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Two Tough Truths Demand Political Bravery

A call for courageous leadership from BC parties in 2013.

Seth Klein 11 Jan 2013TheTyee.ca

Seth Klein is the B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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CCPA's Seth Klein: new regular presence on The Tyee.

[Editor's note: We're happy to announce that leading up the provincial election in May, Seth Klein and his colleagues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives will be posting analysis on The Tyee regularly. This kicks off the new arrangement.]

As we head towards the May 2013 BC election, what I'd most love to hear from B.C.'s political leaders is evidence that they are ready to get serious about the defining issues of this era. In particular, I'm going to be looking for real leadership on the issues of climate change and inequality -- what we at the CCPA like to call "the two great inconvenient truths of our time."

It's not enough to offer platitudes about sustainability or families. Nor is it sufficient to speak eloquently about climate or inequality, but then offer up election platforms that will barely make a dent in either.

Two years ago, as both the BC Liberals and NDP were engaged in the process of selecting new leaders, I published this Tyee article daring the candidates to be bold "truth- tellers." What I'm looking for in the next few months isn't much different.

Opinion research the CCPA has conducted on both climate justice and inequality indicates that the public is ahead of the prevailing political discourse on both these issues -- people are ready and looking for leadership and policy solutions, and are keen to be thoughtfully engaged in an honest conversation about how we tackle both. Political strategists, however, seem convinced that if their leaders articulate substantive ideas about how to address these issues, it merely provides target practice for their political foes. And so the parties remain frustratingly silent on meaningful policy solutions.

The gap that emerges -- between the urgency of these issues on the one hand, and political foot-dragging on the other -- is, in my view, a large part of what turns people off politics and fosters a lack of trust in government. If people don't see their leaders speaking convincingly about these vital matters, a credibility gap develops that contributes to many people's decision to opt out of electoral politics. Even partisan activists often end up experiencing a kind of political disassociation; going through the motions, but without feeling particularly inspired.

Gas pains

Take the issue of climate change for starters:

Neither of the major parties vying to form government has spoken much about climate over the last two years, notwithstanding major weather events that keep telling us that time is of the essence. Both parties need to table election platforms that show us how they plan to honour and achieve B.C.'s legislated greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

Most of the environmental debate in B.C. of late has been dominated by the matter of tar sands pipelines through our province from Alberta. While that is certainly a pressing issue and well worth having out during the election, the more relevant issue in BC with respect to the climate emergency isn't Alberta's unconventional fossil fuel -- it's ours: natural gas, and the associated issues of fracking and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

As a recent CCPA report by Marc Lee notes, B.C.'s current natural gas strategy is simply incompatible with our province's legislated GHG reduction targets. Other recent CCPA analyses such as this one and this one have raised more questions about the LNG path.

Yet instead of acknowledging with this reality, we have the embarrassment Premier Christy Clark offered up in her year-end interviews, in which she declared that B.C.'s natural gas plans were on the same scale as Alberta's tar sands.

Clark calls B.C.'s natural gas plans "bold". But what she is talking up does not represent real leadership. If Albertans knew 40 years ago what we know today about climate change, perhaps they wouldn't have chosen to become so dependent on this addictive substance. Surely real leadership today would be to propose that we pause and deliberate about whether this gold rush is really what we want for ourselves.

While Adrian Dix hasn't been musing quite so bullishly about natural gas, the truth is that, at present, there is not much light between the NDP and Liberal positions on this file. The NDP's reluctance to differentiate itself with respect to natural gas (as with its unwillingness to come out strongly against the proposed twinning of Kinder Morgan's tarsands pipeline, or against the expansion of coal mining and exports) seems based upon a "strategic" desire not to be seen as anti-development. But it ought to be entirely possible to articulate an exciting yet credible economic vision, without having to remain quietly acquiescent about industrial and infrastructure projects that are simply at odds with the climate reality we face.

Mind the gap

As for the issue of inequality:

The BC Liberals seem to have very little to say on the subject. Other than a couple platitudes about the issue offered during the height of the Occupy Movement, I haven't heard Christy Clark speak of inequality. Her government has steadfastly refused to bring in a poverty reduction plan (one of only two provinces that remains a stubborn holdout). She is dismissive about the idea of any tax increases on the wealthy.

Clark ran for leadership on a "Families First" platform that seemed to indicate some interest on helping modest-income households struggling to make ends meet. But apart from a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, we've seen little else that would give substance to this notion. (Adrienne Montani and I wrote a piece shortly after Clark's election, outlining what a real Families First agenda should look like.)

In contrast, Adrian Dix has said he wants to make inequality a centerpiece of the NDP platform, and the party has said that, if elected, it will bring in a poverty reduction plan. But the proof will be in the pudding. When pressed for details thus far, the NDP focus has been on education and training. These are indeed important elements of a plan to tackle inequality and poverty, but what else? We need to see what they propose with respect to welfare rates, employment standards, housing, child care, and community care for seniors -- also vital pieces of a comprehensive plan.

And the inequality story isn't just about those at the bottom of the income ladder; it's also about run-away incomes at the top. What will the NDP propose with respect to tax increases for those who have been doing very well? So far the NDP has sounded hyper-cautious, reluctant to speak with confidence about the need to raise new revenues. They seem frustratingly inclined to let the guys in the legislature's press gallery tell them what is and isn't politically possible, a truly odd instinct in the age of social media. The political and media landscape has changed since the 1990s. The days of the Vancouver Sun and BCTV setting the political agenda are, thankfully, well behind us.

As the CCPA has sought to highlight in the Climate Justice Project (CJP), the issues of climate and inequality are inextricably linked. Rather than leaders taking us back to the old economy (based on exporting unprocessed resources), we need leaders who articulate a new economic vision, one that sees us rising to the climate challenge, and making infrastructure investments that will see us dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. Much work has already been done by labour and environmental organizations on what could constitute an ambitious green jobs plan for B.C. Marc Lee offers a picture of such a future here. As I explained in a speech last year about our CJP work, a bold agenda that provides economic and employment security and a hopeful climate program must be understood as one and the same.

There's five months to go. Come on folks -- give us something compelling to vote for.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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