Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Much Does That Cost? Part III: Cliffs, Chromite & Moose Mountain

This is the third in a series of blogposts I’ve made this past week regarding issues related to costs which I’ve been pondering. In Part I, I wrote about the hidden costs of nuclear energy, many of which I was unaware of before the last 6 months. I started taking a very close look at nuclear power after reading about the Japanese nuclear industry dangerously misleading the government and the people of Japan about what was really happening at Fukushima Daiichi. I also began to pay close attention to the Nuclear Waste Management Organizations plans to find a Northern Ontario community to host a long-term nuclear waste storage facility. The potential issues related to the transportation of nuclear waste through Greater Sudbury has now led to the creation of a new organization in my community, Nuclear Free Sudbury.

In Part 2, I wrote about the unfortunate situation which the City now finds itself in with regards to the competition over the use of Market Square. On the one hand, there’s Laurentian University, which wants to put its new School of Architecture there, and on the other hand, there’s the existing farmer’s market, which uses this specially-built site on the weekends to bring local food and crafts into the city centre. Both of these uses should be located in the downtown, and it’s unfortunate that it looks like the farmer’s market is going to have to find a new home. What I want to know is how much that’s all going to cost, and whether once all costs are added together, there remains an economic case for the new School. I suspect that there would be, but I just don’t know.

Cliffs Natural Resources Chromite Project

In Part 3, today I’m going to write about another emerging issue in my community that I hadn’t really given much thought about until earlier this year. Cliffs Natural Resources, a mining company based in Cleveland, Ohio, came into possession of something called the Black Thor deposit in Ontario’s remote north. This is in the McFaulds Lake area, also known as the Ring of Fire. It’s located about 340 kilometres north of the railhead at Nakina, in the midst of the James Bay lowlands, which is one of the largest wetlands in the world.

Cliffs wants to develop a chromite mine in this area, and process some of the ore mined on site. Raw ore and concentrate produced at the processing facility will then be moved south to Nakina, which is on the Canadian National Rail line. From there, it can be shipped by rail to a new ferrochrome production industry, where it will be further refined to produce granulated ferrochrome for global stainless steel industries. Alternatively, it can be shipped by rail to ports and head out of Canada, as currently there isn’t a facility in North America which refines chromite.

Cliffs has been interested in building a ferrochrome production facility on a vacant site 20 km northwest of Capreol, which is a community within the City of Greater Sudbury. Currently, this site is occupied by an aggregates operation, but there’s not much else going on there. The site has been described as a “brownfield” because in the past, there was a mine and related industrial infrastructure there (known as “Moose Mountain”), along with a small community, called Sellwood. Back in the 1930s, Sellwood was completely abandoned after Moose Mountain closed down, so it’s fair to say that the area being looked at by Cliffs is a ghost town.

Cliffs projects that building the ferrochrome refinery will bring about 500 construction jobs into the community. The refinery itself, when its up and running, will employ between 400 and 500 people at good, well-paying jobs. Needless to say, this is an exciting opportunity for Greater Sudbury, a city with an unparalleled rich history in mining and processing.

I know all of this because the Sudbury Star posted a handy link to a document developed by Cliffs (dated March 22, 2011) just last week, in anticipation of Greater Sudbury municipal Councillors and the Mayor travelling to Cleveland to meet with Cliffs. Here’s the link to the document, “Cliffs Chromite Project: Project Description Summary

Attracting Cliffs

You see, the Moose Mountain site northwest of Capreol isn’t the only site being eyed by Cliffs for a ferrochrome production facility. The City of Thunder Bay, and the municipality of Greenstone (in which Nakina is located) are also in the running. Timmins thinks it has a chance, but I don’t see how, as one of Cliffs requirements for the ferrochrome facility is that it be accessible by rail from Nakina. The cost of shipping materials to Timmins from Nakina by truck isn’t something any company which wants to make money would ever contemplate. Moose Mountain, Thunder Bay and Nakina are all on the CN rail line (well, Moose Mountain needs a short spur, which used to exist at one time, and the right-of-way remains intact).

So, there is some healthy competition going on here between northern Ontario communities to bring jobs to town. And you know what happens when communities find themselves in competition with one another for jobs, right? They usually end up falling all over themselves to bring in the new business or industry by trying to create the most attractive economic situation possible, which usually amounts to subsidies of one sort or another being offered.

Cliffs project, however, isn’t some little mail-order catalogue business. It’s a big deal. A huge deal. In fact, it’s going to take a lot to make any northern Ontario community look attractive to Cliffs, given the economics around chromite mining and processing. The advantages that Greater Sudbury can offer over Thunder Bay aren’t nearly as important to Cliffs as the advantages that Ontario can offer over Quebec, or vice versa. You see, Quebec (and Manitoba) have something that is desirable to Cliffs which Ontario doesn’t have: relatively inexpensive electricity.


You see, according to Cliffs, the arc furnace which will power the ferrochrome production facility will require the same amount of power as….are you ready for this? I wasn’t when I first saw this little tid-bit of information, it was unbelievable, but this comes straight from Cliffs. The ferrochrome facility will use as much electrical power as does a city of 300,000 people.

That’s just a smidgen less than twice the population of the City of Greater Sudbury. So building this facility will be like building two new Greater Sudburys in terms of electrical needs (well, maybe not exactly, given that Greater Sudbury already has a lot of heavy energy users due to the mining and refining which is happening here. Call it two new Barries instead maybe).

That’s a lot of watts of power. I mean, I knew that mining used a lot of energy, but that’s one heck of a lot of power. No kidding that Cliffs wants to get the best deal on energy that it can. When you’re using that much, a few cents per kilowatt hour (the difference between peak and off-peak for time of use energy users) can literally mean billions of dollars a year. I don’t know how many billions, but it would be a lot, I think.

And that’s my point. I don’t know how many billions Cliffs might save if they build a ferrochrome production facility in a jurisdiction which offers reduced energy rates. But why should I be concerned? That’s business decision which Cliffs is going to have to make for itself, right? What business of that decision is my business?

We Are The Stakeholders

Well, if Greater Sudbury is falling all over itself to convince Cliffs to locate the ferrochrome production facility within its municipal boundaries, it seems that the Province of Ontario is also doing what it can to create an attractive investment climate for Cliffs. And that means (you guessed it): subsidies. Specifically with regards to what I’ve written so far, it means subsidizing the costs of energy in order to make Ontario just as attractive to Cliffs as Quebec might be.

So when governments are dangling subsidies in front of industries to attract investment, guess what? I suddenly become an interested party, and you and I both are stakeholders in this decision making process. None of this is to suggest that governments shouldn’t offer businesses incentives to set up shop in their jurisdictions. Look, I’m actually all for that idea. But there has to be a strong economic case made which justifies the rationale. Which brings us back to costs, and in this case, the price of electricity.

Paying the Electricity Bills

Let’s step back for a moment. Why are the costs of electricity so much higher in Ontario than they are in Quebec. Actually, there are a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that Quebec chose to invest in massive hydro-electric projects in its northern regions, which led to significant environmental damage on the ground. Ontario, wanting to avoid the headaches experienced by Quebec, chose to invest billions upon billions of dollars in expensive nuclear energy instead, while keeping inexpensive (but environmentally damaging) coal powered facilities.

As cheap coal has come offline over environmental concerns (in part: let’s be upfront here, the coal plants were reaching the end of their lifespans anyway), and with the crazy way energy has been handled by government after government in this province, we’ve begun to experience a real rise in electricity rates, while Quebec hasn’t. In fact, they’re producing so much excess energy in Quebec, they’re making money off of exporting it to the United States. So Quebeccers are benefiting from inexpensive hydro electric rates and making a buck off of exporting raw energy. Good for them.

So what can Ontario do to gussy itself up for Cliffs, with the hope that Cliffs will ask Ontario to the dance instead of Quebec? Why, Ontario will have to offer competitive electrical rates for Cliffs! That’s the ticket!

But…who is going to pay for the two new Barries worth of electricity? Either Ontario’s ratepayers will pay through higher rates, or taxpayers will take on the burden through subsidies. Likely it will be the latter, but either way, I’m talking about your money and my money going to Cliffs.

Again, that might not be a bad thing. Our money goes to all sorts of different places right now through one program or another, ostensibly in pursuit of the greater public good. Hey, again, I’m all for that.

The Greater Public Good

But what is the greater public good in the case of Cliffs? That’s the question that I’d like to get some answers to. What is the expected cost of providing subsidized electricity so that Cliffs can produce ferrochromite and turn a profit? I’d really like to know, especially given that Ontario’s debt continues to grow daily, and our current $15 billion deficit won’t be slain until 2017 (and then only if the economy continues to perform above expectations. With the markets tanking and a recession imminent, slaying the deficit in a few years might just be wishful thinking).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we are all living beyond our means. Our economy predicated on growth at all costs is not sustainable, and we are bumping against the limits of growth. The era of inexpensive energy is over, and we all must adapt. That means we’ve got to start thinking locally, and acting globally. By that I mean that we have to start to get serious about reducing climate changing greenhouse gas emissions, and doing full cost accounting of all public expenditures. Growth isn’t sustainable.

A Case for Chromite?

With regards to Cliffs, however, the world continues to need chromite, right? Well, yes and no. Actually, demand for chromite has plummeted over the last decade, as new deposits were brought on stream. Right now, the price is very low, and we’re about to enter a recession, which is never good for the mining industry. It’s not Xstrata’s fault that it took a hit last week on the European exchanges; that’s just the nature of the economic beast we’ve created.

Chromite prices are already low, and if Black Thor and other deposits in the Ring of Fire (like Big Daddy…seriously, who gets to name these things?) are brought on stream, we can expect to see even lower prices for the product. Which means that for Cliffs to make money (and for Greater Sudbury to keep those 400 to 500 jobs), governments might have to dig deeper into their pockets and offer greater subsidies.

As Black Thor is expected to have only a 25-35 year lifespan (according to Cliffs, the initial open pit mine will operate for 10-15 years, and then the underground mine will operate for another 15-20), and as the Mining Act already provides a 10 year tax holiday for remote northern Ontario mines, what was the economic case for chromite again?

