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In our politics, telling the truth gets you in trouble

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What's that they say about the first casualty of war? You can obviously say the same for Canadian elections.

Linda McQuaig, the prominent Toronto NDP candidate and long-time economics journalist, is the latest to be caught in this political vortex. She found herself in a heap of trouble last week for saying this on CBC TV: "A lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we're going to meet our climate change targets. We'll know that better once we properly put in place a climate change accountability system of some kind."

McQuaig was attacked from all sides for committing the great sin of telling the truth in an election campaign.

McQuaig is right of course. The science of climate change has made it perfectly clear that two-thirds to four-fifths of proven fossil fuel reserves will need to stay underground if we have any hope of keeping global temperature change under two degrees Celsius. This reality was reinforced by the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Ostensibly, Canada has made international commitments to meet that two-degree target. Prime Minster Stephen Harper himself signed on to that commitment at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. And Canada recently committed to eliminating fossil fuels by the year 2100. To achieve any of this will require leaving much of Alberta's sticky stuff in the ground.

But the McQuaig episode is illustrative of a larger problem: namely, that our politics do not allow for serious -- and truly honest -- discussion of the most pressing issues of our time.

McQuaig was accused, by the prime minister and many others, of heartlessly ignoring the economic needs and employment anxieties of Albertans. With falling oil prices, Albertans are understandably feeling fearful for their economic security.

But who is, in fact, robbing Albertans of hope? Those who pedal the view that we can keep on pouring new infrastructure and capital into digging up tarsands oil, or those who say we must move rapidly and boldly to transition away from fossil fuels?

Honest leadership would mean speaking frankly about climate realities. It means acknowledging that a new global climate treaty is coming, that it will require that Canada leave much of its oil, natural gas and coal reserves in the ground, and that in anticipation of this eventuality Canada must invest extensively in renewables and green infrastructure that will allow us to leap into this transition.

There are a lot of jobs in this necessary future, and these should be championed, instead of simply pointing to the jobs that will (and must) disappear.

Similarly, Canada needs a comprehensive policy response to address inequality -- one that restores progressivity to our tax system, and that boosts the social wage and earnings of low- and middle-income families. Instead, we get to witness the unfortunate display of the NDP critiquing the Liberals' well-advised proposal to create a new upper-income tax bracket; the Liberals critiquing the NDP's welcome plans for national child care and a federal minimum wage; and the Conservatives dismissing of all the above. In truth, all these measures are desperately needed, and much more.

The impulse to be cautionary and dull during an election, which is particularly strong among progressive parties when electoral victory appears within reach, almost certainly underestimates voters. It may even be counterproductive. I suspect a sizable chunk of Canada's non-voters sit on the sidelines awaiting bold solutions to serious challenges, or at least honest discussion commensurate with the severity and urgency of the threats we face to our climate, social fabric and democracy. New data from Innovative Research Group, reported in the Hill Times this week, suggests parties looking for the progressive vote will gain electorally the stronger their positions are on the environment, civil liberties and health care -- since these are areas where people feel very strongly one way or another.

It breeds cynicism in politics when there is such an obvious disconnect between measurable facts and what is deemed acceptable within the paltry boundaries of mainstream political discourse. What would happen if they started telling the truth? We just don't know. But perhaps a sense of common purpose would arise, as we have seen in the face of previous crises.

"As leaders we have a responsibility to fully articulate the risks our people face," said Marlene Moses, ambassador to the United Nations for the South Pacific island nation of Nauru, in 2012. "If the politics are not favourable to speaking truthfully, then clearly we must devote more energy to changing the politics."

Come on political candidates, show us that you get it.

Seth Klein is Director of CCPA's BC Office. Follow Seth on Twitter @SethDKlein.

This commentary was first published in the Toronto Star and in the Vancouver Sun.

Photo: Mark Hill/flickr

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