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The Mind of Mulcair: The leader of the NDP on energy, climate change, and electoral reform

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Christopher Majka and Thomas Mulcair

A decade ago a friend of mine spent a summer apprenticing as a page in the National Assembly of Québec during the time that Thomas Mulcair served as Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks in the government of Jean Charest.

He described vividly how opposition Parti Québécois deputies were terrified of Mulcair. His encyclopedic knowledge, searing intellect and brilliant rhetorical gifts could shred a careless opponent. His nickname at the time, The Grizzly, reflected that approach. This was no Winnie the Pooh or Panda -- tangling with Mulcair could leave an opponent seriously mauled.

The breadth of knowledge, cutting intellect and rhetorical gifts are all still there. Mulcair has an extraordinary command of facts and can speak incisively about virtually any topic, without notes and at the drop of the figurative hat. However, Mulcair has honed his political style over the years. He is candid about the many lessons he learned in working with Jack Layton as a member of the federal NDP caucus (see Joan Bryden's Jack Layton death anniversary: Mulcair acknowledges he's a very different leader). Caucus members I've spoken with all praise the team approach that Mulcair has fostered, continuing the tradition of inclusiveness in decision making that was Layton's forte. Members of the Québec caucus acknowledge how much work Mulcair has put into developing an amorphous group of political neophytes into a tightly knit and highly effective political team that is now one of the major strengths of the New Democratic Party.

Darrell Dexter, Catherine Pinhas, and Thomas Mulcair

I had the opportunity to speak with Mulcair who was in Halifax together with his wife, Catherine Pinas, for the Annual General Meeting of the Nova Scotia NDP on May 4, 2013. Held at the Pier 21, Canada's National Museum of Immigration, it is a poignant locale for me, my parents having arrived in Canada at Pier 21 in 1950. In a room beside the railway tracks that once lead from this gateway to points across the country -- perhaps the very one that my parents once sat in as refugees, gazing out upon the promise of a new land -- we sat down to talk about energy, the environment, the economy, and electoral reform.

Christopher Majka: A year ago I wrote an article for rabble.ca called Dutch Disease denial: Inflation, politics, and tar drawing attention to this economic phenomenon. I pointed out how there was excellent empirical evidence demonstrating its existence and magnitude in the Canadian economy [Note: in a superb economic study by the Centre for Research in Economic Analysis at the University of Luxembourg quantified the effect showing that approximately 54 per cent of the manufacturing loss in Canada between 2002-2007 was attributable to Dutch Disease]. I also drew attention to the flack that you received from Alberta premier Alison Redford, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for raising this topic in relation to the development of the bitumen sands. From your perspective, how do we cure Dutch Disease? What's a better approach that doesn't leave manufacturing and tourism as economic collateral damage in resource development?

Thomas Mulcair: The artificially high Canadian dollar has been having an effect on all of our export sectors, not just resources. So the same thing applies in forestry, as applies in agriculture, as applies in resource development. The basic problem as we see it includes the fact that we're not internalizing environmental costs -- not applying basic rules like "polluter pay." So we think that would be part of the solution. It's also the right way to do things long term because right now we're leaving to future generations a less diverse economy.

Thomas MulcairWe had an economy that was balanced, we've worked hard to keep that balance, but the current government doesn't believe that the state has any role whatsoever to play in working on those outcomes. They've gone after all environmental legislation in Canada, making things even worse. There's no more environmental assessment process; they've killed the Navigable Waters Protection Act; they've killed the Fisheries Act. Gutting environmental legislation has been part of their agenda for a long time; they're finally going ahead and doing it. The tricky part for them is that, rather than it being a gift to the companies that they thought they were helping, it's turning out to be a poison chalice. Because, although you might contrive to give them regulatory license more quickly, you won't be able to get a social license. You'll notice that Northern Gateway is not being built.

So we say, apply basic rules of sustainable development. Start taking care of Canada's own energy security, because the proportionality rule of NAFTA will play tricks on us if we don't do that. We tend to forget that a ten-year supply of oil for the U.S. is a hundred year supply for Canada. So whatever else happens with global warming, we're going to have to have access to some of those products.

You've also heard us say that our priority would be to move product from west to east with a full environmental assessment. In other words we're not talking about Line 9 (the Sarnia-Montreal line), which is a non-starter unless you have a real environmental assessment process. There is a way to get things right, and one of the things we are in favour of is more green, renewable energy. We think that Muskrat Falls is a good example of that. I was the only Quebec politician in favour of loan guarantees from the federal government to get that project up, and running for one good and simple reason: it will displace a lot of coal and oil that we are burning right to obtain electricity, and that's a good thing. You can't be in favour of green renewable energy one day, and then the next day be against it because it's in another province.

I was up in Labrador and I met lot of people [who are] concerned and want to make sure that all the environmental and social aspects are looked at, which of course, is a pre-condition as far as we are concerned. But beyond that, the principle of having more green, renewable energy is a good one, and one that our government will work hard to put in place.