Infrastructure and Environmental Costs

Oh ya…have I mentioned anything about the infrastructure which will need to be built to actually access the deposit? Right now, there’s a road which heads north from Nakina for about 80 km. But Black Thor is another 260 clicks north of that. That means that we’ll need to build some kind of transportation corridor northwards from Nakina for quite a considerable distance, over muskeg and bog and some wide fast flowing rivers. Cliffs believes that a road will prove itself to be cheaper. That may be the case right now, but look at some of these numbers (thanks again to Cliffs):

Black Thor is expected to produce between 3,600 and 7,200 tonnes of raw ore and concentrate a day. All of that needs to be moved south to the Nakina railhead. The average truck holds about 70 tonnes of material. Cliffs estimates that between 50 and 100 trucks will be making the 340 kilometre journey from Black Thor to Nakina each and every day (and then they’ll head back again, empty).

With rising gasoline prices, what might the costs of transportation be? Might it not be less expensive in the long run to consider building a rail line between Nakina and Black Thor? Sure, the initial costs might be more substantial, but think about future costs. Higher gasoline prices are even more likely. When you factor in a tax on carbon (which is inevitable), trucking might begin to look less attractive. Certainly there would be fewer greenhouse gas emissions if rail is used. I don’t know what would ultimately be less expensive for Cliffs, but I do know that we can’t ignore the real costs which are associated with carbon emissions any longer. Trucking might seem a better deal for Cliffs right now, but that might only be because they (and all of us) are allowed by our governments to treat our atmosphere as an open sewer. And that’s just not sustainable. Which is why carbon pricing will be coming to a future near you.

Whose going to be on the hook for building whatever kind of transportation corridor ultimately gets built? Why, that’ll be us taxpayers again, either totally on the hook or in partnership with industry. And what about those electrical transmissions lines to deliver the power to Moose Mountain? How much is all of that going to cost?

Answers Needed Before Commitments Are Made

These questions about cost are really ones which we need to get some answers to before we embrace the concept of mining Black Thor and building a ferrochrome refinery in Ontario. That’s not to suggest that I’d be in favour of mining the deposit just to see it shipped to Quebec or China for the value-added refining by the way. But I do want to know what the costs are expected to be. Because if those costs are too high, it might simply be best to leave the resource in the ground for now.

And that’s something nobody seems to be talking about. So I guess I’m going to start that conversation.

I very much look forward to participating in the environmental assessment process which Cliffs is going to have to go through with the federal and provincial governments, because I expect some of the answers to the questions that I’ve asked here will be addressed by that process. However, I know that our environmental assessment processes are deficient in Canada, because we refuse to look at the full costs of any project (and here I’m referring to a number of environmental costs, including carbon emissions). Without legislative requirements to address those costs, they won’t be assessed, which is bound to leave us with an incomplete picture about the full costs of Cliffs chromite project.

I’m all in favour of bringing 500 new jobs to my City as long as there’s an economic case which can be made for doing so. Right now, I’ve yet to see it, and the more I look into it, the more questions I have. I’m sure that others in my community are bound to find themselves in the same quandary that I have, asking themselves, “How much does that cost?”

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Much Does That Cost? Part II: The Sudbury Farmer’s Market

If you live in Greater Sudbury, no doubt you’re well aware of the controversy which has been brewing regarding the downtown Market Square. For those who don’t know the story, let me give you a little bit of the background as to what’s going on.

Laurentian University will be building a new School of Architecture, something a majority of Sudburians are excited about. Our City Council has committed to be providing funding towards this project, along with senior levels of government. Council, however, made their funding commitment conditional upon the new School being built in the downtown. Laurentian University, whose campus is located quite a ways away from the urban core of the City, was more than eager to move forward with a downtown location for the School. In fact, they’ve looked to the successes which have been experienced by universities in Brantford and Cambridge with off-campus, downtown schools.

We’ve all been very excited about the new School of Architecture coming to Sudbury’s downtown. Laurentian University was involved in a site selection process for some time, and the public was on pins and needles waiting for an announcement of the University’s preferred site. OK, maybe we weren’t all pins and needles, but there was certainly a mounting interest in hearing about LU’s preferred site. Especially when rumours began to circulate in the community about Laurentian eyeing the downtown Market Square – the current home of Sudbury’s one and only farmer’s market.

Downtown's Market Square

Market Square was developed by the City back in 2000 from an old rail storage building, with the express purpose of housing the farmer’s market. Previously, the farmer’s market was an entirely outdoor affair, happening on the weekends in a downtown parking lot. The building itself offers ample space for indoor market vendors, and has covered space outside for farmers to sell their wares. There’s also a bit of public square in front of the building, with a raised stage for performers, and seating for people to watch or just hang out on. We don’t have a lot of good public gathering spaces in the City; the Market Square itself is by far the best, and most used.

It’s really a very impressive space, all in all, in my opinion, and the location is a pretty darn good one. Sudbury’s downtown isn’t all that big, being boxed in by hard edges on three sides (the railway tracks on the west and south sides, and an impressive cliff face along Brady on the eastern side; only the northern side is somewhat open, and even then, once you’re above Ste-Anne Street, it no longer feels like you’re in the downtown). Market Square is located flush up against the rail way line on the western side of the downtown, although mixed commercial uses continue a ways westward along Elm Street on the other side of the tracks.

There’s also a fairly large parking lot on the Market Square site. Now, if you’re not familiar with Sudbury, you won’t understand the significance of this parking lot. Here in Sudbury, there exists a perception that the downtown is under-serviced with parking. I have to say that I don’t see it that way; to me it looks like we have plenty of parking, and if anything, I think it’s time to get rid of a number of our surface parking lots and create some pedestrian-friendly public spaces. But nevertheless I have to acknowledge the existence of the perception that there’s a lack of parking in the downtown.

Site Made Public

Back in August, the City sent a letter to the farmer’s market vendors, and a meeting was held. At that meeting, it was finally revealed that Laurentian had chosen Market Square as the preferred site for the new School of Architecture. Vendors were, to say the least, unhappy with this news, as many have poured so much into making the farmer’s market a success at Market Square. At the meeting, it was discussed that LU would entertain sharing the Market Square site with the farmer’s market, and there was even some suggestion that the building itself might be kept.

Well, when the news was made public in Greater Sudbury, everybody it seems had an opinion. The School of Architecture Vs. The Farmer’s Market has been the talk of the town. Laurentian eventually ended up going to Council to discuss the future of Market Square. You see, the City owns the land. Laurentian was told by Council that Council wasn’t inclined to make a decision until the issue of relocating the farmer’s market was adequately addressed. Playing hardball, LU made it clear to Council that development plans for the new School would fall apart if the site couldn’t be secured by the fall of this year.

So, the pressure is now on. Market Square vendors aren’t happy. Council finds itself in a very awkward spot. LU continues to push ahead with its plans, and refuses to publicly disclose which other sites in the downtown were looked at. By failing to talk about alternatives, LU is burning through a lot of good will with the public. However, both Greater Sudbury’s downtown development corporation and Business Improvement Area have come out in support of LU taking over Market Square, perhaps because they’re concerned that Laurentian might walk away if they don’t get this site. Without any other alternatives identified, I am certainly concerned that they’ll walk, and the downtown will miss out on the opportunity to host the new School.

"Public Consultation"

But I’ll tell you this: even supporters of a downtown school have become miffed at LU’s approach to securing a site. Last week, the City hosted a public forum, ostensibly to discuss the future of Market Square. I attended that forum, along with hundreds of other members in my community. There were two rows of drawings posted which people could talk about. The row on the right showed concept drawings of the new School of Architecture and how it would fit onto the Market Square site. There were some people from Laurentian University there to talk about the drawings, but no one was wearing name tags, and it was unclear whether anyone was actually speaking on behalf of the University.

The row of drawings on the left depicted a number of locations for the new home of the farmer’s market. The City was handing out a questionnaire for feedback on these proposed new locations.

What was missing from this exercise, of course, was any discussion about keeping the farmer’s market at Market Square. It looked to everybody as if moving the farmer’s market is a done deal, never mind any additional public input. All that needs to be determined now is where the new home for the farmer’s market is going to be.

Putting aside the process which has led us to this predicament, it certainly does seem to me that Laurentian will eventually gain access to the Market Square site for the new School. I think it’s regrettable that they’re putting our Council in an awkward position, but the University has played hardball, and it looks like there isn’t any other alternative.

Which now leads me to costs.


There are a number of issues related to costs which have been brought up by the public throughout this process, and it appears to me that no good answers have been given. First, there’s the cost of the Market Square site itself. Apparently, Laurentian University has assessed the stie, and determined it be worth slightly less than a million dollars. A number of Councillors have expressed that they think that value is really low. The cost of purchase is important, because LU will have to pay fair market value to buy the site from the City, as the City has made it clear that their contribution won’t consist of land value. I’m not sure that LU had anticipated that kind of reaction from the City, but here we are.

The public wants to know what the site is worth. I’m actually less interested in that, as I’m sure that the matter will eventually be worked out, and whatever the value of the land is ultimately determined to be, LU will pay it.

Benefits to the Downtown

A number of different numbers about the cost of hosting the farmer’s market at Market Square have also been brought up. Depending on who is doing the talking, the City either loses hundreds of thousands a year hosting the farmer’s market at Market Square, or the farmer’s market is actually acting as a small-business incubator that creates jobs and wealth in our downtown. I suspect that the truth is probably somewhere in between, but the public has generally been sceptical about the idea that the farmer’s market adds a lot of value to downtown businesses.

The farmer’s market is only open two days a week – Saturday and Sunday. While most downtown businesses are open on Saturdays, the downtown is pretty hollowed out on Sundays. Given that parking is available right at the Market Square site itself, a lot of trips made by residents are single-purpose. Sure, some people like to explore the downtown after visiting the market, but many just get back in their cars and head home.

I’m still curious, though, about how much money the farmer’s market actually brings into the downtown. I don’t think anybody really knows, but wouldn’t that be a nice-to-have right now, given the on-going conversation? If the City is taking a hit keeping the market open, but downtown businesses are benefiting from increased traffic flow, well, that might be a good thing (although it’s still a subsidy from taxpayers – but one I’d be willing to continue to pay, for I sincerely believe that a healthy downtown is good for the community, and if we need to give a little right now, treat it as an investment).

Now, the new School of Architecture is supposed to bring 400 students and, what is the number now? 75 staff to the downtown? That’s a lot of people who will be brought into the downtown every day. Some believe that students don’t spend money, and the staff will get back in their cars and spend their money at Wal Mart. I think that’s pretty short-sighted, especially since these aren’t undergraduate students. I had the benefit of attending a downtown campus when I went to University (Ryerson), and I can tell you that my fellow students and I certainly made some significant contributions to the local economy (and not just at the Zanzi).

