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Polarized and energized: The environment and energy debate that will define election 2019

The 1992 phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” coined by Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville holds a special place in political and campaigning lore. The phrase, in Carville’s very on-brand frankness, reminds us all that voters base political decisions largely on issues that will impact their pocketbooks and their ability to guarantee a comfortable life for their families.

As true as the phrase is, it does not dive into much nuance about those very issues that define the nature of the Canadian economy, such as the sustainable management of the natural resources it depends on for growth, the sharing of benefits, and the community and First Nations relations at its heart. In 1992, the existential threat of climate change seemed less dire, although gaining attention with the signature that year of the Rio Conventions. Close to 30 years later, many would rather opine that “it’s about the future of life on this planet, stupid”.

The ongoing tension between those who view climate change as a dire emergency worthy of immediate and dramatic action, and those who see the continued benefit in developing Canada’s natural resources for their economic benefit has come to define a large part of the last four years of politics in Canada. The odds are good that it will play a significant role in the fall election.

Compromise and the art of pleasing neither side

In the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the consistent argument that the environment and the economy go hand in hand. A message that did manage to resonate with voters who were deeply concerned with the looming problem of climate change, but also with those who are concerned with feeding their families, finding somewhere to live, and with people thinking about eventually saving enough money to retire.

The message was well received during the election because everyone heard what they wanted to hear. However, it was when the government began to implement its plan that the “sausage-making” process was revealed, its details displeasing people on either side of the issue. The approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project has infuriated environmentalists and many First Nations communities, even though Prime Minister Trudeau was fairly clear on his intent to approve the project during the 2015 election.

The imposition of a price on carbon and new regulatory approval processes for energy and natural resource projects have been viewed a simultaneously “not enough” by environmentalists, and as “too much” by both the energy and natural resources sector, as well as those whose economic livelihood depends heavily on the development of Canada’s natural resources.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s energy and environment policy has had the effect of polarizing the issue for many voters—especially those in British Columbia and Alberta who care deeply about the issues at hand.

The politics of 2019: Will compromise be enough in Battleground Ontario?

The polarization of this issue is not necessarily a problem for Prime Minister Trudeau, however. The Liberal Party’s political calculus doesn’t depend on Albertan seats in the House of Commons for electoral victory—and it isn’t even necessarily dependent on winning a blowout in British Columbia (although I’m sure the Liberal Party wouldn’t mind).

The path to victory does, however, run through Quebec and Ontario—where the Prime Minister and his advisors are hoping that there are enough voters who view the compromise as satisfactory in order to win their support. This is especially true of voters in the 905, the stretch of suburban seats around Toronto that tend to swing between the Liberal Party and Conservative Party, and upon which electoral victories are built.

Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party are keenly aware that Prime Minister Trudeau is hoping that the issue swings his way in the 905, and that his policies are satisfying enough to mollify voters in that region. Mr. Scheer will no doubt be pressing the issue from an economic angle—not necessarily about jobs, but rather about household bottom lines.

After all, the 905 is fairly economically prosperous and many voters have retirement savings into markets that remain dependent on Canada’s energy sector. More importantly perhaps, the automobile is still a mainstay feature of suburban life in the 905, as it is in Quebec, as well, even if the majority is against the pipeline. If Mr. Scheer can link Prime Minister Trudeau’s environmental plans to the rising cost of gas, then he will make voters in the region think twice about their political decisions.

British Columbia: Energy issues and the potential balance of power

British Columbia becomes interesting in an election-night scenario where the Liberals and Conservatives are deadlocked in the rest of Canada. Then, B.C. campaign dynamics focused on energy and the environment could play a pivotal role in deciding who forms Canada’s next government.

Trans Mountain will be a defining issue—a proxy for the broader, ongoing conversation among British Columbians about how they balance the issues of the economy and the environment. Prime Minister Trudeau hopes that he can attract support by appealing to the majority of British Columbians who support the project, and convincing them that his approach of balancing economic development and environmental protection is the right one.

Given the public’s increasing polarization on the issue, the danger for Mr. Trudeau is that he will be unable to hold the centre. Mr. Scheer and the Conservatives will seek to offer a clear, pro-growth appeal to Trans Mountain supporters, while pro-environment voters are wooed by Trans Mountain opponents Jagmeet Singh and the NDP (who won 14 seats in the 2015 election despite losses elsewhere in Canada) and Elizabeth May’s Green Party (who holds two seats on Vancouver Island and is targeting more).

The buzz in B.C. is that Prime Minister Trudeau and his team recognize the challenges they face in the province, and before the election will make a grand gesture that boosts the LNG industry—B.C.’s other (and more politically palatable) energy play—and the B.C. NDP government’s CleanBC plan to fight climate change. Time will tell if such a gesture hits the mark with would-be Liberal voters, or if B.C. voters go with the alternatives.

Polarization and opportunity for industry

As difficult to navigate as the politics of environmentalism and the energy sector can be—there is actually significant opportunity in this for private industry. In particular, room exists for companies to demonstrate leadership that appeals to those who are staunch environmentalists and to those who are active in their support of Canada’s natural resources sector. In order to maximize their opportunity, those in the industry should think long and hard about focusing on innovative approaches to their business, as well as crafting complementary messaging to ensure that all stakeholders, government or otherwise, see the progress being made.

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Written by Gordon Taylor Lee

It’s all about the economy—or is it?
August 08, 2019