CM: Dutch Disease is only one dimension of an unbalanced approach to economic development. You're doubtless familiar with the work of Canadian political economist, Harold Innis, and his thesis of the staples trap …

TM: It's Canada's only Indigenous home grown economic theory, so we all have to be familiar with it … [laughter].

Christopher Majka and Thomas MulcairCM: In it he traced the economic development of Canada through a series of sequential dependencies on "staples" -- from furs, through fish, wood, wheat, metals, and now fossil fuels. Innis demonstrated how this over-reliance made the Canadian economy vulnerable to fluctuations in price for such commodities as demand dwindled (for example beaver pelts and other furs) or as resources disappeared (for example the cod fishery).

The "trap" in this relates to the investments in infrastructure and/or subsidies, that make the economy even more dependant on the staple, leading to a cycle of throwing good money after bad, an inability to recoup investments, and a descent into a spiral of diminishing returns. How do we escape from this "staples trap"? Can we break out of the "hewers of wood and drawers of water" paradigm of Canadian economic development? And is the fixation on Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipeline projects another illustration of an investment that locks Canada into a fossil fuel economy, that it is increasingly clear, is economically and environmentally unsustainable?

TM: Keystone XL certainly is. Keystone XL represents the export of 40,000 Canadian jobs. We could have a win-win-win. We could have a better price for producers and therefore more royalties for the producing provinces. We could have more jobs in Canada, and we could take care of our own energy security -- and we could be receiving full Brent Crude International prices [for oil].

Imperial Oil RefineryLook across the water here at the refinery [we are sitting talking at Pier 21 with a view across Halifax Harbour at the Imperial Oil refinery in Dartmouth], which is in danger of closing, and realize that instead of paying full rate on what's coming in on those tankers now, we could be piping in Canadian crude -- which by the way is not even getting the West Texas Intermediate price anymore -- it's getting a Western Canada select price which is about $40 per barrel lower.

We have a development model that unfortunately is more akin to what one sees in third-world countries where you let a foreign power and companies come in and take what they want. We let all companies -- foreign and not -- use the air and water as an unlimited dumping ground. We don't internalize costs, in other words we're not including environmental costs, we're not making the polluter pay. It's as simple as that. We think we can do better. And we believe that the government of Canada can play a positive role in obtaining that result. The Conservatives have pulled away from all of that. They make a lovely slip of the tongue: instead of referring to the environmental assessment process, you often hear them talk of an environmental approval process. So the result is pre-ordained. And cabinet has even arrogated the right to change any condition that's been laid down. So that's what we've got to escape from. 

CM: The Canadian government has gone from being an international leader on environmental issues to an international pariah. From gutting the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, to repealing the Environmental Assessment Act; from withdrawing from Canada's commitments under the Kyoto Protocols to shuttering the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory; from withdrawing funding for the Experimental Lakes Area to scrapping the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy. In international fora the Canadian government has become a force obstructing progressive and pro-active measures, and sabotaging efforts to forge agreements on environmental and climate change issues. And if all this wasn't bad enough, Canadian environmental scientists, whose research is paid for by taxpayer dollars, are leashed and muzzled into complete silence on all these critical issues.

And all this comes at a time when action to address climate change could not be more urgent. Every year the extent of Arctic sea ice drops to record new levels, temperatures in the Arctic increase, in 2012 ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic were at their highest levels since measurements began 150 years ago, and climate change scientists fear that levels of methane emissions in northern latitudes threaten the possibility of runaway climate change. Under an NDP government what measures would you take to address these issues, to repair the damage to Canada's environmental infrastructure, and to restore Canada's international reputation on environmental issues?

TM: Environment is one of the three legs of sustainable development. The other two are the social aspects and the economic aspects. We would put in place legislation like the law I brought in in Québec. The Sustainable Development Act in Québec went so far as to amend Québec's Charter of Rights to give people the right to live in a clean environment, respectful of existing legislation, which is a handle to provide application and enforcement of environmental legislation with biodiversity. So that's something that we would do.

What's always been missing in Ottawa is an overarching approach, a systemic approach, to sustainable development. We don't have that in Ottawa. So, we would apply basic principles of sustainable development, like polluter pay. Like the internalization of costs over the lifecycle of a product. Like consulting with people before a big project goes up and having meaningful consultation, because you cannot -- in this day and age -- go from the top down. And that's what the Conservatives don't understand. They think they can shove projects down people's throats. Northern Gateway is not being built, and that's why it won't be built. Forward-looking companies are starting to get that -- that the Conservatives have given them a poisoned gift. And it's not working because the public is not going along with them. So that's the main thing that we would do.

Thomas MulcairI was up in Labrador recently, in West Lab, and there are two main iron ore companies. One is called IOC [Iron Ore Company], it's now a Rio Tinto company; the other one is called Wabush Mines, it now belongs to Cliff Natural Resources. They are the ones who, in the case of the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, fought tooth and nail in court to stop three First Nations elders from even being heard. And finally the judge berated them and told them to stop. But they were fighting in court to say that First Nations elders shouldn't be heard. That's a company out of the United States; that's their development model.

