The Leap: Time for a reality check

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Well, the Leap is certainly in the news. Many articles have been filled with errors and misrepresentations, which isn't surprising. It makes perfect sense that right-leaning publications and competing political parties would seek to bury the NDP at a time when it is engaged in a process of open soul-searching. We should expect more, however, from commentators on the left.

One article from David J. Climenhaga, an important progressive analyst on Alberta politics, echoes much of the criticism heard in recent days from friends in that province. Because of this, I have decided to respond, point by point, to his attack on the Leap. While Climenhaga's piece does not contain a single quote from our document, I am leaving most of the text of his article in my response below.

My responses follow each part of the quoted text, below.

David J. Climenhaga, "The federal NDP's 'Leap' of faith advocates and Alberta's right-wing opposition: Strange bedfellows?" AlbertaPolitics.ca and rabble.ca, April 13, 2016

With friends like the Leap Manifesto's advocates in the federal New Democratic Party, does the Notley government need enemies?

Seriously, it's fair to wonder if some Leap Manifesto supporters inside the NDP are really all that different in important ways from Alberta's frustrated, infuriated right-wing opposition.

Seriously, both groups appear to want the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley to fail.

The Leap Manifesto was not designed as an attack on the NDP government in Alberta. In fact, it was drafted at a meeting of social movement leaders and organizers (including several from Alberta) that took place before the new government took office. The demands in the manifesto come out of decades of movement work. Indigenous communities in Alberta have led the international movement against new tar sands pipelines for many years. The Leap merely echoes this long-standing demand.

The Leap was launched during last year's federal election campaign, precisely because the major opposition parties (including the NDP) were insufficiently focused on the climate crisis; had platforms that did not reflect the best science (particularly with regards to tar sands pipelines); and were failing to holistically connect a response to climate change with Canada's other crises (racial and gender injustice, lack of respect for Indigenous rights, economic inequality, unemployment).

We drafted the Leap to show how a bold and science-based climate response could simultaneously provide real solutions to these overlapping challenges.

After the federal NDP's electoral setback, and seeing the way Bernie Sanders's courageous platform was resonating south of the border, several NDP riding associations began to push for the Leap vision to be discussed and debated at the NDP's national convention in Edmonton.

This, once again, had nothing to do with Alberta's NDP government -- it had everything to do with the federal party. And yet what seems to be implied here is that 20 riding associations -- filled with NDPers who have been in the party for decades -- do not have the right to put forward proposals like this simply because the convention happened in Alberta.

If that means Alberta's economy has to fail too, they're apparently good with that. Neither seems to care how much Alberta or Albertans have to suffer in the process.

So not true. The Leap is a plan to create huge numbers of good jobs across the country, including in Alberta. Its call for "energy democracy" is modeled on Germany's rapid (if incomplete) shift to renewables, which has created 400,000 jobs. A comparable effort in Canada could replace the tens of thousands of jobs that have been lost in the Alberta oil patch since the price crash. Alberta has some of the best conditions for wind and solar power in North America and is currently using a tiny fraction of that potential.

It seems necessary to recall that Albertan families are not hurting because of the Leap Manifesto. They are hurting because the oil and gas industry threw a great many workers under the bus when times got tough. This is the nature of the boom-bust commodity cycle from which the Leap proposes a sustainable exit.

As for the Leap's supposed indifference to the impacts of this transition on Albertans, this is precisely what makes the document different, and why it has been endorsed by so many trade unions and labour leaders. Here is one quote from the text:

"We want training and other resources for workers in carbon-intensive jobs, ensuring they are fully able to take part in the clean energy economy. This transition should involve the democratic participation of workers themselves."

The reason Alberta's right-wing opposition parties want the NDP to fail should be pretty obvious….

Why, one might wonder, would NDP proponents of a vague document proposing our country confront a real environmental crisis with simplistic solutions that are simply impossible in a democracy wish the same fate on our NDP government as our hopelessly far right opposition?

The Leap's solutions are eminently possible in a democracy. Entire nations, like Germany, have banned fracking. France recently announced it will not hand out any new fossil fuel leases on federal lands. Dozens of west coast mayors and city councillors have endorsed the core Leap principle of "no new fossil fuel infrastructure." Bernie Sanders's platform calls for a national ban on fracking and no new fossil fuel leases on federal lands (and he just won the primary in Wyoming, a major coal state).

