Pundits and others Leap to the wrong conclusions

Rex Murphy was only the worst of them. The long-time shill for the oil industry was at his bilious best on The National Monday night, excoriating attendees of the NDP convention in Edmonton for daring to discuss the Leap manifesto. He conflated narrow support for a leadership review and an equally close vote on riding-level discussion of the manifesto to leap to the conclusion that in a single weekend the NDP had gone from a national party to “a radical ideologically-driven faction.” Murphy – whose paid advocacy on behalf of Big Oil Murphy and Big Oil should have got him bounced from his CBC pulpit years ago – would no doubt prefer a diminished NDP.

Andrew Coyne, another fixture on The National, also attacked the notion that the NDP would discuss the manifesto and its ideas on climate change, indigenous rights and a low carbon future. In his column in the National Post Coyne suggested that the mere act of mandating riding associations to debate the manifesto should be regarded with the same level of alarm (and presumably disdain) that would accompany a move by the Conservatives to debate banning abortion or bringing back the death penalty.

Lysiane Gagnon, writing in Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, rivalled both Murphy and Coyne for overkill, chastising delegates for studying the document rather than “rejecting it as a utopian and bombastic rant” produced by “the Leapers, with their ecological and apocalyptic dogma.” Even commentators with ties to the NDP got into the act. Robin Sears, with 40-plus years of political hacking in and around the NDP, didn’t come right and say the party shouldn’t talk about the Leap manifesto. He just said that if discussions resulted in support for the “loony leapers” it would be “a suicidal leap to the left,” an embracing of “the Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Socialist Caucus book of children’s political fairy tales.”(Hey Robin, tell your fellow NDPers what you really think).

Notley didn’t help

Admittedly the pundits were given fuel for their hyperbole by Premier Rachel Notley and Alberta Federation of Labour head Gil McGowan. The two started off by warning delegates that agreement to examine the manifesto would provide a club with which their opponents on the right would batter the NDP. When that warning failed, Notley called the anti-pipeline manifesto “naïve, ill-considered and tone-deaf.” McGowan attacked its sponsors (who include the Toronto-based spousal team of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein as well as B.C.’s David Suzuki) as “downtown Toronto dilettantes” who came to Alberta to “track their garbage across our front lawn.”

But Notley and McGowan’s overheated reactions were at least understandable. Premiers are expected to stand up for their province’s interests, and for the present at least Alberta’s interests are entangled with the oil and gas industry. Ditto the head of the labour federation who represents unionized oil industry workers, many of whom have lost their jobs because of the drop in oil prices.

The media reaction (and those cited are just a representative sample) is less justified. It makes you wonder whether any of the scribes bothered to type “Leap manifesto” into the search bar and give the thing a read before summoning up their denunciations. After all, the short document has been on the Internet since its release in the middle of the federal election campaign last September. (In a preview of things to come, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board panned it at the time as “madness” and “a revolutionary utopian manifesto.”)

What it Says

Some of the document’s key bits of “madness” that will be up for discussion by NDP riding associations include:

  • respect the rights of First Nations, starting by fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • move to 100% renewable electricity within 20 years;
  • transition to a fossil free economy by 2050;
  • end infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future;
  • end trade deals that interfere with our attempts to rebuild local economies, regulate corporations and stop damaging extractive projects;
  • expand non-polluting economic activities such as day care, education and the arts;
  • implement a system of universal basic income
  • raise new revenue through a carbon tax, higher taxes on large corporations and wealthy and a financial transaction tax.

One journalist who stepped from the pack and gave the manifesto a fair reading is Thomas Walkom. In a Wednesday column in the Toronto Star he argued that the Leap manifesto is neither radical nor uniquely left-wing. He pointed out that its authors have presented it as a non-partisan document, aimed at influencing all Canadian political parties. The Green Party has already endorsed it and its authors have praised the federal Liberals for moving on some of its recommendations while criticizing failure to act on others.