But, right now, everything is just anecdotal. I think that the public would really like to see some projections from Laurentian University regarding what the downtown can expect in terms of revenues from the new School. Can we expect a bigger return than the farmer’s market currently provides? I would think so, but I just don’t know. And I wouldn’t mind having some more information about that.

Moving Costs

And finally, if the farmer’s market is going to move from Market Square, where is it going to end up, and how much will that cost? One of the proposals which the City had produced showed the farmer’s market occupying the ground floor of an as-yet-to-be-built parking garage on Elgin Street, near the under-used CP rail station. Another conceptual drawing actually placed the market in the rail station. The public was encouraged to comment on these concepts without the benefit of any information about cost.

If the farmer’s market is going to move, guaranteed that Greater Sudbury taxpayers will be on the hook (again) for paying for the site. We put about a million dollars into Market Square 10 years ago, and now we’re going to invest an additional….how much into a farmer’s market which apparently loses money in the City every year. Again, I think taxpayers should be supporting the farmer’s market (although it would be nice if our senior levels of government could chip in and make accessing local food a priority), but at what cost? I’m certainly not at all in favour of having my tax dollars go towards building a parking garage so that drivers can have access to even more subsidized parking in the downtown.

Of course, there were other concepts presented which likely will have minimal costs. However, these concepts were largely ones where the farmer’s market would occupy an outdoor location only. Given that the majority of the current market’s vendors are indoor vendors, I’m not sure that a completely outdoor market is going to work, and selecting an outdoor-only site might lead towards the dissolution of the market altogether.

A People-Focus to the Downtown

We’re certainly in a pickle here in Greater Sudbury. Our Council is going to have to make a decision about Market Square very soon, and likely they’re going to have to do so without having the benefit of information pertaining to costs. The only thing which is a certainty is that Council is going to be slagged by the public, no matter which decision they make. When even supporters of the new School are turned off by the tactics of LU, there likely won’t be a big party thrown to toast Council when they decide to sell the Square and move the market.

If more information was available about costs – both current costs and anticipated costs and benefits – Council and the public would have had a much more engaging discussion about the future of our community. We are all stakeholders here. This isn’t just about market vendors or Laurentian University, or downtown businesses for that matter. We all have an interest in improving our downtown, and remaking Greater Sudbury into the type of community that we need to face the future. That kind of community has as its beating heart a vibrant, livable, walkable downtown, with attractions and amenities, and above all, people.

No downtown has ever found success by catering to cars. Our downtown must be people-centred. That’s why the new School of Architecture and the farmer’s market are such wonderful assets for our downtown. Both will lend to the creation of a sense of community.

Making Tough Decisions

Council has a touch decision to make, and maybe another one after that if we have to go looking for a new home for the farmer’s market. The first decision, to let LU secure the Market Square site, may be a forgone conclusion right now. I sincerely hope, however, that we have a better handle on costs related to the relocation of the market before any decision is made.

And I certainly hope that the farmer’s market doesn’t become a pawn used to justify building a downtown parking garage to subsidize drivers with my tax dollars.

I hope to make it out to Council Chambers next Monday (starting at 4:30) to listen to what others in my community have to say about Market Square, Laurentian University, and the farmer’s market. I certainly hope that the small matter of cost is brought up by a few of my neighbours.

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How Much Does that Cost? Part I: Nuclear Energy

Over the past month, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how much things really cost. Costs are something that everyone thinks about, but lately I’ve been doing a lot wondering about what truly comprises a price tag, especially when a salesperson is giving you a pitch.

Over the next three blogposts, I’m going to be looking at a few things which have been on my mind about costs over the past month.

What got me started on this was my own investigation into the price of nuclear energy. As some of my readers might know, I, along with a few other interested residents, started a new organization, Nuclear Free Sudbury, earlier this month. We were growing concerned with what we were hearing in the media about the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO’s) site selection process for a permanent home to house spent fuel bundles, the very worst kind of nuclear waste. With Wawa and Hornepayne being considered by the NWMO, it increases the likelihood of having nuclear materials transported through Greater Sudbury, especially if rail transport is an option.

Our Nuclear Heritage

Although I’ve been a member of the Green Party for some time now (whose member-approved policies are to say no to new nuclear), I’ve always positioned myself somewhere in the middle of the debate when it comes to nuclear energy. I confess, I’m one of those people who is fascinated by the technological, and the idea that a few tiny atoms can unleash such incredible power which humanity has the ability to harness, well, that kind of stuff excites me. Unless we’re talking about unleashing that power over cities in a time of war. I remember watching the made-for-TV movie “The Day After” when I was growing up, and later the British movie, “Threads”. With awesome power comes awesome responsibility.

So, despite having very clear memories of Chernobyl unfolding on national news programs, I’ve never thought of myself as a nuclear-phobe. That the environmental movement is still arguing whether nuclear energy has a place to address the climate change crisis says to me that there remains a bit of a misunderstanding about nuclear energy. However, when the disaster in Fukushima happened earlier this year, striking one of the safest nuclear facilities in the world, I told myself that it was time to dig a little deeper.

And so I dug. And in my digging, I became increasingly alarmed with what I was finding out about the nuclear industry in general, and specifically with the alarming series of cover-ups and misinformation which the Japanese nuclear industry was providing to their government, to the Japanese people, and by extension, to the rest of the world.

It’s easy to write off Fukushima as being the result of tsunami, but given that tsunamis aren’t particularly unusual events in that part of Japan, it really raises some questions. Further, it seems that meltdown began when power was severed from the reactors, which occurred before the tsunami struck. Of course, the whole situation was clearly aggravated by the tsunami itself. The point, however, is that the Japanese nuclear industry has been the safest in the world – up until disaster struck.

Canada’s nuclear industry likes to make the same claim about itself regarding its safety record. And for the most part, Canada’s nuclear industry has a lot to crow about. Not only have our reactors not melted down (aside from that little incident at Chalk River back at the dawn of the nuclear age), but radiated materials are transported by the nuclear industry all the time, and there hasn’t been a recorded incident made public.

Of course, spent fuel bundles have never been transported off site in Canada, and when it comes time to move these extremely dangerous materials, whole new technical challenges will need to be overcome. Can we move them safely? Probably. At least until something goes wrong. And that’s the problem with the nuclear industry: when something goes wrong, invariably it goes very badly wrong.

A Long-Term Storage Facility for Canada’s Nuclear Waste

We’ve got a lot of this nuclear waste sitting around at reactor sites, in shorter term storage facilities. After 60 years of generating nuclear power, Canada has yet to come to terms with exactly what we’re going to do with these spent fuel bundles, which will remain radioactive for millions of years (and folks, that’s not an exaggeration, that’s just physics). In response to this problem, the NWMO has begun looking for a permanent home for spent fuel bundles.

Now, at first blush, it might seem pretty silly to think that a community will voluntarily make itself home to Canada’s first-ever repository for the most hazardous nuclear materials ever produced by humanity. I mean, that’s not exactly the sort of thing a community would brag about in a travel brochure. “Come Visit Beautiful Wawa – Home to Canada’s Nuclear Waste”. Nah.

But the NWMO has dangled this carrot in front of communities, which is a very real incentive for a potential host: an investment of between $16 billion and $24 billion dollars in order to meet today’s needs. And, of course, jobs jobs jobs. Constructing the facility will take years, and once it’s up and running, skilled technicians will need to be on hand to make sure that it’s running properly. And a small army of security guards will be needed to make sure that nothing bad goes wrong. They’ll be receiving nice paycheques, which they’ll be spending in the host community.

In those terms, perhaps that’s not such a bad deal after all. The nuclear waste will be buried, so it’ll be out of sight and out of mind. The facility itself will be built to last for a staggering 300 years (what do we ever build to last that long? I mean, I’ve been through 4 laptops in the past 3 years). As long as you don’t mind the trucks carrying their space-age storage bins, hosting a nuclear waste storage facility really does seem like a good idea.

I can’t fault the communities of Wawa and Hornepayne and the others for looking into the NWMO’s process. Although I still don’t understand why the NWMO is looking at inhabited locations for this kind of facility, when there’s all that blank territory on maps of Canada (well, actually I do know, and it has to do with politics). Anyway, the site selection process isn’t the specific point of today’s blog. Instead, I want to talk about those $16 to $24 billion in costs.

The Price Tag for Nuclear

So, who’s going to pay for all of that? Ultimately, it’s going to come out of my pockets and your pockets, either through direct funding by our federal and provincial governments, or by the nuclear power companies who will have to hit ratepayers up for the costs. Either way, though, these are unbudgeted expenses right now. No one is setting aside any money to actually build this facility.

NWMO’s site selection process is expected to cost about $9 billion dollars, all just to figure out which site will be best. Some of that money has been budgeted, and we electricity ratepayers are funding it. That’s good, in my opinion. We’ve derived the benefits of nuclear energy for the past 60 years now. It’s about time we start paying some of the costs of those benefits, such as those costs needed to find and fund a permanent secure storage site.

Of course, I wasn’t alive when the decision was made in Ontario to build our first nuclear reactors. I know, though, that those reactors didn’t come in on time or on budget, and no reactor built in Ontario since then has either. I, specifically, in my 40 years of existence, have benefited a lot from nuclear power, which has been produced at pretty cheap rates, so I’ve been told (something like 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s what I keep hearing from the pro-nuke industry).

Of course, I haven’t been paying the real costs for nuclear energy. Nobody has. This long term storage facility question mark which will cost more than $30 billion to identify a site and build a facility, well, no one has been paying for that yet. Those are costs that we and our children will have to pay over time. Never mind that it was my parent’s generation that benefited from cheap nuclear power. They, and my generation today, have only done so because we refused to pay the full price for it.

There’s a term for that, you know. When you don’t pay the true costs for a product or a service, and those costs are passed on to be paid in the future. We call that a “subsidy”. And with regards to what we’ve been doing related to nuclear power, we’ve been subsidizing the production of energy by passing on these real costs to future generations.

So not only are we leaving our kids and grandkids with a monumental environmental hazard in the form of never-before-seen-on-Earth nuclear waste, we’re also going to stick them with the bill for disposing of it all properly.

