NDP should use its leverage to demand weakened Liberals take radical climate action

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook​

As Bernie Sanders noted: Nero fiddled as Rome burned, while Donald Trump golfs -- and Justin Trudeau prorogues Parliament, it could be added.

With Canada reeling from the pandemic crisis, our prime minister prorogued Parliament right after he selected Bill Morneau to take the hit for the government's WE Charity scandal, freeing up his longtime finance minister to pursue every politician's dream of trying out for the top bureaucrat job at the OECD.

Trudeau's prorogation seems to be a self-centred attempt to avoid further parliamentary scrutiny over WE. Still, the PM's suddenly shaky fortune could be turned to good use, if the NDP uses its leverage to compel the minority Liberals to be as progressive as they like to portray themselves to an increasingly progressive Canadian public.

The NDP could follow in the footsteps of its feisty, one-time leader David Lewis, who in the 1970s successfully coerced Pierre Trudeau's minority Liberals, pushing them to create a national, publicly owned oil company (Petro-Canada, unfortunately later privatized), more generous public pensions and election finance legislation aimed at curbing the political clout of the wealthy.

Today's situation -- with the pandemic worsening Canada's already extreme inequality -- cries out more than ever for bold, progressive action.

Already the battle lines are drawn. The C.D. Howe Institute, representing Bay Street, has begun pushing for the reduction of Canada's pandemic-related debt, while making clear that such debt reduction must not include higher taxes on the rich (even though that's where all the money is).

Yet, with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders likely to be prominent in a Joe Biden administration, wealth taxes could well be on the government agenda, moving the U.S. tax system closer to the fairer one designed by Franklin Roosevelt. It is a system Canada copied, with great results, until the 1980s.

An Abacus poll last year found that 67 per cent of Canadians supported a wealth tax -- and that's before the pandemic drastically reduced the incomes of our most vulnerable workers. Meanwhile, the stock market soars, making a mockery of the refrain "we're all in this together." Depends on what you mean by together.

Furthermore, even moderate Joe Biden has embraced a Green New Deal, a massive government-led effort to transition away from fossil fuels and create a national clean-energy infrastructure, creating millions of jobs in the process.

Trudeau has been more coy, showboating as a climate champion (for introducing a carbon tax) even as his government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, a $12.6 billion investment that screams "forever oil."

B.C. researcher Seth Klein calls this the "new climate denialism" -- acknowledging climate change but failing to take actions that science shows are required to avoid climate catastrophe.

In a powerful, upcoming book called A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, Klein develops the analogy between fighting climate change and fighting Hitler's Germany, noting that Canadians weren't supportive of getting involved in the Second World War at the outset. But Canadian leaders launched a massive mobilization and communication effort. "They took the public where they needed to go," Klein writes.

If the NDP could push Trudeau to embrace a Canadian Green New Deal, it could be an inspiring counterpoint to calls for austerity from Bay Street and Conservatives. With borrowing costs near zero, Ottawa could invest massively, as it did during the war, again fighting a crucial battle, putting Canadians to work, and growing our way out of debt.

Indeed, while Bay Street commentators attack the Liberals for spending too much, the real problem isn't that they spend too much, but rather that they spend foolishly, and not just on costly pipelines.

Consider, for instance, the Liberal plan to spend almost a billion dollars on an ill-conceived "youth volunteer" scheme that appeared to be mostly about promoting Trudeau's youth brand.

Imagine what could have been achieved if the government had instead invested that enormous sum in creating a Green Youth Corps: hiring thousands of young Canadians to work on projects related to transitioning to clean energy.

The Liberals need a good hard push to do the right thing. Otherwise, they'll continue to talk earnestly about the climate emergency while seeking "peace in our time" with Alberta and the oil companies.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada's Public Wealth. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook​

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