And the idea that we wish the Alberta government to fail could not be further from the truth. We badly want it to succeed. Indeed, precisely because the Notley government is progressive and its electoral victory is so unprecedented, it has a historic opportunity to show the world what it looks like for a petro-dependent economy to respect the science and shift rapidly to renewables. This is admittedly extremely difficult. It is also what every petro state must learn to do, and Alberta's NDP can lead the way.

Premier Notley may very well have nailed it in her speech to the NDP convention Saturday morning, when she told delegates that the last Alberta election "did something very evil to all of you from our fellow provinces and territories …

"In electing a progressive NDP government last spring, the people of Alberta took away one of your favourite enemies. There's no climate change denying, science muzzling Tory government here any more.

"So it's time" -- for you, NDP delegates from the rest of Canada, she meant -- "to start thinking differently about the 4.4 million fellow Canadians who live here."

Yes, Rachel Notley would very much like the NDP to adopt a pro-pipeline policy -- about this she has been quite clear. She pulled out all the emotional stops to make her case at the convention. The problem for the federal NDP as it looks to its future is that the Liberals already share Notley's pipeline position.

Indeed the Alberta NDP government and the federal Liberals are uncannily aligned -- both are pursuing a strategy of seeking "social license" to facilitate new tar sands pipelines.

Both the Alberta NDP and the federal Liberals have introduced some very good environmental policies, particularly compared to their predecessors, but both are poised to fall far short of temperature targets set in Paris. Canadian climate scientist John Stone, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group II, put it succinctly this week: "If you build a pipeline, you're going to fill it with tar sands that's going to increase our emissions and that's not going to allow us to meet our climate change commitments."

If the federal NDP, after going through riding-level debates about the Leap, decided to advocate against new pipelines, then Canadians would have a major electoral alternative that is forthright about this contradiction. The Green Party, with one seat, is not enough.

This is not just good ethics and good science. At a time when new pipelines and increased tanker traffic are widely opposed in large parts of the country, it might well be good politics too. The NDP is at 12 per cent in the polls nationally, in great measure because it has not sufficiently distinguished itself from the governing Liberals. The party's only hope of regaining lost ground is to embody a principled, progressive alternative as the Liberals' doublespeak and contradictions become impossible to ignore (and the Liberals see this coming, which is why they're latching on to this rift with such glee).

In the last election, the federal NDP tried charting a middle path on the pipeline debate, rather than taking a strong, science-based position. Clearly, many in the party believe it's time to try something new.  

The Leap Manifesto's most enthusiastic advocates weren't about to do that. Indeed, from their perspective, there might be something to be said for having an easy-to-hate environmental villain back in charge in Canada's oilpatch again.

From a point of view where anything less than perfection is deemed unacceptable -- the ideological doppelgänger of the right's dogmatic market fundamentalism -- perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad outcome.

Look, "perfection" when it comes to climate action is not one of the options before us -- we have already locked in dangerous climate change because of decades of inaction. We are asking for policies in line with the commitments our government made in front of the world in Paris in December. That is not too much to ask and no progressive should advocate for anything less. It is far from fundamentalism: it is seeking the best compromise course still available to us.

…"Alberta has the most progressive and effective climate change policy in the country," Duncan Kinney of Progress Alberta observed in an email newsletter promoting his excellent blog. "A $15 minimum wage is on the books. But unfortunately a document written to help promote a book and a movie will hijack the political debate in this province."

Writing and producing This Changes Everything convinced Avi and me of the need for a more intersectional approach to climate action, one that brings movements together across traditional divides. Many, many Canadians agree that this is needed. That's why the Leap has been endorsed by groups as diverse as Oxfam, Black Lives Matter-Toronto, No One Is Illegal-Coast Salish Territories, Idle No More, Greenpeace, 350.org, CUPE, CUPW and the Council of Canadians -- as well as tens of thousands of individuals, including many of Canada's most beloved artists.

To date, more than 200 Canadian organizations have endorsed the Leap. Many of those groups helped draft it. Dismissing the document as a promotional tool is deeply disrespectful of this unprecedented collaboration.

Of course there's always the possibility the Leap Manifesto was written to promote more than that. Increasing numbers of observers on the left and right are noticing that the maker of the movie in question, Avi Lewis, is suddenly being touted as a potential leader of the NDP to replace Thomas Mulcair, who was given the bum's rush by NDP convention delegates the same day.