Of course, they may choose to add their own nuclear wastes to the ever-growing pile of spent fuel bundles, if they decide to refurbish reactors, or build new ones. I, however, think that our kids are going to be better financial managers than my generation was, and certainly better money-managers than my parent’s generation proved to be. Our kids are going to have an enhanced appreciation of the term “full cost accounting”, and a much better understanding of environmental and social externalities forming part of the real costs of any undertaking.

The End of Our Economic System

I believe this because we are now experiencing an end to capitalism as we’ve come to know it. Not an end to capitalism, mind you. Just an end to the way in which we’ve practiced it. Here I mean specifically to our wasteful and polluting ways, all in the pursuit of growth as if it were some Holy Grail. Well, it’s rapidly becoming clear that if growth is a Grail, we’ve actually found ourselves stuck in a Monty Python movie.

My daughter had her first birthday this past summer. By the time she is 80 years old, she will have lived through a time of massive change, due to the end of inexpensive energy and the climate crisis. In her lifetime, she will witness the collapse of either the current economic system, or the massive reduction of individual users of resources. One or the other has to happen, because we are pushing up against the limits of growth.

Right now, we are using up our non-renewable resources at an unsustainable rate. It can’t go on. We will either have to make the difficult switch to renewable resources, or we will have to figure out some way where there are fewer of us available to access our limited non-renewable resources. Think about the second part of that sentence for a moment. That’s the only other way to prolong our unquenchable thirst for oil.

Nuclear Subsidies as Snake Oil

Will nuclear power be a part of our energy future? I don’t think so. We’re starting to understand even now that the costs of producing nuclear energy are simply too staggering to come to terms with. We all want inexpensive energy. That’s why nuclear should have never been considered an option in the first place, but when you don’t do a full cost accounting, you end up being swindled by salespeople.

When you hear that nuclear power can be produced at 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour, but wind power costs upwards of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, it sounds like nuclear is a great deal. However, when you factor in the true costs of nuclear, which include the mining and refining of uranium ore, along with the multi-billions in unbudgeted costs related to the long-term storage of radioactive materials (not to mention transportation costs for those materials to the facility, if it ever gets built), it’s clear that wind is a better deal, as it doesn’t produce any hazardous waste materials.

Even when you factor in manufacturing costs for turbines, that’s nothing in comparison to building a new nuclear reactor. Energy from new nuclear reactors will actually have a baseline costs closer to 20 cents per kilowatt hour, and even that doesn’t take into consideration costs associated with mining/refining and the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Wind just makes a lot more sense from a cost perspective.

Moving to a Renewable Energy Future

But Canada won’t be powered exclusively by wind, because the wind doesn’t always blow. Solar power is becoming cheaper due to better technology, and its waste by-products aren’t anywhere near as dangerous as nuclear. And let’s not forget that hydro power in Canada is abundant. Right now, thanks to the historic wise investments made in hydro power in Quebec and Manitoba (while Ontario experimented with expensive nuclear), there’s more power being produced in Canada than we need as a nation. A lot of that excess capacity travels south to the United States. And when the Lower Churchill area is finally brought on line, presuming Quebec and Newfoundland figure out a way to play nicely together, we’ll have even more renewable capacity.

It’s true, there are environmental costs associated with hydro power which we’ll need to factor into any equation. It would be remiss of me to suggest otherwise in a blog about the importance of costs. But those costs, whatever they may be for a specific project, will need to be assessed fully and comprehensively at the time a project comes forward.

The best way to reduce our costs, however, when it comes to energy, is to simply use less of it. Canadians are one of the world’s biggest per capita energy consumers. If we simply used less of it, we could save ourselves some money while simultaneously increasing supplies. Conservation doesn’t have to be hard. But in our culture of convenience, it’s something that’s rarely top of mind. It’s easier for all of us to demand more energy production than to make the decisions to use less.

Time of use pricing, of course, will start to play a role in conservation efforts. If I can save money by using energy during off-peak hours, I’ll be more than happy to do so.

Bequeathing Our Debt to Our Children

We need to start getting serious about passing on our costs to future generations. Canada is running a $40 billion deficit right now, thanks to gluttonous spending of stimulus dollars. Sure, some good things happened from spending that money (although I think we could have spent the money much more wisely, by focusing on energy efficiencies!), but what are our chances of paying for those costs any time soon, and still enjoying the level of services we’ve come to expect as Canadians? Simply put, there isn’t any chance. Either taxes will have to be raised, or cuts will need to be made. Or we’ll just have to keep passing costs on to our kids.

Eliminating the deficit is one thing, though. The fact is, the spending from 2009 and 2010 is now a part of our debt, which stands at over $230 billion. Our kids and their kids will be paying down the debt, unless nations around the world get together and hit the reset buttons, which doesn’t seem likely. Much more likely is that we’ve already started bumping up against the limits of growth, and either we’ll find a way to move towards sustainable local economies (and away from an unsustainable global economy), or there’ll need to be fewer of us around to consume resources at the rates we’re doing so today.

Change is coming. I remain optimistic that we’ll find a way to meet the challenges head-on. A good start will be to begin looking at the full costs associated with any proposed investment which relies on our taxpayer dollars. That didn’t happen in 2008-10 with the so-called “economic stimulus”. Did we really need more gazebos at a time when there’s a two year long wait for social housing? Did we have to repave roads without thinking about simple little things like bike lanes? Was important for us to bail out the auto sector without requiring them to get their act together on fuel efficiency for their vehicles? No, we just through money at stuff and hoped that jobs would be created (or maintained).

Getting our Act Together

We can’t keep doing this. Unless an economic case can be made for new investments, we shouldn’t be using taxpayers dollars to subsidize any project. We can’t keep passing along the costs to our children, after deriving the benefit of the subsidy ourselves. It’s time to get serious about living within our means. And that’s why this dogmatic idea that we need to grow our economy at all costs will have to be abandoned, because it’s not working.

If living within our means and fully costing public investments sounds radical to you, guaranteed that it will make perfect sense to your grandchildren. I’m very worried about what my daughter is going to think about me and my wasteful generation when she turns 20. Already, Generation Y is pointing to my generation and that of my parents with accusatory fingers, telling us that we’ve f***ed up the planet. Sure, we’ve done a lot of good, but we did a lot of that good for ourselves, and passed along the costs for that good to our kids. That’s not really the best way to manage our finances now, is it?

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Limits to Growth and the Coming Recession: Why Measuring Matters

“If it matters, measure it.” – Stephen Harper, speaking of the funding of maternal health projects announced on September 20, 2011, with regards to the need to implement international commitments.

“If it matters, measure it.” - motto of the Fraser Institute.

“It’s all in the mind, y’know?” – Ringo Starr, “Yellow Submarine” (the movie)

When it comes to our economic successes, or lack thereof, it matters that we measure where we are today, and where we’re likely to be heading in the future. While some say that past performance is the best indicator of future expectations, it isn’t. At least not when it comes to economics. Being able to figure out where we are today, what tomorrow’s needs are, and plotting a course on how we get there, that’s what really matters.

Yet, ask your average economist which road we need to find ourselves on, and you’ll get a clear answer: If the economy doesn’t grow, we’ll enter into a recessionary period, which leads to unemployment and economic contraction. And that’s bad, bad, bad.

The spectre of rising unemployment is certainly problematic, and it’s something that I’m very concerned about as I look around and witness stock markets beginning to bottom out around the globe. The question on the minds of economists now is whether to stimulate the economy further, as President Obama and some of the continental Europeans are advocating, or whether to implement austerity measures, as suggested by Republican Tea-Partiers, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherety, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Of course, every-day average people are simply worried whether or not they’ll be able to hold onto their jobs if we experience another global slow down.

The Great Stimulus of ‘08

In the past, just recently in 2008, we managed to stave off the worst of the Great Recession through global stimulus programs which injected massive amounts of money into new projects, some of which even created jobs. Of course, in the United States, a lot of tax payers money went to bailing out banks, and ultimately to the salaries of high-paid banking executives. Where ever those dollars ended up, one thing can’t be denied: the global stimulus of taxpayer dollars pumped into private enterprise restored confidence to shaky markets, and the major doom and gloom scenarios being predicted by some did not occur.

I say that it was taxpayers dollars which funded the stimulus programs, but some further refinement is necessary to understand what really happened. It wasn’t really my tax dollars which funded those programs which saw government money flow to the private sector (whether to bail out banks, or to repair roads). No, it wasn’t my money. The taxpayer dollars which provided the stimulus weren’t taken out of my pocket: they were taken out of the thin air. They now exist as additional debt at the provincial and national levels of government, to be serviced by future taxpayers.

So it wasn’t that we were spending my money or your money, at least not at the time. It’s only now that the bills are starting to come due that you and I are going to have to pay. With interest. And we’ll continue to service this debt until our children start paying taxes in order to make their own contributions to the debt.

The Confidence Game

That we are living beyond on our means is very clear in economic terms. Yet so few economists appear to be concerned about the levels of debt that taxpayers are required to service. Well, at least they appear to be unconcerned publicly, despite the multi-billion dollar deficits accruing at the provincial and national levels of government in Canada. Not to mention the more than one trillion dollar deficit in the United States.

However, if economists were to express their sincere concerns regarding the economic health of the world, surely it would shake the public’s confidence in the entire economic system. And that system would collapse like the house of cards that it is. Our economic system is, of course, based on the idea of confidence more than on any other notion.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. The value of money used to be representative of the value of resource holdings, such as gold. There used to be a time that you could show up at your bank and redeem your paper money for gold. That system had been in place for hundreds of years, but that all went away in the last century. Now, your paper money is worth only what we, collectively, believe it to be worth. Our beliefs in the value of money are expressed in our confidence in the economic system. When market values go up, and we’re more confident, our general economic outlook is rosier. When markets go down, we’re a little more concerned about our economic health. When markets crash, wealth can be wiped out very quickly, and a nervousness about those markets remains. Confidence is lost, and won’t be rebuilt quickly.

How can it be that confidence is propping up our entire economic system? I’d not suggest running this experiment, but there’s a good chance that we’ll find ourselves in the midst of it sooner or later: take away confidence from the system, and see how quickly the entire system collapses. And then you’ll know what the secret behind the basis of our economic health is: as Ringo Starr said in “Yellow Submarine”, “It’s all in the mind, y’know?”

