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The environment, equality and the permanent election campaign

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In his response to a question from Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair on Tuesday, the prime minister said that increasing the numbers of temporary foreign workers is part of his government's job creation strategy.

Ironically, that came on the same day as the independent Metcalf Foundation issued a report noting that Canada now brings in more temporary workers than economic class immigrants. The report warned of the grave consequences of creating a large class of "guest workers" with virtually no rights in Canada.  

When Mulcair tried to follow up on this issue the next day, Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan -- pinch-hitting for the absent PM -- ignored it completely. He resorted to the usual Conservative talking points, tagged with the now routine swipe at the NDP's "job killing carbon tax proposal."

On Friday, a group of seven concerned Canadians will start a fast and vigil for climate justice on Parliament Hill, which will last until October 2.  

The environmental activists point to this summer's drought and resulting high food prices as evidence of a climate crisis that is upon us today -- not merely looming in the distant future. Their main objective is to get governments to stop subsidizing fossil fuels.

The Conservatives are convinced that nobody cares about the environment any more. 

They successfully attacked former Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion for his proposed "tax on everything," which, they argued, would virtually destroy the economy. 

Appealing to narrow self-interest

The current crop of Conservatives -- quite unlike the Joe Clark, Jean Charest, Brian Mulroney crop - quite deliberately oppose environmental measures to economic growth and prosperity. 

They believe that the average Canadian "middle class" voter -- whoever that may be -- is more motivated by fear and suspicion and a desire to guard what he/she has, than a vision for a more sustainable future. 

The NDP does not, in fact, propose a carbon tax. It favours a cap and trade system that was once Conservative policy and Mulcair consistently links environmental and sustainability goals. 

Speaking to reporters after Question Period on Wednesday, the NDP Leader put it this way: 

"Our point is that the Canadian dollar is artificially high because we're bringing in an artificial high number of U.S. dollars. Why artificially high?  Because we're not including the environmental costs ... if you were to internalize those costs, there would be a double benefit. One, we would stop shovelling that onto the backs of future generations ... and two, it would lower some of the pressure on the high Canadian dollar. The Canadian dollar's artificially high level is one of the things that's killing off the manufacturing sector in this country."

Will Mulcair be able to effectively convince those near mythical "middle class" voters that a pro-environment policy can also be good for the economy? 

There are three years before the next election, though the Conservatives act as though we are in a permanent campaign. They allow scant space for sober and dispassionate dialogue on policy options. The present-day Conservative approach is all-attack, all the time.

Does the issue of equality resonate with Canadians?

In addition to his supposedly unpopular-with-the-middle-class focus on environmental sustainability, Mulcair is also talking about economic and social inequality, and characterizing the Conservatives as friends of the rich. 

South of the border, in the United States, they are in actual election campaign.  

Most recently Republican Mitt Romney's strategy to get past the revelation of his now-notorious "47% pay no income tax" comment has been to label Obama as an advocate of "redistribution." That, Romney says, is not the American way. 

During the 2008 campaign, attacks on Obama as "socialist" who believes in "sharing the wealth" -- remember Joe the Plumber? -- had some sting, but were blunted by the fact that Joe wasn't really a plumber and by the reality of the great recession that made the Republicans look incompetent.

But the fact is that the Democrats were loath four years ago to vigorously and openly defend a redistributive policy and are not much more enthusiastic this year. They couch their defence in terms of "fairness" and "rewarding hard work" rather than the pursuit of equality and sharing the wealth. 

There is something in the American psyche and deeply embedded political culture that actually distrusts the rather basic notions of community and caring for each other. After all, the original preamble to the U.S. Constitution read "life, liberty and the pursuit of property" and was only changed to "happiness" in an early gesture of political marketing.  

Canadians do no share that deep cultural, radical individualism. Canada's defining statement, in the original Canadian constitutional document, the British North America Act, is "peace, order and good government." That statement is bland enough to encompass a thousand ideological perspectives. But it does at least allow for the possibility that one purpose of the State might be to assure the well-being of all citizens. 

When he talks about sustainable development and a balanced economy, Mulcair is appealing to Canadians' higher selves, to their concern for their collective future as much as their present day comfort. 

But when he talks about equality and fairness, he may be just succeed in appealing to a deep communitarian impulse in the Canadian psyche -- to a belief that we are "all in this together" and it is not a case of "each woman/man for her/himself." 


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts todayKarl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House. 

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