In West Labrador there's a lovely college called the College of the North Atlantic. I went in with Harry Borlase, our candidate in a by-election up there. We met young people who are graduating in their one-year course as millwrights. "Have you found a job yet?" [I asked] "No, but it shouldn't be long. We're applying." We get over to the union hall -- we were waiting to see someone -- and we were told he wasn't going to make it. Why? The company had just announced that they were going to a model of "fly in, fly out." In Labrador City. We're not talking about an isolated site in the middle of nowhere where there's no development and no community --we're talking about a city in Labrador. And the company has essentially decided that it wanted to start to "de-vitalize" it, sucking the life out of this city by flying in and flying out millwrights. That's a recipe for disaster.

Those cities, which used to be mining towns, basically run by the mines -- with an appointed council, for example -- a lot of them don't even have primary sewage [treatment]. There are a lot of things that are not being done up there. We need infrastructure. We need a vision, so that if we're going to have development, we look at the social, the economic, and the environmental [aspects] constantly, and in everything we do. We need a development model that allows communities to be vital, living places, and not places that are going to have the life sucked out of them by foreign companies that are going to come in, take what they want, and then leave.

CM: The erosion of the state of Canadian democracy under the Harper Conservatives is truly alarming. From the prorogation of Parliament to hide from a vote of confidence, to the incessant use of time allocation; from the demonization of coalition governments as a legitimate form of government in the Westminster parliamentary tradition to the serial abuse of omnibus budget bills; from being found in contempt of Parliament to the electoral manipulations of the robocall scandal; from using the Senate to torpedo the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311) to a Senate itself beset with scandals; from the muzzling of parliamentarians, to the phasing out of public per-vote funding as a mechanism of political financing in Canada. And all this is brought to us by an archaic and dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system that gives a political party supported by 39 per cent of Canadians in the last federal election, 100 per cent of political power.

What are the measures that an NDP government would take to tackle this enormous and increasing democratic deficit, and to eliminate the accumulated democratic debt?

TM: Well, the first thing that you have to know is that the NDP is extremely serious about going to a mixed proportional system. But, as I often say, and I have to say with a smile to our enthusiasts in the NDP, I have to win under the current system: I can't change it. The other thing that people have to understand is that even if it's not constitutional change per se, it is profound democratic change, and precisely because of that, it's not they type of thing that you can do either by just snapping your fingers the day after an election, or without profound consultation. People have to be brought in. It's a little like any form of development -- this is democratic development -- and it has to be from the base up. People have to agree with it. You can't shove it down people's throats. But I think that it's the only way, for us to get away from the first-past-the-post system, which has proven its inability to represent us. I think that's something that we have to believe in, that we have to do. Indeed the only thing that we had that enabled us to say that every voted counted, we used to have a $2 per vote subsidy from the government, and the Conservatives have even taken that away.

Thomas Mulcair and Catherine PinhasWe should all be terrified by the fact that two-thirds, 65 per cent of young people aged 18-25, didn't vote in the last election. There are intrinsic things in the way we are organizing ourselves electorally that lead people not to vote. And instead of going in the right direction, and making it more enticing and more real, with a good positive result, we're going in the opposite direction, and that's a very bad thing.

There is another huge democratic deficit in Canada, which is the existence of an unelected Senate. This type of body is a vestige, it's an organ that's a vestige from our colonial past.

CM: A democratic appendix.

TM: And that organ can safely be removed without affecting the body. Anybody who thinks about the fact that, in a democratic society, we have unelected people allowed, not to only sit in appeal, but to reverse the decisions of elected officials, will be outraged. But we've been living with this unelected motley crew of bagmen, of defeated candidates, [so] we don't think about it often enough. It's scandalous that the Senate continues to exist. We couldn't be more serious [about working on this]. In the first place, Joe Comartin, did a great job [on this issue] before he became Deputy Speaker. Under Craig Scott we're now continuing to work very hard on the issue. We take it very seriously, and when we form government we're going to work to get rid of the Senate. Period.

CM: I understand that you want to run NDP candidates in all 338 ridings in the next federal election. There are, however, a substantial number of "progressive" Canadians who are profoundly alarmed at where the Harper Conservatives have taken us over the last seven years, and are even more profoundly alarmed at the prospect that they might win another term in office. Is there some mechanism that you could envision whereby opposition parties could ramp down some of the partisanship amongst one another, and form bridges on common principles and objectives that would help focus the effort on delivering better governance for all Canadians?

TM: I guess that there are some core issues on which we would agree. But on the other hand, when I watched the Liberals this week vote with Stephen Harper on the issue of climate change, I know all that I need to know. The Liberals have a history that they flash left and turn right. That causes accidents with an electorate that was counting on them. They said they were going to get rid of the GST, and of course, they didn't. It was such a solemn promise when they got elected in 1993. Then they just shrug their shoulders and say, "You didn't really believe us, did you?" So, it's the same thing over and over again. The Liberals try to key into what they think the electorate wants to hear, they say it, and then they don't deliver.

In 2015, for the first time in Canadian history, a party is going to be elected on a platform, and then once elected will do what it said it was going to do. It's never been tried in Canadian politics -- we'll see how it works. 

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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