thermostat.  Down the road, energy bills will be driven down by cheaper renewable energy coming online in a distributed form.

The other part of the equation that the NDP typically doesn’t want to talk about with regards to a carbon tax is that every political party which has proposed a carbon tax has always done so within the confines of “revenue neutrality” – meaning that there is some mechanism also which is to be put in place to help offset the rising costs of carbon in our goods and services.  In British Columbia, the province lowered personal income taxes, putting more money back into people’s pockets, while making up lost government revenues through the carbon tax.  Stephane Dion’s Liberals proposed to do the same thing in 2008.  The Green Party proposes to pool collected revenues and return funds to Canadians in the form of a dividend cheque – a position advocated by Canada’s Citizens Climate Lobby, which estimates that two thirds of Canadian households will either break even or benefit from (see: “Here’s a tax most of us will like”, Dave Carson, the Hamilton Spectator, November 19, 2014).

But if income taxes are lowered and dividend cheques are being cut, the NDP would have to acknowledge that we individual Canadians are actually the “polluters” – and that can be a very dangerous place for the NDP to go, ideologically speaking.  The notion that hard-working every day Canadians are actually polluters is a difficult pill for New Democrats to swallow, because, after all, isn’t our economy being driven forward by this group of people?  In their play for middle class voters, the NDP (like the Liberals and the Conservatives) wants voters to believe that voters aren’t the problem when it comes to climate change.  It’s someone else’s responsibility to solve – not the responsibility of hard-working Canadians.  Because if it were actually our responsibility, we might have to consider making some changes to the way we go about living our lives – such as re-evaluating how we get around, and where we work, and our use of energy.

In short, we might have to think about whether maintaining our consumer lifestyle is in keeping with the notion of combating climate change.

Pro-Consumer Policies Over Issues of Social Justice

The NDP wants voters to believe that building pipelines to allow the Alberta tar sands to expand makes sense, so the NDP champions the Energy East bitumen pipeline because it will create well-paying Canadian jobs.

The NDP wants to make it easier for hard-working Canadians to drive their cars – so they propose building more highways, and capping the price of gasoline.  Here in Sudbury, our MP, Glenn Thibeault, has been leading the charge to have gasoline prices lowered for consumers.  In the past, the NDP has been behind similar initiatives to keep electricity rates low so that consumers have an additional incentive to continue consuming, rather than receiving incentives to conserve energy.

Of course, capping and lowering energy prices means we’re not actually paying the full price for our energy use, so we’ve got to subsidize prices.  In this scenario, consumers might not pay - but the public does, through tax subsidies.  Some might suggest that since consumers and taxpayers share the same pockets, the money is taken out of those pockets anyway, so it’s really just a wash – but the reality is that since the rich consume more energy than the middle class or the poor, it’s the middle class and the poor who end up disproportionately subsidizing the rich for their profligate energy consumption – and if that appears to be anathema to the NDP’s desire to be social justice champions, well, it is.

NDP’s Energy Policies: Not Progressive

There is nothing progressive about the NDP’s energy policies, despite voters beliefs that saving a few bucks at the pumps will ultimately make them better off.  In the long run, making it easier for people to use fossil energy means that we won’t get a handle on climate change – and the costs associated with doing so in the future are only going to be higher than if we acted now – to the tune of between 5% and 20% of global GDP as estimated by the Stern Review (2006).  In short, the NDP’s policies are prone to leave the middle class and the poor worse off than we are now.

Again – economics: not the NDP’s strong suit.

But apparently neither are long-term issues of social justice.  Policies which favour rich consumers over the least well off can hardly be described as “progressive”.

Energy East – the NDP’s Pipeline

If economics were one of the NDP’s strengths, it would be fair to say that Tom Mulcair and the NDP would not be championing TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline – a pipeline that only needs to be built if production in the Alberta tar sands is going to increase.  Make no mistake – the Province of Alberta and the oil companies, the media and almost everybody else presume that tar sands production is going to increase; the current Government of Canada believes that production will more than double over the next decade.  Never mind that former NASA scientist Dr. James Hanson referred to this development assumption as “game over for the planet” – the NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives are all embracing tar sands expansion.

At least the Conservatives and Liberals are being upfront about this.  The NDP, however, continues to want to deceive voters.  They want voters to think that they’re against pipelines – even though they favour the biggest and baddest pipeline proposals on the table, Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain (having reversed their past opposition to that B.C. pipeline).  When this kind of hypocrisy has been pointed out to the NDP, their response has been typical: we’ll deal with carbon pollution through cap and trade.

