Lessons from the Canadian election

Running on global warming issues proved "hard to sell and easy to hammer," but leave it to our neighbors to figure out this urgent new politics. Plus, why arts funding matters (at least in Canada).
Running on global warming issues proved "hard to sell and easy to hammer," but leave it to our neighbors to figure out this urgent new politics. Plus, why arts funding matters (at least in Canada).

There were three good lessons from the Canadian election that apply to the Northwest, two about energy and climate change, and the other about arts.

As you probably know, the Liberal Party did badly, losing 19 seats. the Liberals are in danger of no longer being a national party, so weak its national party is west of Ontario. This is quite a setback for the party that virtually has run Canada for the last century. Its leader, Stephane Dion, was one big problem, for he is a mumbling professor with limited political smarts. (He's expected to resign Monday.) More to the point, the Liberals ran on a platform of a "Green Shift," including a carbon tax. Bad issue to have as the economy went into a tailspin.

The Conservatives took the Green Shift and turned it into a three-letter word: T-A-X. Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who gained 16 seats and remained in power (albeit as a minority government), barely mentioned the environment, except to attack the carbon tax. Canadians are normally very environmentally conscious, with such issues recently atop the list of Canadian voters' concerns. "Hard to sell and easy to hammer," in the phrase of Vancouver Sun columnist Don Cayo.

The Liberals hoped to combine the tax with tax relief for the less well off, and promised it would be revenue-neutral, but that got lost in the urgency of economic concerns. (Voters are also notoriously skeptical, with good reason, of claims that a new tax will be revenue-neutral. For how long?) Next test of the issue will be when B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell runs for reelection this spring. He may shift his own carbon-tax proposal to the background. On the other hand, the Green Party in B.C. got 9.2 percent of the provincial vote, up from 5.3 percent in 2006, and almost won a seat in Vancouver Centre.

Nationally, the Green Party doubled its vote from the last election, even if it failed to gain a seat in Parliament. At a fascinating forum thrown this week by Discovery Institute in Seattle, Canadian experts were depicting this party as a post-ideological compound rather like the Scandinavian formula: libertarian on social issues, free-market on the economy, and radical on the environment. The New Democratic Party — made up of old-line, European-style social democrats suspicious of a market economy — is also strongly committed to environmental issues. That's three parties on the left which are making green politics more urgent. They may be splitting the vote against the newly united Conservatives, but they are also a might-be majority. Soon that urgent awareness about climate issues will make its way into American politics, and the Canadians may do us the great service of figuring out how to sell it to voters.

As for the arts, Harper may have failed to gain a majority by angering the Quebecois by his airy remark dismissing the importance of arts funding. That bit of conservative boilerplate would pass unnoticed in the states, where the idea of federal funding for the arts just never comes up in presidential races. (Joe the Plumber wouldn't like it!) But in Canada, particularly for Francophone Quebecois and First Nation people, arts funding is crucial. It has to do with maintaining a distinctive culture. Harper was on his way to a majority based on his early support in Quebec — until that off-hand remark. Maybe there's a message here for arts advocates, shifting the emphasis to maintaining distinctive cultures rather than helping out affluent balletomanes?


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