Physical Limits

Unfortunately, we can’t wish ourselves into prosperity with positive thinking in the same manner that we can find ourselves in a recession due to a loss of confidence. The reason for this is that continued economic growth has started to butt its head up against some significant and very real barriers. Rising resource prices might be in part due to speculation within the economic system, but with static agricultural output and more mouths to feed, the laws of supply and demand have clearly kicked in. Of course, it’s not that simple, even with food. For although the world as a whole is getting richer, the gap between the rich and the rest of us has grown wider, which means that (when coupled with population growth), there is actually less wealth available for a larger number of people today than there was 20 or 30 years ago.

And that’s important when it comes to food production and consumption. If less food is being produced, the price will be driven up. But rich countries have a lot more room to absorb rising prices than do poorer nations, so the rich countries will continue to take what they want, leaving behind a smaller share for the poorer countries needs. If you want a measurement that matters to be able to plan for the future, you’d think that having less food being available to an increasing number of people would be one we’d all want to pay attention to.

Of course, there’s another reason why food prices are climbing, and it has everything to do energy inputs into our agricultural system. Who knew that farming was an industrial activity?

Peak Oil

The production of oil has stagnated in the past several years, as a result of hitting its global production peak. “Peak oil” refers to the circumstance where overall production first stagnates, and then begins to decrease, as it can not be replaced with new production coming on line. This phenomenon isn’t unique to oil production; in fact, the production of any non-renewable resource will peak at some point. It’s just that we’ve started to talk about peak oil lately as oil has been the main fuel we’ve used to power the engines of our economy in the pursuit of ever more (and necessary) growth.

Right now, the global demand for oil has never been higher. In the past, where demand outpaced supply, new production was found, and eventually brought on line, adding to overall supply and, interestingly, lowering prices.

That scenario played back in the 1970s, after the OPEC countries threw the west into economic turmoil by demanding a higher price for their oil. Western countries reluctantly paid the higher price for gasoline, but to increase their oil security, turned to new areas for exploration. Not wanting to rely on a limited source under the thumb of governments they couldn’t control, new deposits of oil were exploited, such as the North Sea and Alberta’s Tar Sands. By the 1980s, the price of oil and gasoline had levelled out, and although the price didn’t return to what it had been pre-1973, the West experienced a massive increase in its economy throughout the 1980s. The increased demand for oil due to economic expansion meant that prices could only fall so low, but abundant oil and low energy prices fuelled the expansion. None of that would have happened unless new supplies were found to meet demand, and those supplies were exploited as quickly as possible to fuel the expansion.

Some believe that the same thing will happen again. And why wouldn’t it? If the economy remains healthy, we’ll continue to see a rise in demand, especially as nations like China continue their march towards industrialization. Exploration is now taking place deep in our oceans, and in the high Arctic. Exploration is even happening in the Antarctic, although only discretely and for the purposes of “science” as per the International Antarctic Treaty. There’s talk in the United States of opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve in that state’s remote north, to oil exploration and pipeline building. These new supplies, when brought online, are sure to meet growing demands, just as we’ve done in the past, right?

Well, no. Even should these hard-to-reach and expensive-to-pump supplies be brought online, we’ll still be in a situation where tomorrow’s production will not exceed global peak production, which was estimated to have occurred either in 2006 or 2007, according to the International Energy Agency’s annual 2010 bulletin (the text says 2007, but the graphic shows a peak in 2006; either way, the IEA hadn’t even acknowledged that peak oil was even a possibility until 2009, so to say, “Whoops, it’s peaked!” in 2010 was a pretty progressive step forward for that organization).

So, if global oil production can’t meet the global demand for oil, what’s going to fuel economic growth? Uhm….

A New Paradigm

And that’s why continued growth can’t be fuelled by wishful thinking. And that’s also why past behaviour isn’t the best predictor of future outcomes – because the future isn’t going to be like the past.

Simply put, we’ve entered into a new paradigm. And while I hate that word, “paradigm”, there is no better way to describe the current circumstance. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben chose a different way of explaining this new paradigm in his book, “Eaarth”, in which he successfully managed to avoid ever using the term “paradigm” or “paradigm shift”. McKibben tried to explain it this way: we’re no longer living on the planet Earth that we thought we were living on. Because today’s circumstances (physical, economic, social and environmental) are so radically different from the way things were even back in the 1980s, we need to begin to start thinking that we’re actually inhabiting a completely different planet. This ain’t your father’s Earth.

In other words, we need to give our collective mindsets a shake. The lessons that we’ve learned in the past about good economic stewardship no longer apply to the present situation.

Yet, here we are in 2011, talking about how best to stave off a recession (stimulus vs. austerity) which, when put into the context of butting up against the limits of growth seems all but inevitable. If physically the coming recession is an inevitability, doesn’t it make more sense to actually admit that we’ve got a problem on our hands, and begin to make preparations to deal with it? We’ve got the measure of the matter, shouldn’t that guide our decision making?

Preparing for the Flood

I seem to recall that in Manitoba earlier this year, people knew that flooding was going to happen on the river in front of their homes, and they started sandbagging their property in order to protect it. And then they helped their neighbours do the same.

But we’re not doing that with the coming recession. Instead, we’re ignoring the warnings that the river is rising, and worse, we’re telling our neighbours who are seeing signs that the waters are starting to rise, not to worry. And worse than worse, we’re belittling our neighbour’s efforts when they start to fill those sandbags. Instead, we are revelling in our knowledge that we’ve at least not lost confidence that everything is going to be ok. There wasn’t a flood last year, and even back in 2008 and 2009, the predicted flood wasn’t as bad as everybody thought it would be. Why worry? Why help out with the neighbour foolishly filling sandbags? Invite him over for a beer instead and watch the football game. Those Bills are sure a surprise this year, huh?

The Dogma of Economic Growth: Why Our Leaders Aren’t Leading

Of course, if the experts admit that there’s going to be a recession, we’d expect that they’d begin to start talking about the best ways to mitigate against the impacts of the recession. The truth is that our experts aren’t able to have that kind of conversation with the public, because to do so would mean that they would have to admit that everything that they’ve believed in up until now was bunk, and will not be of assistance when the floodwaters rise. If our leaders wanted to get serious with voters about how best to insulate ourselves from the recession, they will have to admit that the investments which they have made with our taxpayers dollars were, in fact, generally very unwise to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Since voters don’t usually like hearing that kind of story, it won’t get told. At least not by our current crop of leaders. So I guess we need some new leaders, right?

The Dogma of Economic Growth: Why We Don’t Want Our Leaders to Lead

Of course we ourselves would be in for a very rude awakening too, if we were to admit to ourselves that our entire economic system isn’t working in our best interests, as it is predicated on the notion that not only is growth good, but growth is always required to avoid economic collapse. As we are now approaching physical limits to growth, we’ve kind of put ourselves behind the 8-ball. What were we thinking? Did we really need all of this crap to make us happy? Our real wealth hasn’t increased anyway. What the heck have we all been working our butts off for these past couple of decades? We’re not better off; we’ve not reaped the benefits of our tireless work. Only the richest amongst us have harvested the real wealth created through a growing global economy. Who profited from our work?

Never mind. Have a beer and watch the game while it’s still on.

Measurements that Matter

If it matters, however, we have to measure it. If the future matters to us, we have to take stock of where we are today. The measuring has been going on for some time now, but it seems that the results just aren’t sinking in. We know that the middle class is shrinking, that there are more poor people today than there were 20 years ago. We know that we’ve created an unprecedented amount of wealth since the 1980s, but the middle class is only marginally better off (and by some measurements, we’re not better off at all). What happened to all of that wealth? It went to the richest amongst us, who are paying even fewer taxes today than they were 30 and 40 years ago.

We know that we have run out of inexpensive energy. We know that we are in the process of altering our climate. We know that either one of these crises would be sure to lead to less food being produced, and less clean water being available for consumption. Together, it’s an absolute given that our industrial agricultural processes will not meet the needs of our growing population. It is clear that as energy and food prices rise, an increasing number of people will starve. Often, when people are starving, civil unrest, even war abounds, which creates security issues for neighbouring nations.

And while war may be good for economic growth, it’s generally not a good thing for the people who find themselves impacted by it. And the idea that war is good for the economy has even come under fire lately, for although wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed significantly to GDP growth in the United States (an economist will tell you that GDP growth is a “good thing”), these wars were financed by credit – public money created out of thin air, subject to interest payments. Americans will be paying the price for these wars when those bills come due. War’s contribution to America’s annual trillion dollar deficits can not be understated.

The measurements are all around us, yet we aren’t paying attention to them. We’d rather believe in the resiliency of human nature to overcome any challenges that we must face. We’d rather convince ourselves that we have confidence in the ability of our economic system to continue its upward expansion, and if we experience a few setbacks in terms of recessions every once in a while, well, ups and downs are normal. There’s nothing to see here, move along now. Have a beer and watch the game.

When the Flood Comes, Guess What? We’re All In This Together

Unfortunately, I’m your neighbour, and I can no longer live in denial that the water is rising. And every day, another neighbour’s eyes are opened to the measurements that tell us that the water is rising. We look to each other for assistance, to begin the process of building that community we need to move forward together. Yet our leaders tell us not to worry, that there is no flood headed our way. And we know that they’re lying to us because they’re too embarrassed, too entrenched with their dogmatic way of thinking to tell us the truth. You, however…you continue to believe those leaders. We, however, have the evidence that we’ve got to take action together.

Please. Put your beer down, and turn the game off, and come outside and see that the waters are rising. See that your neighbours are going to need your help to make it through this thing together (and understand too that you’re going to need our help as well). If you do nothing more than stop repeating the dogmatic mantra of the vested interests, that “Growth is Good, Everything is going to be all right”, even that would be a help to the rest of us who want to get on with the packing the sandbags.

Confidence in our current economic systems is all in the mind, y’know? If it matters, it must be measured. We need to use those measurements to find a way forward. Right now, our leaders are keen on burying the measurements and humming a happy song about how great it is to live in an imaginary world. With or without them (although preferably without), you and I need to work together to secure ourselves and our community from the coming flood. Can I count on you, neighbour?

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Transportation Choices: Getting the Priorities Right in Greater Sudbury

(the following post was originally printed in the August, 2011 edition of the ReThink Green newsletter under the title, "Transportation Choices: Getting the Priorities Right")

When it comes to getting around in Greater Sudbury, it’s all about roads. Our sprawling city is connected by thousands of kilometres of asphalt, the quality of which Sudburians are never reluctant to complain about. Most Sudburians can’t imagine getting around without their cars. However, for an increasing number of those in our community, car ownership isn’t an option. Whether that’s due to the rising price of gas, or higher personal debt (often as the result of student loans), increasingly people in our City have begun to make alternative transportation choices.

