September 16, 2008

Energy Politics Could Make or Break Liberals

CANADA: Energy Politics Could Make or Break Liberals
By Chris Arsenault

VANCOUVER, Sep 16 (IPS) - While U.S. media pundits dub the race for the White House as a battle between the "warrior" and the "orator", Canada's current election campaign might be characterised as "the meanie" versus "the weenie".

As Canada's contest enters its second week, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- "the meanie" -- is looking to take majority control over Parliament, boosting its current minority government status. Stéphane Dion, leader of the opposition Liberals -- and "the weenie" -- is fighting for his political career.

The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and separatist Bloc Québécois aim to boost their Parliamentary presence while Elizabeth May's Green Party hopes to win its first official seat.

Currently, out of 308 Parliamentary seats, Conservatives hold 127, Liberals 95, Bloc Québécois 48, New Democrats 30, independents 4, while 4 others are vacant. The election will take place on Oct. 14.

Canada's government is ostensibly bicameral, with an elected Parliament and an appointed Senate, but senators hold little more than ceremonial power. To fully implement their agenda, the Conservatives need to win 155 Parliamentary seats in a first past the post voting system.

"Whenever it seems like the Conservatives are on the verge of winning a majority, there is some pull back, particularly in the large urban areas where people become concerned about the Conservatives' social policy and what could change in a majority with them fully unrolling their agenda," Paul Adams, executive director of the polling firm EKOS Research Associates, told IPS.

Supported by the religious right, the Harper Conservatives are accused of harbouring anti-gay and anti-abortion sentiments -- views which aren't popular with the majority of Canadians. Harper is also seen as too close to the George W. Bush administration south of the border.

"I'd say Harper is the most conservative prime minister in Canada's history," York University political science professor James Laxer told IPS.

An economist by training, Harper led the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing lobby group with the goal of dismantling Canada's public health care system, before he entered electoral politics.

"Coming from Alberta [a petroleum-rich western province] Harper is closely tied to the big oil companies," said Dr. Laxer. "The one thing he never wants to see is any constraints on the development of the oil industry."

Dion, the Liberal leader, has staked his campaign on a carbon tax, which would constrain oil development. A bookish former professor from Quebec who does not communicate well in English, Dion proposes to tax carbon dioxide emissions in order to control global warming, a policy supported by many economists and environmentalists but loathed in the oil patch.

Like other countries, Canada is feeling the effects of an economic downturn, especially in the manufacturing heartlands of Quebec and Ontario, and many voters are sceptical of new taxes. The social democratic NDP also oppose the carbon tax, favouring instead a cap and trade deal for greenhouse gas emissions.

While the carbon tax won't directly affect the price of gasoline motorists buy at the pumps, recent spikes in gas prices likely make voters leery of anything that might make driving more expensive and Dion has been unable to properly communicate the carbon tax plan in a simple fashion.

Some analysts, however, say that dealing with energy politics is the key to Canada's economic future. "The most important underlying issues, in elections both north and south of the border, have to do with energy sovereignty and trade," said Joe Cressy with the Polaris Institute, a left leaning think-tank.

"With the Obama-Biden campaign talking about re-negotiating NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], Canadian political leaders should be trying to get solid progressive proposals in the renegotiation," Cressy told IPS.

Under NAFTA's proportionality clause, Canada cannot limit its oil exports to the U.S. without decreasing its own consumption in tandem. Canada is currently the largest foreign exporter of oil to the United States.

Investment in the oil industry has driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, making manufacturing exports less competitive. Regionally, this means the west of the country benefits at the expense of the rest. And extracting Canadian tar sands oil is at least three times worse for the environment than conventional petroleum.

"If you look at the trajectory, it won't be long before Canada is the largest per capita producer of greenhouse gases in the industrialised world and Harper basically doesn't want to slow that down," Dr. Laxer told IPS.

After pulling Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions last year, the Conservatives unveiled their own environmental plan which calls for reductions in carbon intensity -- the ratio of GDP to carbon emissions produced -- rather than total emissions.

On Sep. 11, halfway through the first week of campaigning, four former prime ministers, including two Conservatives, and 70 other Canadian business and academic leaders, signed a document titled "Time To Get Serious on Climate Change," stating that "Avoiding the worst risks [of global warming] requires reducing emissions more than half, perhaps more than 80 percent, by the year 2050."

Without referring to Stephen Harper by name, former Conservative prime minister and report signatory Joe Clark expressed concern at a "lack of decisive action by Ottawa on climate change."

While most of the campaign has been standard rhetoric and political posturing, the first week has seen some surprises. The Green party will be included in televised leaders' debates for the first time ever, and Prime Minister Harper promised to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan by 2011.


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