Walkom writes:

“The document begins from the assumption that climate change poses a grave threat to the future of the world. This might have been a radical position once. It is not now. Politicians, including those running Canada’s federal and provincial governments, accept it. As do virtually all climate scientists.

“In December, the world’s governments declared in Paris that unless fossil fuel emissions are reduced to zero by the latter half of this century, climate change will result in catastrophic damage — including flooding, famine and massive population displacement. The authors of the Leap Manifesto agree.”

Ideas widely supported

Walkom goes on to detail how many of the manifesto’s ideas have already found favour with governments and political parties in this country.

“Like Ottawa and virtually every provincial government, the manifesto calls for investment in clean energy projects. As Ontario has found with its windmill policy, this isn’t always a politically painless process. But except for the manifesto’s suggestion that, (as in Germany and Denmark) such projects be community-controlled, it is hardly novel. (He forgot to mention Nova Scotia’s COMFIT program – but he is from Toronto.)

“In fact, the Trudeau Liberals have already promised to undertake many of the manifesto’s recommendations. They have said they will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; they have pledged to invest in public transit and green infrastructure. Like the federal NDP, the manifesto calls for a national child-care program. Like the federal NDP (sometimes) and both U.S. Democratic presidential candidates, the manifesto opposes trade deals that limit government’s ability to regulate in the public interest.

“Like former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, the authors favour imposing a financial transaction tax to help pay for all of this. They also call for a carbon tax (like that levied by British Columbia’s right-of-centre government- and Alberta, he might have added), higher taxes on the wealthy (like those imposed by the Trudeau Liberals) and higher corporate taxes (as suggested by the federal NDP). Workers displaced by the move away from the carbon economy would be retrained. In short, much of the Leap manifesto is not particularly new. What the authors have done is stitch together, largely from current practice, a sketchy but relatively coherent plan for immediate action against climate change.”

The pipeline problem

Walkom skips rather blithely past a section of the manifesto that was the cause of most of the strife at the NDP convention – the part that says:

There is no longer an excuse for building new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future. The new iron law of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard. That applies equally to oil and gas pipelines; fracking in New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia; increased tanker traffic off our coasts; and to Canadian-owned mining projects the world over.

The key word here is “pipelines.” Pipelines are a very sore point in Alberta. Ever since shale oil development in the U.S. started cutting into exports of Alberta oil to the States the provincial government has joined the oil industry in a desperate campaign to access new markets by building pipelines to tidewater. These efforts, supplemented by the rabid advocacy of the former Harper government, have been thwarted by everyone from Premier Christie Clark to President Barack Obama to First Nations communities to the Mayor of Montreal – not to mention public opinion in B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

As Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley has every right to ask fellow party members not to pile on by supporting a no-more-pipelines position. But she was asking too much to expect party members to reject a resolution calling on the grassroots to at least talk about pipelines in the context of the most important issue of our time – climate change.

As the great Stephen Lewis reminded the convention, Canadian governments have done next to nothing on climate change for almost 30 years – something he knows because he has been following the file since 1988. Lewis denounced the Trudeau government’s rhetoric on climate change as a “superfluity of twaddle,” the new Paris accord as a non-binding failure and predicted “hallucinatory climatic convulsions” between 2030 and 2050. Given that ominous prediction, and recognition by the resolution’s sponsors that the Leap manifesto represents “a high-level statement of principles that speaks to the aspirations, history, and values of the party” its passage would likely have been a no-brainer at a convention held anywhere outside Alberta.

Despite its rough passage in Edmonton, the manifesto will be discussed by hundreds of riding associations across the country. The results of those discussions will inform the policy resolutions leading up to the next NDP convention in two years. Since the manifesto summarizes so many things on which New Democrats already agree, some discussants may decide to zero in on the pipeline issue and bring forward some ideas that help to solve the dilemma that has so far eluded everyone – how to transition successfully to a low-carbon future in which everyone (with the possible exception of Big Money and Big Oil) is a winner.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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