What Sudburians have discovered when they’ve decided to get around without the benefit of a car is that our City doesn’t provide the most pleasant environment for those on foot, bike or the bus.

Let me be upfront here: I own a car, and I am often a motorist. But I am also a pedestrian, and not just when I am walking between my parked car and the entranceway to a mall or big-box store. I am also a cyclist. And I take the bus. I suspect that many of you experience getting around our City in the same ways that I do. So when I’m writing about motorists and pedestrians, I’m really writing about all of us.

Choices have been made in Greater Sudbury which ultimately have proven to be little different than choices made throughout North America. Our love of the car and the convenience which it has given us has meant that we have prioritized its use over all other forms of transportation. This has happened despite our knowledge that personal vehicles powered by fossil fuels are the least sustainable form of transportation available to us.

Our car-based convenience culture has contributed to climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. It has led to the development of inefficient suburban communities which will function poorly as the price of energy becomes increasingly expensive. It has led to unhealthy lifestyle choices and an epidemic of obesity.

But it does seem to get us to where we’re going more quickly than other means of transport! Time is money, after all. And when time is money, nothing beats the car.

Car ownership doesn’t come cheap, which is why more people are choosing not to buy or lease cars. Purchase prices, insurance, gasoline, routine maintenance, and the joys of those unexpected little things going wrong all contribute to the high price of car ownership. Often, because we are paying so much for our vehicles, we expect our governments to off-set other costs which can be controlled. In Greater Sudbury, this has translated into an expectation that our roads will be in good shape for driving at all times of the year, and that they will allow us to move about as quickly as possible.

We car owners resent having to pay for parking. We look upon provincial licensing fees as a cash grab. We like to think that the tax we pay on our gas and through fees are going towards building better roads for us to drive on. We would openly rebel if there was talk of putting a toll gate on a roadway important to us. Don’t we pay enough already to drive our cars?

No, actually, we don’t. When the real costs are tallied up, it’s clear that car drivers are being subsidized by society, which happens in many familiar, and some unfamiliar, ways. Our governments offset oil exploration costs through direct favourable taxation policies. We allow oil producers and car owners to pollute our atmosphere at no cost, despite the health- and environment-related costs of doing so. And while our governments tax gasoline, the amount of revenue collected makes only the smallest dint in the road maintenance budgets of our federal, provincial and municipal governments.

In Greater Sudbury, the heaviest burden of road maintenance, which includes winter snow-plowing, falls upon the backs of property tax payers. While our municipal government may receive special grants from higher levels of government for road repair and maintenance (especially for things like bridges), the lion’s share of money set aside for these activities comes from you and me. If you own a home or rent, you’re paying property taxes, a good portion of which goes directly into the roads budget – whether you own a car or not.

Further, have you ever thought about the extent of land which has been set aside for roads and parking? What other uses might we have made out of those lands if our priorities were different? For example, there are numerous municipal parking lots in the City’s downtown, which admittedly generate some revenue for the City, but ultimately having these public lands set aside for the exclusive use of car owners is a subsidy. We all pay for the maintenance of parking lots. That municipal parking lots generate revenue might make us feel a little better, but perhaps more revenue would be generated from their sale to private enterprise, potentially to be used for housing in the core, or new businesses.

We often don’t think about the extent of private lands which have been set aside for parking, but the amount is considerable. Developers of new subdivisions must ensure that a certain portion of land is made available for driveway parking. Without this requirement, developers could build more affordable homes on smaller lots. Instead, our parking requirements lead to less efficient, spread-out communities, which are detrimental to the use of alternative forms of transportation.

Think about the New Sudbury Centre for a moment, and the sheer amount of land in a core area of our community which has been set aside for parking. What higher and better use might this land be used for? What kind of transit-supportive mixed-use communities could be established amidst the wastelands of parking lots around our malls?

But, say some, no one would go to the mall if you couldn’t park there. To which others might reply that there would be no need to drive to the places where you shop if they were within walking distance or if better public transportation were available.

Our transportation corridors have been built to maximize the speed at which cars are able to get around, often at the expense of all other forms of transportation. The way in which signalized intersections give preference to cars over pedestrians, along with the built environment of these transportation corridors have made parts of our City very unfriendly to pedestrians. Larger lane widths which facilitate greater vehicular speeds actually put slower-moving cyclists at risk. Winding bus routes through suburban subdivisions make transit use undesirable and problematic for many.

Instead of choosing to promote more sustainable forms of transportation, we have over the years prioritized car ownership, and constructed our cities and tax systems for the benefit of cars over pedestrians. That this choice has proven to be the least sustainable in terms of the long term health of our environment and economy is becoming increasingly obvious. Yet many in our community will still fail to see the need to begin shifting our resources into the promotion of healthier, more sustainable transportation systems. Some may even refer to these ideas as waging a “war on the car”. It’s nothing of the sort, of course; but when a few minutes travel time may be put in jeopardy by providing a new, safe pedestrian access route, or through the traffic-calming presence of cyclists sharing the road, to some drivers, it may seem that way.

Nevertheless, we must begin planning for the future which will find ourselves in, and it’s not going to be like the past. The end of inexpensive fossil fuels and a growing awareness of the real costs of carbon pollution are sure to drive up the costs of car ownership and use. An increasing number of your neighbours will be looking to get around this City without a car. We must begin the transformation of our car-centric City into a people-centred community.

That means that we need to rethink how we design our communities and allocate our transportation budgets. That doesn’t mean that we will stop repairing roads and vehicular transport infrastructure, especially when safety is an issue. But it might mean giving prioritization in our budgeting processes to projects which make pedestrian, cycling and transit infrastructure safer and more accessible for users, as there are sure to be more of them in the future than there are today.

-Steve May
(Along with being a motorist, cyclist, pedestrian and transit user, Steve May is the CEO of the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association)

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

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The NDP's Lip-Service to Democracy Misleads Canadians

I am directing today’s blogpost specifically at those NDP supporters who have an interest in addressing Canada’s democratic deficit. Although I am writing from a partisan perspective, I nevertheless invite you to take a very critical look at what your support for the NDP has actually accomplished when it comes to addressing the democratic health of this nation. I believe that the record of the NDP on this issue speaks volumes, and that in fact that your support for the NDP, which has promised action on democratic renewal, has actually led to a circumstance which is increasingly detrimental to the principles of democracy.

I became a partisan in large part because of my dissatisfaction of the NDP’s lip-service to issues such as the climate crisis and democratic renewal. As environmentally-minded Democrats in the United States are now finding out, those who claim to champion an issue and then do nothing when in power, are equally or more dangerous than partisans who are outright opposed to a particular issue. That’s what has been happening with the NDP with regards to addressing Canada’s democratic deficit. Although I speak to you today as a partisan from another Party, one with a different tradition than yours, I ask you to nonetheless take a close look at what your past support of the NDP has really accomplished when it comes to addressing Canada’s growing democratic deficit. I believe that you won’t help but see that the NDP, despite offering solutions, has in fact been a significant part of the problem.

The NDP: First-Past-The-Post Electoral Reform

Canadians like to think that we live in a representative democracy, where every vote counts. However, throughout the country, our elections for provincial and federal representatives all use the antiquated First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, in which the candidate with the highest number of total votes will be selected to represent a particular geographic area (a riding), no matter that the candidate may have failed to receive a majority mandate. In a two-party system, the FPTP system would assuredly work well, but Canada has never had a two-party system. Even back before the days of the NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), there were other parties, including the Progressive Party, and in Ontario, the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) which challenged for, and in some cases, obtained electoral power.

Clearly, not every vote counts in Canada’s elections. In the federal riding that I grew up in, Bramale-Malton-Gore, for example, the winning Conservative candidate received 34.4% of the vote in the May, 2011 election. Voters who cast ballots for other candidates, including the 33.5% who voted NDP and the 28.4% who voted Liberal, have nothing to show for their ballots, because their candidates failed to receive the most votes. No candidate received a majority.

Bramalea-Gore-Malton is not unique amongst Canadian ridings. As a result, movements to reform our electoral processes have been afoot throughout the nation. These movements champion alternative electoral systems, such as those used in most other democratic nations. Canada’s FPTP electoral system is actually in minority use throughout the world, as most other democracies have abandoned it (or never instituted it in the first place) due to the skewed results the system often leads to, while disenfranchising voters.

The New Democratic Party is often portrayed as a champion of Canadian democracy. Most often, this is because the NDP claims that it is interested in changing the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. Partisans from other political parties, notably Liberals and Conservatives, have derided this plank of the NDP’s platform, claiming that the NDP has historically wanted to change the system because it could never elect enough legislators to have an impact on the political system.

However, that perspective should be considered nonsensical, especially now with the federal NDP polling at numbers close to the ruling Conservative Party’s. And the NDP’s provincial electoral successes have clearly demonstrated that the NDP can form a government under the FPTP electoral system.

Indeed, in recent times, the NDP have governed in Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Interestingly, although the NDP has claimed to be an advocate for democratic renewal and reforms to FPTP electoral systems, when in power, the NDP hasn’t done a thing to reform our antiquated electoral systems.

In fact, it was left to Liberal parties in Ontario and in British Columbia to put electoral reform to the people in referendums.

The NDP and the Power of Votes: Maintaining the Outdated Rural/Urban Status Quo

When it comes to one person, one vote, where has the NDP been?

Recently, Interim Leader of the NDP Nycole Turmel found herself opposing electoral reforms being brought forward by the Conservative Party, which are intended to add ridings in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, as a result of population increases in those provinces. Right now, there is perverse situation which exists in Canada whereby rural votes actually wield more proportional power than do their urban counterparts, due to the number of votes which are required to elect a legislator. While Canada strives to have an average of about 90,000 voters per riding, the fact is that due to out-migration, many rural ridings have significantly fewer voters than the average, while fast-growing ridings like Brampton West in the Greater Toronto Area have closer to 160,000.

Instead of embracing the idea of empowering voters (or better yet, demanding real change calling for the introduction of an alternative electoral system), Turmel and the NDP were dismissive of the government’s plan to create new ridings. Ostensibly, Turmel insisted that the interests of rural ridings be considered. Yet those rural ridings are the ones whose electors have wielded disproportionate power in the first place; it’s in the rural ridings where the problem lies.

