It's campaign trail time, and enviros everywhere are trying to decode the riddle behind the old ditty "When a tree falls in the forest, which party really cares?"
Though politicians have been busier talking school funding than picking organic pears for the cameras, a battle is brewing behind the scenes over which party is the greenest of them all. The NDP might be the traditional front-runner in this contest, but some eco activists are quietly stewing over what they consider more than a few green missteps by their old ally. Question is, will the party's soft spot for the forestry sector be enough to give the already growing Green party a leg up? Or are the free-market Greens still too wacky to steal more than a few angry votes?
It's been a bumpy year for relations between eco orgs and the NDP. First there was the NDP's lukewarm support for the province's heralded Endangered Species Act. (They eventually voted for it, but renegade northern NDP MPP and resource critic Gilles Bisson voted against it and tried to whittle it down in committee.)
Then there was the party's response to a forest industry election survey. The NDP was the only party to check yes to all the industry's demands, including expanding the cubic metres of wood the province would cough up.
Just last week, a few northern Ontario NDP MPPs (including Bisson) decided to send out a press release slamming the Libs for vowing to get 30 per cent of their paper from Forest Stewarship Council-certified forests, rather gauchely complaining that the Libs overlooked the crappier industry certification systems. A few days later, a retraction was released but the damage, some nature activists say, was done.
Lastly there were a few raised eyebrows among enviros around the NDP proposal to give industry a bigger break on electricity rates. The whole sequence of events has been enough to get some enviro groups quietly slamming party leader Howard Hampton as two-faced for being brown in the north and green in the south. Some consider it a minor vexation and still champion the NDP's strong climate change policies, transit funding plans and overall green platform, but for forestry activists, it's all hard to swallow.
NDP enviro critic and former Greenpeace head Peter Tabuns thinks the charges are a bit unfair. "I've actually found Howard really good on most of the environmental issues I've worked with him on. He understands the need for conservation and efficiency." Tabuns points out that businesses won't get that lower hydro rate unless they've taken conservation measures, and he adds that no matter what earlier press releases might have said, the NDP is firmly behind FSC certification.
As for the party's resource stance, he notes that the NDP is calling for a moratorium on uranium mining and development north of the 51st parallel without native consultation.
Still, the party's deference to its working-class constituency is casting a shadow over the NDP's otherwise hefty eco cred.
The question is, is disenchantment with the NDP potent enough to push voters toward a party that's long been relegated to the political fringe?
A report released this week by a coalition of 13 enviro groups assessing the eco platforms of all four parties to see which best met a list of six criteria, the Greens squeaked out ahead. (The report wasn't allowed to grade or rank the parties, thanks to election restrictions on charitable orgs; see PrioritiesforOntario.ca for full breakdown.)
No doubt their policy platform is much more comprehensive than before. But does this mean earth-lovers should vote Green?
The question gets a good long pause out of most of enviro activists. No matter how earth-friendly the party looks on paper, eco-heads still get jittery when Frank de Jong starts talking about the market's great "invisible green hand."
Speaking to NOW from his veggie-grease-fuelled car, de Jong definitely offers some interesting ideas about funding co-ops and taxing resources. From oil and water to aggregate and trees, "anything that comes free from nature should be levied." Sounds good, right?
But then he trashes regulatory approaches ("We know regulations don't work") and cheers the conservative C. D. Howe Institute's espousal of his fiscal values. The affable leader doesn't seem to get that it's this kind of endorsement that makes enviros wince.
Economic consultant Hugh Mackenzie says environmentalists have reason to be nervous. The Green party's central economic plank of rolling back corporate and personal income taxes and shifting them to resources isn't a stable way to fund public services, he says. Same goes for repealing the health tax in favour of a 2 per cent fossil fuel tax.
Why? "One of the things that's implied by this tax-shifting model is that you become reliant on a tax basis that, as a matter of public policy, you want to shrink. It's like saying you're going to pay for all your public services with tobacco taxes while you're trying to stop people from smoking."
Then there are the yo-yoing prices of those taxed resources. "Ten years ago, when the price of oil was $20 a barrel and lead was 22 cents a pound, you wouldn't have raised anything from resource taxes. Today it looks pretty attractive, but the resource price cycle is incredibly volatile and doesn't strike me as that viable a basis for raising revenue to pay for public services."
But political scientist Mark Winfield says the Greens' principle of economic fiscal reform is a good one and should not be seen as controversial. He points to the Swedes as major practitioners of this type of economic reform, though Winfield admits he's uncomfortable with what he says is not so subtle language in the Green platform about deregulation for small businesses and farmers. He worries it's designed to exempt those businesses from regulatory obligations.
Still, the Greens' major handicap, he says, will be geographic. "Their vote in political science terms is relatively inefficient in terms of translating into seats."
Nonetheless, you have to wonder just how many votes the Greens might bleed from the NDP.
An unofficial poll of enviro activists reveals hints of red and green in the air, but there's no denying that at the end of day orange loyalties still run deep.