This has been the greenest, if not the cleanest, federal election contest in Canadian history. Kyoto, renewable energy, air and water pollution get prominently mentioned almost every day, a much higher profile than the environment enjoyed even during the glory days of the 1980s. For that, more thanks is probably due to each party's hope to turn green issues to political advantage than to enviros' ability to put ecology at the top of voters' minds. But it's an ill wind that blows no good, as wind power advocates well know. Even the Conservatives have issued a detailed and wide-ranging environmental platform called Towards A Cleaner Canada, which has perhaps been misfiled by media types in the folder dealing with pornography and demagoguery.
The Conservatives are running some star green candidates, like cycling advocate and environmental business consultant Phil Green in Mississauga South, and are calling for aggressive power conservation, renewable energy and a Clean Air Act.
Paul Martin's Liberals, by contrast, are highlighting their support for Kyoto as the companion piece to their independence from George Bush during the Iraq War, in tune with Canada's presentation of self as a caring and responsible country.
Environmental questions got their fullest airing at a four-party debate sponsored by the Toronto-based Coalition for a Green Economy at City Hall on June 21. The discussion suggested that eco rethinks will soon be wreaking havoc with old party ideologies.
Ontario Green party leader Frank de Jong, sounding every bit the free market neo-con, came out swinging against government subsidies and Crown corporations. De Jong's stance represents a wrenching shift among Green politicos. Originating in Europe as a breakaway from socialist and labour parties scorned for being beholden to consumption-obsessed union members, Greens have long considered their support for peace, feminism and equality a hallmark of what it means to be green.
It's not easy being left-green, as Sesame Street eco-philosopher Kermit the Frog might sing, but I believe the Green party still belongs on the libertarian left, its free market views notwithstanding. There's no basis in pre-Stalinist left theory to say that reliance on the market is any more or less taboo than reliance on the state, left statist critics of the Greens need to recall.
De Jong's views on green economics rely on "full-cost accounting." Presently, people pay three times for products like electricity, he says. We pay up front in our electricity bills. We pay again through our taxes for the subsidy to artificially cheap electricity - over $100 million a year from the feds to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, as one tiny example among many. Then we pay a third time in the health costs incurred by cheap electricity: dirty air costs Ontario $10 billion a year in medical bills and time off work.
Full-cost accounting means putting the real costs up front where they're visible, adding them into the price of the product so there's an incentive to use it sparingly or switch to more enviro- and health-friendly options. Once the real costs are made transparent by taxes on resource or land use, consumers and producers can make the switch without much help from government, De Jong says.
The Greens will phase out income and payroll taxes - no mere Conservative-style tax cuts for them - and replace them with taxes that hit overuse of land and resources. Income taxes may seem more egalitarian or "redistributive" than sales taxes on resource use, which cost the same for poor or rich. But in fact, De Jong argues, taxes on resources create natural "distributive justice' that doesn't have to be corrected lated by progressive taxes. For example, heavy taxes on resources would favour renovators who make homes energy efficient over natural gas monopolies. When such small neighborhood companies become the norm, there's little chance to create a privileged class of super rich whose income has to be taxed to redress problems of inequality.
The idea that green taxes on polluting resources can create more jobs and justice than corporate-and income-based taxes may be one of those ideas whose time is coming, if only because green taxes are so easy to specify and collect - bad news for the world's tax accountants and lawyers, who add little value to the economy.
Indeed, it may be that the Greens will play the same political role played by the NDP over the last century - germinator of ideas to which others will pay the highest form of flattery by stealing them. And no Greens favour taxing ideas. Despite their obnoxious practice of running against outstanding New Dems in tight races, their pioneering ideas warrant respect.
Peter Tabuns, who stepped down as head of Greenpeace to run for Jack Layton's ultra-green New Democrats, also agrees with parts of the Green tax approach. He notes that the NDP favours polluter-pay taxes, especially when it comes to cleaning up the mess from toxic waste. He tells the meeting he's unsure whether some of Layton's tax-the-rich measures come from the union battalions that are still a force within the NDP.
But Tabuns urges caution when it comes to trusting markets to replace popularly elected governments, especially in regard to crucial decisions affecting public or environmental health. Prices are "good tools," he says, but "we should not go down a purely market path. We need to allocate resources on a more rational basis for the public good."
I must confess a soft spot for Tabuns. A former chair of the Toronto board of health, he showed calm and courage under fire when he brought in the first laws against smoking in restaurants and bars and when he fought for regulations phasing out pipes made of potentially toxic polyvinyl chloride. There aren't many greens who have passed such tests. Tabuns also has a keen sense of economics. He was the first Toronto councillor to "get" green economics as a way of creating local jobs by conserving resources. The city's energy efficiency office is partly Tabuns's legacy.
As he sees it, all Canadian regions are on the verge of making mega-investments in energy, Ontario to replace ailing nuclear reactors, Alberta to find alternatives to low-cost conventional oil, and so on. "We are at a fork in the road," he says, with huge expenditures looming no matter what. "We can do it smart or we can do it stupid."
Tabuns says the NDP offers the smart choice, a kick-start for wind power, government incentives to springboard home energy retrofits, and 5-cents per gallon of gas toward public transit and pedestrian infrastructure. Green issues, at long last on the popular political agenda, are poised to challenge the policy process of all parties in ways that can only be imagined today.