Calls from groups like and the Council of Canadians for the NDP to rethink their position on Energy East have been greeted with silence.  Even simple requests made to the NDP to call on the National Energy Board to include climate change in their review of pipelines have been met with silence and spin.  “Full environmental review” – that seems to be the term the NDP has trotted out when confronted by such calls, but it’s not at all clear whether the NDP considers the inclusion of climate change impacts as part of its “full environmental review”.  Requests for clarification continue to be rebuffed.

The NDP’s Climate Change House of Cards

And who can blame the NDP?  If they really were to call for a climate change impacts to be considered for pipeline development, their whole climate change and energy policy house-of-cards would quickly fall down.  Clearly, new pipeline proposals which facilitate tar sands expansion will have unfavourable climate change impacts.  By acknowledging this reality, the NDP would then either have to reverse itself on its support of Energy East and Trans Mountain – or it would have to acknowledge that it, like the Liberals and the Conservatives, really isn’t serious about climate change.  Their progressive façade would cave-in.

So the NDP would rather not be honest with voters about where they stand on pipelines and the tar sands.  That’s bad enough.  But when you throw into this equation the NDP’s terrible cap and trade scheme as the mechanism that it would rely on to reduce Canadian carbon emissions while simultaneously allowing the tar sands to expand, what you’ve got is an economic disaster waiting to happen – and it’s going to happen here in Ontario.

NDP’s Cap and Trade Disaster

You see, if the NDP does bring in an emissions trading scheme to cap industrial emissions, at first blush that might seem to suggest that tar sands production might also be capped.  Theoretically, it could work out that way – but realistically, it has about zero chance of doing so.  By making a commitment to pipelines and tar sands expansion – a commitment which locks Canada in to a fossil fuel future controlled by some of the world’s richest energy companies, it’s going to be very hard for other industries to compete for credits, no matter the price.  Super-rich oil companies will snap up the credits – much to the detriment of other industrial sectors, especially those which use a great deal of energy.  Here in Northern Ontario, that would be the mining sector.

Although a lot is happening to reduce the mining sector’s reliance on fossil fuels, as with just about every other sector of the economy, not a lot is happening fast.  That’s one of the reasons that we in the Green Party developed our policy on the Ring of Fire – we wanted to ensure that things roll out right the first time with regards to energy, rather than having to go back and do expensive retrofitting.  A net-zero approach to energy, therefore, has to be a starting point.  And while that only makes sense, the reality is that it’s not likely to happen (or even be on anybody’s radar) unless the Green Party forms government.  Certainly the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP with their collective “rip and ship” attitudes towards the Ring of Fire are not going to be championing a net-zero approach.

But if the NDP introduces a cap and trade system, it’s the unsuspecting mining sector which is likely to find itself at a disadvantage.  Someone is going to have to toe the line on emissions, and it’s not going to be tar sands producers, who will see that doubling of their production over the next decade (after all, they’re going to have fill those pipelines with something).

Look, I’m all for measures which will reduce carbon emissions – that’s why I’ve not been as critical of the NDP’s cap and trade scheme as others have.  I think that under the right circumstances, a cap and trade scheme really could work to reduce emissions.  Unfortunately, by embracing pipelines and the expansion of the tar sands, the NDP (and the Liberals and Conservatives) would not be creating those “right circumstances”.  In fact, it would be a disaster to implement cap and trade while simultaneously encouraging tar sands expansion – as Tom Mulcair would have Canada do should he become Prime Minister.

Only the Green Party has a Consistent Approach to Climate Change

The same would not be true of a carbon tax, as a carbon tax would hit all producers -  big, medium sized and small - the same.  Big rich multinationals would be no more or less disadvantaged by a carbon tax as other competitors.  The oil and mining industry would both be affected, but by a uniform price – and hopefully forced to innovate as a result.  A carbon tax would not seek to create favorites – or economic winners and losers amongst polluters – in the same way that an emissions trading scheme would.  A carbon tax alone would not necessarily slow down production in the tar sands, but it would help level the playing field for renewable energy producers who aren’t treating our atmosphere like an open sewer.

