Canada - Parliament

Canada's Parliament (Image: Chris Fane)

You would be forgiven if you looked at a map of Canada’s May 2 election results and did not see much evidence of Canada’s multi-party system, modelled on the United Kingdom’s Westminster style of government. The results from the election – the country’s fourth federal election in seven years – are historic on a number of counts.

The Conservative Party, on the right, has won a third consecutive term, this time achieving its long-sought majority (there are 308 Members of Paliament in Canada, and 155 seats are needed to form a majority government). The New Democratic Party (NDP), on the left, has, with record gains, become the official opposition party for the first time. The Green Party won its first-ever seat for a Member of Parliament. And two parties were trounced: the Bloc Quebecois, Quebec’s sovereignist party, went from 47 seats in that province to an unprecedented four, and the Liberal Party, once considered Canada’s “natural governing party” – so called because of its historical success in the center – dropped to an ignoble third place for the first time, with leader Michael Ignatieff losing his seat (he resigned on May 4). The Bloc’s leader, Gilles Duceppe, also lost his seat and resigned.

Essentially, this election has shifted Canada’s balance of power from seats shared between four parties across the political spectrum to a national map that bears resemblance to a two-party system, with significant representation on the left and on the right, as well as a gap in the middle. It’s a decisive change, whether or not it indicates a permanent shift in Canada’s politics.

So what does this all mean for Canada’s climate change and related environmental policies? Now that the leader of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper, has a majority, he can move forward with his policy vision without needing the support of other parties to stay in power, as is generally the case with Canadian minority governments. He also has at least a four-year time frame before the next election is called and he has to face voters again, rather than the shorter time period between elections that a minority government generally faces.

This is likely to mean that the Conservatives will continue their past negative record on climate change unabated. For example, rather than take a leadership role, Harper has been determined to wait for, and integrate with, American policies such as emissions targets and a cap-and-trade system – but since the bill died in the U.S. Senate last year, this means that there is currently no action to take. While integration makes sense, critics point out that Canada has unique concerns that must be addressed, and that integration would not be enough.

In addition, the Conservatives have touted significant investments in carbon capture and storage, despite it being considered a largely untested and sometimes controversial technology. And Harper has been an advocate of the Copenhagen Accord, which was delivered in Denmark in 2009 to criticism that it falls short of what is needed on climate change. If that support were accompanied by more action on emissions, it could be seen as a positive step, but his record of defending the oil sands rather than pushing harder to limit emission levels and environmental damage in Alberta shows that his views on the Accord have been, so far, less about action than they are about political positioning.

If the fact that climate change barely received mention in April’s election campaign (despite an Environment Canada report criticizing Harper’s record) is any indication, its future looks grim.

Yet there are a few possible bright spots. First, the NDP Party is a long proponent of environmental initiatives and lists climate change as fourth in a series of “practical first steps.” As the new official opposition, the party’s voice will be brought into the spotlight more so than it ever has before – and its leader, Jack Layton, is likely to oppose Harper on environmental issues. Layton is responsible for drafting the Climate Change Accountability Act, which passed the House before it was defeated by Conservatives in the Senate. Even though the bill may have been flawed, it was shut down without any debate, to public outcry. That Act is a key part of the NDP’s climate change policy, which also includes plans for renewable energy and public transit. While the opposition has no power to stop the majority government from enacting what it wishes, and can only play a critic role over the next four years, it is in the position – if it overcomes the challenges of a suddenly large and inexperienced caucus – to tap into public sentiment that might have greater effect in the coming election. This is new territory for the NDP and it remains to be seen whether they can pull it off, but some believe it has a golden opportunity to work for wide support of progressive government over the next few years.

Second, the election of Green Party’s first MP, Elizabeth May, the party’s leader and a former executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada with a strong record of environmental achievement, means that the House will have a stronger environmental voice. Climate change is a significant component of its “Vision Green,” which emphasizes that Canada needs to lead in climate negotiations and reach the ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral. Although May is only one of 308 MPs, she is an outspoken critic of Harper’s record, and her policies will gain wider exposure now that she has a seat.

Third, pundits point to the possibility – if not immediately, than closer to the next election – that Harper will become more conciliatory than in the past and move the Conservative Party closer to the ideological center to attract and retain a broader base. (The same is said of the NDP, which would need to become a more moderate voice of the left.)  Harper’s willingness to set up an oil sands review panel last fall, and his subsequent agreement to monitor them more closely, can be seen in this light.

It is not clear whether climate change would be part of this shift or not, if change happens at all. Instead, it is more likely to affect policies on the economy, taxes and crime, a few of the Conservative priorities. On election night, Harper said he would remain true to those priorities, adding that Canadians are not interested in surprises.

If those words are any measure, we can expect what Harper has already promised or proven in the Conservatives’ 2011 Platform. This platform does include some realistic and welcome efforts on energy efficiency, clean energy research and development, and the creation of several new national parks. However, we can also expect his continued support of Canada’s oil and gas sectors, including the oil sands, as well as increased development in the Arctic that is not always aligned with Aboriginal knowledge or priorities, and which has its own emissions implications. In other words, it is likely that over the next few years, there will be a mixed overall picture and a Conservative government that moves ahead on these interests, with a less than optimal push on emissions.

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