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Does campaigning by jet make sense in an era of climate breakdown?

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The airplanes used by political parties during election campaigns burn from 640 gallons of fuel an hour (for an Airbus A319) to 750 gallons an hour (for a Boeing 737).

This is something to keep in mind as the party leaders start to criss-cross the country over the coming 36-day election period to speak at tightly controlled, highly scripted campaign events mostly geared towards the television broadcast news cycle.

Air travel has a greater climate impact per passenger per kilometre than other modes of travel, including driving or taking the train.

Given that, should it be integral to election campaigns in this country as climate breakdown intensifies and time runs out to avert climate catastrophe?

During the 24th general election campaign in March 1958, Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker undertook a whistle-stop train tour across the country.

Part of his strategy was to meet with people on train station platforms. That may sound simple in today's terms, but it appears to have worked.

Voter turnout was 79.4 per cent and Diefenbaker won the largest majority government in Canadian history (208 seats in the 265-seat House of Commons).

While it may be unlikely that the 43rd general election in this country on October 21 will produce a majority government of that proportion, it will certainly see the spectacle of party leaders burning jet fuel in the pursuit of convincing voters that their party has the most responsible climate plan.

Does it need to be this way?

In 2008, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May travelled across the country by train, highlighting the benefits for the climate, the money saved, the virtue of visiting smaller towns, and the bolstering of her campaign message of the need to invest in high-speed passenger rail.

During the 2011 election May observed, "When I look at the other leaders I think, you know, there's not even any sense to the way they're campaigning. It's sort of one day Vancouver, the next day Halifax, the next day Winnipeg. It's a jet-plane version of a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off campaign style."

She further highlighted that given the ability to do telephone town hall meetings and live stream web conferences, "It doesn't make sense to do everything by jet."

Now, for the October 2019 election, the CBC reports, "May said she plans to conduct a national campaign tour that will rely on commercial flights with carbon offsets and electric vehicles on the ground. A party official said the leader will also use buses, trains and biodiesel vehicles to limit the campaign's carbon footprint."

While that may not be ideal, the Liberals have taken things to an embarrassing level with their "Boarding Call: Win a Trip on the Campaign Plane" contest.

IPolitics reports, "The Liberal Party is holding a draw for contributors to win a trip for two worth $3,000 on Justin Trudeau's campaign plane, including hotel accommodation for two nights, during this year’s federal election."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called Trudeau a "high-carbon hypocrite" for jetting around the world while imposing carbon taxes on regular Canadians, but it's not likely that he'll follow Diefenbaker's lead and make a surprise announcement that the Conservatives will have a rail-only election campaign this year.

And even though the NDP is struggling with fundraising and chartering an airplane costs about $600,000 a week (not including the cost of jet fuel), CTV reports, "NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's spokesperson Melanie Richer has confirmed that the party, which is currently in third place, intends to charter a plane and have buses on the ground following Singh."

While the petition signed by nearly 48,000 people calling on the CBC to hold a leaders' debate on climate change should be supported, an additional demand should be that the election campaign itself should be climate-friendly.

It would be unfortunate to see Trudeau jet from Vancouver and Scheer from St. John's for a 2-hour climate debate at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

Let us also remember in an age of spin and the deceptive use of imagery, that an environmentally friendly mode of transportation isn't enough.

Robert Borden bicycling to Parliament Hill and Wilfrid Laurier taking the streetcar didn't make them progressive. And Catherine McKenna's cycling didn’t stop her from buying a tar sands pipeline or approving offshore deepwater oil and gas exploration.

But given we already have the farce of a first-past-the-post electoral system rather than proportional representation, a high GHG-emissions aviation-based election campaign will only add insult to injury.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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