Saturday, January 08, 2011

What Will Become of Gordon Campbell's Progressive Policy Legacies on FIrst Nations and Climate Change?

Many observers of BC politics, myself included, were positively impressed by the two great policy U-turns of Gordon Campbell’s tenure in office. One was the New Relationship with First Nations peoples, in which the premier decisively put his failed opposition to the Nisga'a Treaty and the awkward and embarrassing experience of his much-criticized 2002 plebiscite on the Treaty process behind him, and instead, issued an official apology to First Nations in the 2003 Throne Speech , beefed up and renamed the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, accepted in principle shared decision-making and access to resources, championed the Kelowna Accord, and even concluded the second modern treaty, with the Tsawwassen people, in 2007.

The other great policy reversal, on climate change, was even more unexpected. The government's record on environmental issues in its first term was dismal, with its most noteworthy actions on the climate change file being its opposition to the federal government’s ratification of the Kyoto Accord and its planned construction of three coal-fired power plants. Premier Campbell then claimed to have had an epiphany in 2006 when he visited Beijing on a particularly smoggy day; as a result almost one-third of the February 2007 Throne Speech was devoted to stating the government's commitment to action on climate change and related initiatives. These included the creation of a Climate Action Team to develop sector targets and to make recommendations on how to make the government carbon neutral; establishment of a $25 million Clean Energy Fund; new legislation to capture methane emissions from landfills, and the creation of a new Citizens' Council to help raise public awareness. In place of his previous emphasis upon the costs of mitigation and adaptation , the premier now stressed that BC's actions to combat climate change were "right for the economy". Later in 2007, BC became the first province to join the Western Climate Initiative. These steps were followed in 2008 by an even more controversial step: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that was claimed to be "among the broadest and most comprehensive in the world", and the only carbon tax in Canada other than in Kyoto-loving Quebec. (Ironically, the government has done far more to combat climate change during the Great Recession than it did during its first term in office, which was ostensibly dedicated to economic recovery.)

In addition to having a similar timetable and authorship, these policy changes shared a shrewd underlying political strategy: to build support in two areas where the NDP's predominance had hitherto been taken for granted. The political risks of the carbon tax and lingering resistance to treaties were offset by the political advantages of a more divided opposition. (Unfortunately for Mr. Campbell, no such offset existed with respect to the HST).

Nevertheless, all of these parallels between the aboriginal and environmental files should not be allowed to obscure a fundamental difference between them. Although each of these policies depended upon the personal initiative and support of the premier, the strategy of reconciliation with native peoples has in fact much deeper roots in cabinet, party, and civil society, in particular the business community, which rightly sees the settlement of treaties as a prerequisite to more intensive economic development of the land base. The statement by a leading candidate to succeed Campbell, George Abbott, that he would include a question on the future of the carbon tax in a future referendum, indicates a desire to legitimate a reversal of this green policy while minimizing the environmental backlash. But returning to such a device in the context of treaties with First Nations would be unthinkable; it would no doubt prompt accusations of betrayal and create far more division and opposition than it would avoid.

Abbott's proposal in fact reflects a far shallower commitment to the climate change policies of Gordon Campbell within the Liberal Party and its supporters than there is to the New Relationship. Enlightened self-interest indicates that there can be no turning back on the Treaty process, and no desire to return the uncertainty and conflict of the past. The Liberal Party's key constituency, the business community, is far more ambivalent about carbon taxes and green regulations--its lukewarm support has come from the guarantee that carbon taxes would be offset by corporate and personal income tax reductions, but global revenue neutrality has not meant revenue neutrality for every sector. Transportation, agriculture and rural economies of every kind tend to be hit harder by fuel cost increases. Needless to say, the energy sector--which has recently surpassed forestry as the leading source of government revenues--is hit harder as well.

In short, expect the Cabinet Committee on Climate Action, chaired by the premier, to disappear some time after the Liberals anoint their new leader next spring; for the projected increases in the carbon tax to be reduced or eliminated altogether; and for British Columbia to sink to the middle rung of Canadian provinces when it comes to tackling climate change. But also expect the reconciliation between the province and First Nations to continue along its gradual but necessary historic path.

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