So, you can see that the NDP really doesn’t have its act together on climate change – and by not having its act together on climate change, it’s getting too many other things wrong, as well, including its stance on social justice issues, and Northern Ontario’s economy.  This is obvious to me, and I’m not a social justice advocate or an economist.  I’m just some guy with a blog who has read a thing or two about energy politics, and who has come to understand the economics of mining.  Sure, I’ve got a partisan axe to grind, but it’s a pretty blunt axe seeing as how I’m with the Green Party – an outfit not exactly well-known for its partisanship.

In Pursuit of Power, NDP Has Abandoned its Principles

It’s these sorts of inconsistencies, however, which many progressives are starting to find when we take a close look at what the NDP is really talking about.  There are also inconsistencies with the NDP’s proposed marquee child care plan, which will favour the rich over the poor.  The NDP also seems to have embraced sovereignty-destroying investor-trade dispute provisions in so-called “free trade” deals, with members here in Sudbury and Nickel Belt recently voting to support the Canada-South Korea trade deal which included these provisions.  Eliminating barriers to trade is one thing – but allowing secret star chambers to rule on the applicability of Canadian environmental laws is quite another.  Didn’t the NDP learn a damn thing from NAFTA?  With Quebec now facing a Chapter 11 challenge from a U.S. fracking firm over that province’s ban on natural gas fracking, we can only expect more such challenges from other multinationals who may be similarly impacted.  So much for our elected governments having the right to decide what activities can take place in their jurisdictions.  Already the Province of Ontario suffered a defeat at the World Trade Organization because it wanted to prioritize buying local (and creating local jobs) over opening up contracts to international competition. 

In light of this, is it any wonder that former NDP members like Dr. David Robinson are looking around for a new home, and discovering the Green Party?  NDP members and supporters may continue to think that their party has the best interests of low income and middle class Canadians at heart – but the NDP’s policies, when put together, really end up favouring the rich and disadvantaging the poor.  As hard as that may be to believe, upon careful review, it’s the only conclusion that I’ve come to.  And it’s not just me who is coming to that conclusion. 

The Green Party is the Only Progressive Option

While the NDP might be talking a better game than the Liberals and the Conservatives, increasingly progressives are noticing that the Green Party appears to have inherited the mantle of Tommy Douglas – I know that sounds like heresy, but really, is Tom Mulcair’s pitch to Canadians (or Andrea Horwarth’s to Ontarians) on the same planet as Douglas?  Where there was once vision in the NDP, we are now stuck with spin and game-playing, all in the pursuit of power.  We’re left with a buffet of policy options, many of which conflict with each other and will have perverse outcomes should they ever be implemented.  The NDP isn’t thinking holistically or comprehensively – certainly not in the same way that the Green Party has been thinking for the past decade or more. 

So yes, clearly I’m excited about what the future holds for the Green Party, especially here in Sudbury and the Nickel Belt.  Although I can’t presuppose who might end up with the Sudbury nomination, Sudbury Greens would certainly be well-served by Dr. Robinson.  Robinson knows Northern Ontario, he understands carbon pricing, and he has seen through the NDP’s contradictory and ultimately destructive policy environment.  He would be a formidable challenger to nice-guy Glenn Thibeault, Sudbury’s NDP MP, and to whoever ends up with the Liberal nod and has to champion whatever thin gruel Justin Trudeau lets them speak about.

 (opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)


The Mound of Sound said...

Steve, you're so invested in this it's a shame you're not running for the Green Party. I think you would be a great candidate.

Sudbury Steve said...

Thanks for that vote of confidence, MOS. We've actually got a spectacular individual who is seeking the nomination in the Sudbury riding. Dr. David Robinson is a Professor of Economics at Laurentian University, and has long been a believer in carbon taxes. He's an accomplished author and a real media "go-to" person on stories pertaining to Northern Ontario's economy. He'll do us proud in the federal election for sure.

As for the provincial by-election, I'm sure that we'll find a great candidate to run. For me, it would be very difficult - my wife and I have three small children (the same as former Sudbury MPP Joe Cimino, as a matter of fact), and I'd have to leave my job to run. It would be difficult, for sure - but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't thinking about it. By-elections like this are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, even when facing Liberal and NDP machines (look at what Chris Turner accomplished in Calgary Centre in 2012, starting with very little).

So, we'll have to see. I've been pretty sick all weekend, with a throat so sore that I've got to communicate with my wife through FB messages. When I can actually talk to her, we'll make some decisions.