Does the NDP want to maintain the electoral status quo, and tell new immigrants to Canada’s most populous areas that they should continue to accept proportional disenfranchisement? Does the NDP really want to say to urban voters that it’s ok that your votes don’t count as much as do the votes of rural Canadians? Apparently, purely for partisan reasons, that’s exactly what the NDP wants to accomplish, because those parts of Ontario, Alberta and B.C. have been difficult ones for the NDP to make breakthroughs in. Plus, now that the NDP represents the majority of Quebec ridings, it needs to do a better job of looking out for the interests of Quebec. Although Turmel didn’t say so, might it be that the NDP’s dismissiveness of the Conservative plan has more to do with a relative weakening of the power of Quebec legislators, due to the addition of seats of in other provinces?

Again, the NDP seems committed to a course of action where the concept of “one person, one vote” is compromised.

The NDP: Internal Elections and the Power of Unions (“Non-Persons”)

Even internally, the NDP have never used a “one person, one vote” system to elect members to its own governance structure, or for the election of their Leader. When Jack Layton became the Leader of the NDP almost a decade ago, 25% of votes in the leadership contest were allocated to unions. This means that grassroots members of the NDP didn’t have the final say on who the Leader of the Party would be, not until the unions cast their ballots. Now, unions may be comprised of real people, but they, like corporations, aren’t real people themselves. Yet the NDP, due to its historical association with the labour movements and trade unions, has always given the unions prominence of place in their internal elections.

Currently, there is a movement brewing inside of the NDP to curtail the voting power of the unions, in time for next year’s leadership contest. Given that the NDP hasn’t held a leadership contest in almost a decade, it’s unclear if those new, youthful card-carrying members of the NDP might be aware that under existing rules, their votes don’t count in the same way as an incorporated union, a non-person’s, does.

Right now, it’s not clear whether the NDP will abandon this special treatment they have historically afforded to the unions. It looks like leading candidate Thomas Mulcair (who, not surprisingly, is being pushed out by the internal NDP apparatus) is advocating for the change; but NDP insider, President Brian Topp, is against removing the special treatment for unions at the ballot box.

I agree that political parties should be entitled to elect their Leaders in any way they see fit. As I’m not a member of the NDP, it’s really none of my business what the NDP does internally to make up its own election rules. But as a Canadian concerned about reforming our provincial and national electoral rules, it seems to me that a party which doesn’t believe in the principle of “one person, one vote” or another type of representative choice, and which instead embraces the notion that corporate entities (“non-people”) have the right decide election outcomes (as their votes are proportionately worth more than the thousands of grassroots party members), well, that doesn’t sit well with me. And it shouldn’t sit well with anybody else who is concerned about Canada’s democratic deficit.

The NDP: Choosing Partisanship Over Democracy at Every Opportunity

When it comes to the democratic health of Canada, the NDP have been very good at paying lip-service to democratic principles. However, when opportunities have arisen for the NDP to show leadership, they have failed to do so in every circumstance.

Jack Layton, the former Leader of the NDP, was given an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on democracy back in 2008. At the beginning of the 2008 federal election, a group of media broadcasters, responsible for hosting the televised leadership debates, made a decision that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, would be shut out of participating in the debates, despite the fact that the Green Party was running candidates across the country.

Instead of following then-Liberal Leader Stephane Dion’s lead to condemn the unelected and unaccountable Broadcast Consortium’s decision to exclude May, Layton’s knee-jerk reaction was to express his consent with the Consortium’s decision. This despite the fact that Layton was fully aware that the televised leader’s debates offers its participants an unparalleled opportunity to engage the Canadian electorate.

Layton eventually changed his mind, but not until NDP-supporters across Canada demanded that May be allowed the opportunity to participate in what amounted to a spontaneous uprising. NDP members were heard on national TV and radio programs to lament that Layton seemed more interested in playing partisan politics in silencing May than he was in promoting democracy.

The NDP: Consenting to Silence Other Voices at Every Opportunity

Of course, when the Broadcast Consortium came to the same conclusion to exclude Elizabeth May from the 2011 debates, Layton was seen to mouth his regrets about the decision – but then did nothing to further the interests of democracy.

What is often forgotten in these shameful episode is that the television broadcasters, the NDP, Conservative, Liberal and Bloc parties were involved in negotiations before and after decisions were made to exclude May. The Green Party was not present at the table, and decisions about May’s participation were made in negotiation with representatives from May’s political rivals, including the NDP.

The NDP, of course, led by Layton, was probably the biggest beneficiary of this behind-closed-doors decision to exclude May from the 2011 debates. Layton’s knock-out blows against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff opened the eyes of the electorate to the NDP as a real alternative to the inept Liberals and fumbling Bloc. Almost overnight, Layton’s personal popularity soared, and he bootstrapped the rest of the NDP into the biggest electoral success experienced by that federal party ever. By having a hand in shutting out the voice of a compelling political rival, Layton set the scene for the NDP’s ultimate success, but at the expense of putting the NDP’s own interests ahead of the democratic interests of the nation.

In Ontario, the Provincial NDP Follows Suit

Layton, of course, wasn’t alone in doing so. Just this past weekend, the Ontario provincial election’s leaders debate was announced. Again, the Green Party will be excluded from the debate, despite its 8% showing in the last election, and its goal to run candidates in every riding. Clearly, the Green Party of Ontario is a pan-provincial party with a fully-developed suite of policies.

Ontario’s public broadcaster, TVOntario, clearly agrees with that assessment, as it announced this weekend that Greens would, for the first time, be represented on all TVO partisan political panels. Why? Because it’s in the interests of democracy to do so.

Yet, the provincial broadcaster’s decision not to invite Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario, has been met with silence from the NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and her Party, despite claiming to be champions of democracy. Remember: the NDP participated in discussions with broadcasters. The NDP could have chosen to stand up for doing the right thing, but for partisan gain, they instead chose to silence the voice of a political rival.

Greens have participated in televised leaders debates in provincial elections in BC, PEI and New Brunswick. There’s no good reason that they should be excluded from the debates here in Ontario. Only partisan political interests by the other parties have led to this outcome. Those Ontarians concerned about democratic health have clearly been let down by the NDP yet again.

The NDP: Dangerously Misleading Canadians

I am someone who is very concerned about the growing democratic deficit in this country. And I am continually frustrated that the NDP, a party whose supporters clearly believe it be a party above the partisan fray when it comes to the interests of democracy, that the NDP continues to always put their partisan interests ahead of the democratic interests of Canadians. The NDP, at best, pays lip-service to the principles of democratic renewal. If they would only practice what they preach, all Canadians would be better off. However, by pretending to want to do something on the issue, Canadians who long for real democratic reform are being misled by the NDP, causing more damage in the long run.

Perhaps, if you’re truly interested in the democratic health of this nation, and you’ve been a supporter of the NDP, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere.

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

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Door Exists for the Liberal Party. Will Liberals Step Through It?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been blogging about the media’s ideas related to an NDP-Liberal Party merger, and I’ve shared my own thoughts about why I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve expressed the notion that a merged Party of grits and dippers would become a party of compromise, offering little in the way of bold vision, opting instead for the sorts of boutique public policies voters have become familiar with in the past little while emerging from the NDP and Liberal Parties. I’ve suggested that the zeitgeist of the times, the growing restlessness within the Canadian electorate (especially amongst younger Canadians) demands something newer and more significant – public engagement on the real significant issues of our time, which include the climate crisis and the end of inexpensive energy. I probably should have added democratic renewal to the list earlier this week. I’ll do so now.

I continue to believe that a Party of Compromise just won’t work. The result of a merged NDP and Liberal Party will be to drive blue Liberals away, and to leave the socialist element of the NDP feeling that they’ve lost their home. The Liberals can’t embrace the socialist aspects of the NDP, and the NDP just can’t buy into the corporatist policies of the Liberals. In this context, the only kind of party which could emerge would be a populist party offering up boutique, niche policies, but largely asking for your vote because they’re not the Conservative Party.

The NDP and the Politics of Spin - Not Good Enough

Canada deserves better than a party devoid of vision, wanting to govern for the sake of governing only, and setting itself up only in opposition to something else. That’s really a good description of both the current NDP and Liberal parties. We’ve seen the NDP move toward the centre of the political spectrum under Jack Layton, and the abandonment of principles in favour of populism and spin. Getting elected has become more important to the NDP than good public policy.

The NDP’s opposition to Stephane Dion’s emissions-reducing carbon tax, coupled with Jack Layton’s cynical scuttling of Paul Martin’s government at a crucial time in global climate change negotiations has shown that the NDP isn’t serious about the climate crisis. Provincial New Democratic parties have followed his lead: in British Columbia, the NDP opposed the globally renowned carbon tax introduced by former Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal Party. In Ontario, we actually have the perverse situation where NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has proposed public policies which will make it easier for Ontarians to consume more gasoline and electricity, which will only increase our dependence on fossil fuel resources at a time when those resources are becoming more expensive.

Jack Layton also used to talk a lot about Canada’s democratic deficit, and the NDP have long argued for proportional representation. Yet it’s clear that the NDP has only ever been all talk on this issue, despite that NDP supporters might insist otherwise. But the facts speak for themselves. When in power provincially, NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have done nothing to implement reforms to antiquated first-past-the-post electoral systems. Instead, it’s been left up to Liberal governments in both Ontario and BC to hold referendums on electoral reform (twice in BC), and although the Liberals in both provinces were clearly not committed to reforming the system, at least they put it to the people. The NDP have never done that.

Instead, what we’ve seen from the NDP have been efforts to frustrate Canada’s democratic processes. In 2008, Jack Layton’s initial reaction to leaving Elizabeth May, the Leader of the Green Party, out of the crucial televised leader’s debates was to throw his support to the broadcast consortium. Only when supporters within his own party rose up and demanded May’s inclusion did Layton change his mind. In 2011, when the broadcast consortium made the same decision about May’s participation, Layton mumbled words of disagreement, but did nothing to try to convince the consortium and Canadians that the consortium’s decision wasn't in the interests of democracy. Instead of supporting the principles of an open and accessible democracy, the NDP’s knee-jerk response has always been to put their party's own interests first.

