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Can the workers’ party be environmentalist?

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Ontario is heading for a Provincial election. So far, the campaign is a banal parade of attacks on the incumbent Liberals, with both opposition parties promising tax cuts with little or no attempt to explain how this will not worsen an already dire fiscal situation. There is one interesting development though that may have national implications. The NDP are losing their Environmentalist base. This was pointed out by Martin Cohn in the Toronto Star; http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1046644--cohn-ndp-losing-its-green-allies.

He notes that The Suzuki Foundation has endorsed the Liberal Party in the coming contest. Another group, Environmental Defence, has withdrawn support and openly attacked the NDP platform.

Ostensibly, this retreat is credited to NDP campaign promises like reducing the HST on gasoline and lukewarm to cold support for wind power. The Ontario Liberals, on the other hand, have a track record of very expensive subsidies to the renewable energy industry. Environmentalist support is fleeing to the Liberals and the Greens.

To some, this is a shocking re-alignment.  But, on further reflection, no one should be surprised. Political parties are coalitions of citizens and groups, not all of who’s interests are aligned. While he NDP has enjoyed environmentalist support in the past, as the party of youthful urban idealism and with the least pro-business bias, environmentalism is not necessarily a natural “left” issue. 

Leaving aside the gross inadequacy of the “left/right spectrum”, one needs to ask the question; can the party of the working class be the party of the environment?

The NDP is first a working class party. It has rural populist roots in the country combined with a more modern unionist workers rights agenda in the city. Neither of these bases takes naturally to environmentalism. Sure, if we can truly think in the long run, we should all be environmentalists. As they say, “it is easier to build and economy from an ecosystem than an ecosystem from an economy”. In the short term, however, environmentalism is expensive.

Renewable energy costs more money. Not cutting down a forest of lovely straight grained old growth timber costs jobs. Rural people drive a lot and gas prices hurt them. Urban workers want their plant to be clean but not at the expense of their jobs being shipped to a jurisdiction with less environmental protection.

So, a realistic environmentalist can choose a couple of paths. The real radical espouses a massive change in lifestyle. Reduce consumption. Reduce travel. This doesn’t play well on the hustings to all but the idealistic young or ideologically pure, who now have the Green Party as a political home. Most people who call themselves environmentalists would prefer to reduce guilt and help the planet while maintaining (or improving) their lifestyle. A discussion of the virtue of this “have your cake and eat it too” environmentalism can wait for another time. For now, we need to understand that this is what plays with mainstream voters.

Policies like higher taxes on polluting activities, subsidies for R&D, support for transitional technologies (even mixed bags like Nuclear) and subsidies for green energy are the policy levers for the centre. As Ontario’s NDP has discovered, these don’t always play well with rural or working class voters.

Want more jobs in the North? Allow more forestry and mining. Manufacturing hurting? Find some cheap energy (or maybe reduce taxes on energy consumption). Want to please farmers? Let them use as much fertilizer and pesticide as they want. Looked at this way, it was only a matter of time before pro employment and rural based NDPers frustrated their environmentalist allies into leaving the tent.

Whether this is a one-time blip, focused only in Ontario or if this has legs across the country remains to be seen. Where NDP support is dominated by rural ridings with resource extraction economies, or manufacturing workers, I would expect the schism to widen. Where the NDP is primarily a party of urban intelligentsia (Toronto) or of protest (Quebec), Environmentalism can probably still co-exist with a modern NDP.

Where does this leave the Environmentalist Canadian? The Greens will scoop up the single issue voters. As for the other two parties, the Conservatives, at least at the National level, are staunchly pro-development and pro resource extraction. While there is lip service to the environment, and some positives like park expansion, we can safely count them out of the running for the green vote.

This leaves us with the Liberals; the sad old man of Canadian political parties. In Ontario, mainstream environmentalists have already moved to the Grits based on their pro green energy platform. Perhaps at a National level, there is opportunity for the Liberals to yet again leverage their utter lack of ideology to try and walk a line between being pro-business and pro-environment. It is a tough sell in difficult economic times, but they have little to lose.

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