It was Lewis's father who exhorted delegates to ignore Notley not long after she had left the stage and endorse a plan to keep the divisive Leap debate at a boil right until the next Alberta provincial election.

These conspiracy theories are unseemly. Stephen Lewis was one of the original 100 signatories of the Leap Manifesto, and as he explained in his convention speech, this had a lot to do with the fact that he chaired the first inter-governmental meeting on climate change in 1988. He was present at the document's launch in September and he still believes in the Leap, which is why he supported it at the convention -- no intrigue there.

As for Avi's political aspirations, he has been clear about that in every single interview he has done and restated it this week in Maclean's.

In short, neither Avi nor Stephen (nor I) are supporting the Leap because of electoral aspirations. The document was drafted precisely because electoral politics were failing us when it comes to the climate crisis, and on many other levels as well. It is no secret, however, that others are staking out their Leap positions based less on content than on electoral calculations.

Those who spoke against the resolution made the same argument again and again: this could hurt the future electability of the Alberta NDP. As Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said on the convention floor, "The Leap Manifesto includes many important points that we agree with. However, in politics, sometimes things become symbols and not policy ... do not add a millstone around the neck of our leader here in Alberta."

Fair enough -- politics is dirty as hell. But the Leap is not about electoral cycles. It's a statement of principles that was always designed to push the debate, to create political space by articulating policies that correspond to the urgency of the moment. This is a traditional role for social movements in the political dynamic, influencing whoever is in power, moving the goalposts.

So I need to stress again: we did not push the Leap Manifesto on the NDP. We engaged with party activists only after riding associations across the country had already passed a Leap resolution on their own initiative. We do the same with anyone interested in picking up the vision outlined in the document.

So while a legitimate criticism of the NDP plan may be that it doesn't go far enough, fast enough -- and that its cap on oilsands emissions is so big it negates efforts by other provinces to cut emissions -- this is still preferable to a vague plan just to leave everything in the ground. Realistically, that is no plan at all -- unless the plan is to assist the election of a less sympathetic government in Edmonton.

The manifesto does not call to "leave everything in the ground." Its focus is on new infrastructure projects like pipelines, all of which are linked to production expansion. After noting recent research showing how we can fuel our economy entirely with renewables by mid-century, here is what the Leap actually says: "There is no longer an excuse for building new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future."

Whatever its intention, this strategy presents a genuine threat to the success of the NDP's environmental program, which even the National Post concedes is "one of the most progressive climate-change policies in the country.

"It's a thorough, technocratic protocol that levies a province-wide carbon tax, phases out coal-fired electricity plants and imposes a hard emissions cap on the oil sands," wrote the paper's Jen Gerson. "Stephen Lewis wants the party to debate and adopt a 1,300-word anti-capitalist manifesto about transitioning to sustainable energy, somehow."

Wow -- talk about strange bedfellows. We prefer to get our climate impact assessments from more reliable sources, like this Nature study, which confirms that planned tar sands expansion is incompatible with Canada's own climate commitments in Paris.

…Supporters of the Notley government immediately assailed the vote as terrible optics and a dumb decision. I'm not so sure many of the people who backed it see it that way at all, though.

Many rank and file NDP supporters in Alberta immediately began talking about the need to disaffiliate from the federal party, although if their leaders were obviously having trouble with that idea.

The history of disagreements between provincial and federal wings of political parties is long and well known. Since 1993, Saskatchewan's NDP has promoted nuclear energy while the federal party has long been opposed. These differences reflect the many different regional realities and economies in Canada and the difficulty federal parties have in reconciling them. These disagreements don't have to be fatal.

Call me Pollyanna, but I'm inclined to think this situation, as truly damaging as it appears, can be managed and even exploited.

The Notley government has about 1,140 days, give or take, to make the point, over and over and over again, that they have nothing to do with the Leap Manifesto and the Leap Manifesto has nothing to do with them. After a while, as tends to happen in such circumstances, that may begin to register with voters.

What poor advice. The Alberta government has done plenty to assert its political distance from the manifesto. How about changing the subject back to its concrete plans to diversify the Alberta economy? If it speeds up the transition to renewables, considerable numbers of good unionized jobs will have been created by the next time they have to go to voters, and they can talk about that. But what do I know? I live in Toronto.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers This Changes Everything, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She writes a regular column for The Nation and The Guardian and is a contributing editor at Harper's.

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