Ideology and Politics

Some may say that all political parties behave this way. I guess that’s probably true, however it’s my observation that some political parties tend to do it more than others. And the NDP has, in the past decade under Layton, clearly led the pack in putting politics before principle. And yes I say that knowing that I'm torn up inside because Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party are remaking my Canada in their own image even as I write this blogpost. However, while Harper has sacrificed some ideology for political gain (most notably at the end of 2008, during the coalition crisis, when he bowed to pressure from the centre and left to inject massive stimulus dollars into the economy, raising the deficit to an all time high, which was clearly something fiscal conservatives were reluctant to do). The Conservative’s continued attack on the Long Gun registry also comes to mind, although even that attack on what should be perceived as a tool which assists with his law-and-order agenda at least appeals to the anti-government libertarian supporters within his party.

The Liberal Party has been more difficult to pin down on the issue of whether they’re more or less willing to sacrifice ideology for political gain. But that’s only because it’s very difficult to describe the Liberal Party of Canada as a party driven and motivated by ideology at all. The party may share some broad idea of promoting a progressive and liberal Canada, but beyond that, the Party’s successes have either been driven by singular policies (rather than vision or ideology), or by simply opposing the “other”.

Liberals Moving Left?

Most political pundits have suggested that the Liberal Party has shifted leftward on the political spectrum, having been squeezed by Harper and the Conservatives on the right, due to the Conservatives own leftward shift. Despite producing one of the most right-wing Prime Ministers in history in the form of Jean Chretien, I’m not certain that the leftward shift of the Liberals under Ignatieff was as pronounced as the pundits claim. Certainly Stephane Dion’s Liberals fought the 2008 election campaign to the left of Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006, but I believe that Ignatieff actually took the Liberals further to the right in 2011, having abandoned the more progressive public policies on offer from Stephane Dion.

OK, I realize that what I’ve written here defies “mainstream” thinking. Jean Chretien a right-winger? Stephane Dion’s new tax proposal a “progressive policy”? Ignatieff moving the Liberals to the right of the political spectrum instead of the left? Definetly not mainstream. Let me try to explain.

Climate Change as Political Game Changer

Stephane Dion has been involved in the issue of climate change for quite some time. You may recall that he was the Minister of the Environment at the time when Jack Layton joined Stephen Harper to take down Paul Martin’s government. You may also recall that Dion, during the Liberal Leadership race, decked out his supporters symbolically in green scarves. His carbon tax shift proposal had everything to do with his desire to address the climate crisis and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

It’s often forgotten that along with putting a tax on emission-producing goods and services, Dion’s proposal would have put more money back into the hands of working Canadians in the form of a sizable cut in personal income taxes. This would have left Canadians with more money in their pockets, with which they could choose to pay for carbon-heavy goods and services, or perhaps save by choosing instead goods and services which produce fewer emissions. Dion also championed policies previously proposed by Paul Martin which would have assisted lower-income Canadians (Martin’s national child care strategy comes to mind).

That he lifted his Green Shift carbon tax proposal from the Green Party holus bolus, save some tinkering to water down the expected results doesn't matter. Dion acted boldly when others who probably should have did not.

When Ignatieff became the Liberal Leader, he quickly disposed of Dion’s carbon tax policy (despite the Liberal membership’s recommitment to it at the same convention which saw Ignatieff anointed Leader). Ignatieff then began to embrace the tar sands as an economic boon to Canada, further scaring away green supporters in his own Party and distancing himself from Dion’s record, which at the time was considered to be one of failed public policy.

Good Public Policy / Bad Messaging

That Dion’s Liberals were soundly defeated in 2008 probably did have something to do with his progressive carbon tax proposal. Explaining it to Canadians was a difficult job, and not just for Dion. I remember watching the Liberal Party’s candidate for the Nickel Belt try to explain the policy at the Chamber of Commerce all-candidates meeting in Hanmer. After failing miserably to make any sense at all, the Green Party’s Fred Twilley had to step in and explain her Party’s own policy to her and everyone else in attendance.

No, clearly the communication of the carbon tax shift was an abject failure. And the Conservatives calling it “Stephane Dion’s tax on everything” didn’t help. But what also hurt was Jack Layton’s (in my opinion, inexplicable) attack on the policy. Layton and the NDP claimed to be interested in combating climate change, yet the sound public policy of taxing emissions was rejected by the NDP in favour of establishing a cap trade emissions trading scheme.

NDP Sabotage of Environmental Issues for Political Gain

Layton said that a cap and trade scheme would make the big polluters pay, instead of the little guy. He was partly correct; certainly, the big polluters would pay to purchase carbon credits up front. However, these costs would clearly be passed on to consumers down the road. And without the benefit of the offsetting cuts to income tax in their wallets, those consumers would have no extra wealth to pay for the rising costs of goods and services. So the manufacturing industry (especially small businesses, which have fewer resources to absorb additional costs) and average Canadians (especially those living in poverty), lose. Meanwhile, the real profiteers would have been the banks and the financial managers. That hardly fits the NDP’s claim to represent the interests of the little guy.

But Layton and the NDP wanted to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the Liberals, and try to convince Canadians that they were the better defenders of the environment through their muddy cap and trade proposal, which was even more difficult to explain to Canadians than Dion’s tax cut. But unlike Dion, Layton didn’t really bother to try. He simply reassured Canadians that the proposal was on the level, that environmentalists liked it, and that it was being implemented in other places, like Europe. So he avoided all critical analysis.

The Liberal Record on the Environment: Nothing to See Here, Keep Moving

That Michael Ignatieff dumped the good emissions-reducing carbon tax policy and chose to adopt a cap and trade position (and then not talk about it) says a lot about how the Liberals had embraced politics over vision. Was Ignatieff’s move ideologically motivated? Probably not so much, because the Liberals have only ever demonstrated a wishy-washy commitment to environmental issues anyway.

Does that hurt, Liberal Party supporters? What, aren’t the Liberals the Party that ratified the Kyoto Protocol? Sure, Chretien signed the document – but then he and the governing Liberal Party did less than nothing to implement it. Instead of developing a plan to lower emissions, in keeping with international commitments under Kyoto, the Liberals invested in the tar sands and let emission rise without intervention. Instead of a real plan for emissions reduction, we got Rick Mercer running around challenging average Canadians to reduce their own emissions through a 1 tonne challenge, while oil and gas companies were encouraged to ramp up unfettered production.

It has been more important for the Liberals to be perceived to be taking action on the environment rather than to actually take action. Stephane Dion actually wanted to change that with a serious proposal. And the Liberals stabbed him in the back after one failed election, and then turned their back on his good public policy in the next.

Hope for Change? Not So Much.

Could the NDP and the Liberals change in time for the next election? Yes, sure they could. The Liberal Party actually probably has the best chance to do so, along with the most motivation. The NDP will likely want to continue to cling to the notion that cap and trade, which has failed in Europe and Chicago, and which was rejected by the U.S. Congress, is the best tool in the climate crisis, largely for the political reason that a carbon tax is a policy position “owned” by the Liberals (and the Green Party). Instead of proposing a comprehensive set of policies to address climate change, we’ll probably end up with more of the same: a real hodge-podge which might take one step forward (eliminate corporate welfare to the wealthy oil and gas companies) and two steps back (remove taxes from home heating and gasoline so that Canadians can burn more emissions; establish an unworkable cap and trade scheme which makes the finance sector richer, average Canadians and small businesses poorer, and likely does nothing at all for actually reducing emissions when dubious “offsets” are factored in).

The Liberals, on the other hand, actually have a real chance of going back to Dion’s good public policy proposal. With the B.C. Liberal Party’s success with their carbon tax (now being looked at in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. as a model for moving forward towards a low-carbon economy), and with the Ontario Liberal Party’s success in encouraging renewable energy production, it’s quite possible that the Liberals might try to embrace the environment as their next big policy theme. That they will probably do so in a cumbersome and awkward way may doom them to failure again, given the difficulty in communicating to Canadians the importance of the issue, and how public policy can be implemented.

The Environment, and the Left and the Right

That the environment has become an issue equated with the “left” side of the political spectrum has been something which has saddened me personally, especially after having been embraced by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. However, the right has firmly established its credentials as the anti-environment fossil fuel industry-coddling side of the political spectrum. It didn’t have to be that way. Certainly the media has played a big role in entrenching the notion that “saving the environment” is a left-wing idea, and will harm the economy.

Saving the environment, as Greens know, would do no such thing. It’s actually a smart economic investment, especially when you factor in how much it will cost to not save the environment! If media pundits actually gave the whole issue more than a passing thought, it would quickly become clear that the lack of “environmental” policies on offer from the Conservatives are actually the biggest source of harm to Canada’s future economic fortunes. We Greens understand this, but we have a hell of a time getting this message out. Largely because Canada’s media simply doesn’t want to hear it.

Stephane Dion understood the issue, and he was thrown under the bus by the media and eventually by his own party.

The NDP might understand the issue intellectually, but they’re not actually willing to go to Canadians with solutions, for fear that those solutions will harm the jobs of unionized employees in carbon-intensive industries. And because they believe that there are few additional votes in the issue. Since the environment is an issue of the left, those left-wingers predisposed to wanting to save the environment will be voting NDP anyway, so the issue remains in the background, and solutions are complicated compromises which won’t be analyzed by anybody anyway.

The Conservatives might even understand the importance of the environment too, but since they are beholden to big business and because their core voter demographic are wealthy older white men, the best that they can do is to attack the environment at every opportunity, and keep everyone else divided on the issue.

Of course, the Green Party understands this issue. But our problem is getting the word out, especially when the NDP (and at least under Dion, the Liberals) pretend to be champions of the environment, without actually (for the most part) wanting to propose workable solutions (and by workable I here mean solutions which also make economic sense). The Green Party has failed on the basis of its political abilities, in my opinion, and not on issues of public policy.

Love, Hope and Optimism?

There are still reasons for optimism, though, and they may be found in the growing restlessness of our times, especially amongst our youth. However, I believe that real hope for change won’t be found in the NDP, unless youth can be the catalyst for change. Butting up against entrenched union ideologies which promote the brown economy over a low-carbon future, however, will be difficult for young idealists to overcome.

Instead, I believe that the best possible way forward lies with the Green movement, which in Canada right now is best represented by the Green Party. However, the Liberals have a chance to join the club, if they truly want to be game-changers. It will require Liberals to move into increasingly uncomfortable territory, however, and such moves will be opposed by some of the entrenched interests in that Party.

In short, the Liberal Party could become the Green Party, only with access to a better communications strategy. That door is open to the Liberals right now. They question is will they even acknowledge that the door exists, and perhaps dare to step through it?

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