Harper would be smart to go green

Mulroney's environment policies helped him win in 1988, and it could work again

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The Gazette, Saturday, June 3, 2006

In March 1988, when I was working in the Prime Minister's Office, someone in Allan Gregg's shop at Decima Research sent along some confidential polling data ranking the importance of public-policy issues.

The numbers were startling - the environment was far and away the most important issue to voters, especially urban middle class voters. The Mulroney government had the environment on its agenda - ozone-depletion policy was already an achievement and acid rain was on Canada's priority list with the United States.

But these numbers told us that, in an election year, the environment was top-of-mind with Canadians. When you thought about it, it made sense. We are a people whose sense of identity is defined by the North, a part of the country most of us have never seen. Owning a cottage on a lake is one of the enduring Canadian dreams. The environment isn't an abstraction, it's an envisioned ideal, and any politician who ignores it does so at his extreme peril.

We showed the numbers to Derek Burney, the PM's chief of staff, and he agreed the environment had to be prioritized in the run-up to the election. He had his own environmental cause, the creation of the South Moresby National Park in British Columbia, which would never have happened without him.

Burney was, uniquely, in a position to shape the government's agenda so that the environment was placed front and centre. The prime minister was going to make an address to a joint session of Congress in Washington in late April. Acid rain was already in our early drafts of the speech, but we decided to make it the rhetorical centrepiece.

Canada would be hosting the G7 summit in Toronto in June, and, as host, could put a special item on the agenda. Brian Mulroney chose the environment. The UN's Brundtland Commission had recently issued its landmark report, and Canada became the first country to embrace the language of "sustainable development." At the end of June, Mulroney and Gro Brundtland gave keynote speeches to the first global conference on climate change, also in Toronto.

By the time Canadians got to the cottage that summer, Mulroney completely owned the issue that was most on their minds. Moreover, as a sitting prime minister, he wasn't just talking about it, but seen to be doing something about it.

As a consequence, his poll numbers started to move up. In that brief spring of Ed Broadbent euphoria, the NDP had actually moved into first place at 40 per cent in one poll, while the Conservatives languished in the mid-20s. By the end of that summer, the numbers were reversed, and by the time Mulroney dropped the election writ on the first of October, he was at 43 per cent in the Conservative Party's internal tracking, just where he would wind up on election day.

Although the campaign was a momentous engagement over free trade, the fundamentals were in place before the election. Mulroney would later say the outcome was shaped by two issues, leadership and the environment. Leadership came down to whether Mulroney or John Turner had more credibility on free trade. And the environment, as Mulroney said, "was the issue where we captured the middle-class vote."

As Stephen Harper looks ahead to a re-election campaign next year, he could do worse than emulate the model of 1988. He has a ready-made issue in global warming and climate change, and a discredited process called Kyoto.

Kyoto isn't a product, it's just an unachievable target. There is no way Canada can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012, when our emissions rose 30 per cent under the Liberals. Harper's challenge is to tell voters what he would do instead. For while Kyoto isn't a product, it is a popular brand, especially in Quebec.

Harper has no shortage of help in moving away from Kyoto. When a group of 90 leading scientists wrote to him recently, their letter mentioned climate change in practically every sentence. They didn't mention Kyoto even once.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy has prepared a report for the environment minister in which it refers to a much longer time line for achieving emission reductions with the agreement of the provinces and the engagement of the private sector.

The Harper government intends to roll out its "made-in-Canada" plan on global warming in the fall. But Harper might want to consider addressing the issue before the summer, in such a way that the voters understand he takes global warming seriously.

It isn't just a question of being on the right side of an important issue. It's about capturing the urban middle class in 2007, just as in 1988.

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