By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Darryl Dyck, CP.

The hungry wake of critics in Ottawa have found a common chorus to sing these days. ‘Does the minister not understand that Canadians voted to get rid of Stephen Harper and his policies!?’ screams an NDP backbencher through simultaneous translation at Question Period. Leftist screed, even – echoing Mulcair’s own talking points – writes ‘Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party: Real change, just with the same climate targets as Stephen Harper.’ The Tyee, no less harsh: ‘Did the Liberals out-Harper the Conservatives?’

The word is out and it’s not good for the prime minister, or – as he’s been called a lot recently – Harper 2.0. Politics moves on received wisdom; those little worms carving perceptions into our brains, beliefs granted truth by repetition. One of those cliches, ‘it’s time for change,’ – four words that strike fear into the hearts of incumbents everywhere – won the election for Justin Trudeau last fall, but another cliché could cause him a lot of trouble if left to germinate: ‘Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss!’

The government’s decision to approve Pacific NorthWest LNG, a proposed energy project delivering natural gas across BC’s northeast to be liquefied and exported at the coast, is tarring its credibility with environmentalists and First Nations. Leaving some again to wonder just how different the new government is from its predecessor. It’s an unfair comparison, however, or rather, a bad one.

The Harper government’s efforts to consult First Nations and Métis peoples over, say, Northern Gateway, pale in comparison to its successor’s with Pacific NorthWest LNG. The Federal Court of Appeal overturned the Harper government’s approval of Northern Gateway with a harsh ruling this summer, writing, ‘We find that Canada offered only a brief, hurried and inadequate opportunity to exchange and discuss information and to dialogue,’ adding ‘it would have taken Canada little time and little organizational effort to engage in meaningful dialogue on these and other subjects of prime importance to Aboriginal Peoples. But this did not happen.’ Careless disregard.

Meanwhile even AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde admits opinion on liquid natural gas is far more divided among First Nations. Some along the NorthWest line have signed benefit agreements with the province, including Metlakatla, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala, in addition to sixteen other nations along the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project route which will feed natural gas to Pacific NorthWest LNG. Among the 190 conditions that the Trudeau government has placed on the project in approving it, one of the most encouraging conditions is that local First Nations near Lelu Island are to help review, assess and report on the ongoing environment impact of the project.

With Pacific NorthWest LNG approved, Petronas will have to decide whether or not to forge ahead with the project. (Photo: Darryl Dyck, CP.)

But the Liberals have also been under fire for their emissions targets most recently – that is, 17% below Canada’s 2005 emissions by 2020 and 30% by 2030 – which ought to sound familiar to you since they were also the Harper government’s emissions targets. Critics have since chided the new government for adopting targets they called insufficient when their party was in opposition. In her defense, Environment minister Catherine McKenna insists that specific reduction targets aren’t as important as having a process in place to make those reductions. This has led some to suggest the Liberals are trying to avoid making a real commitment to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But what’s missing from this debate is some perspective. Cutting through all of the terminology and baseline lingo, what Harper’s government agreed to in 2009 at Copenhagen was to reduce Canada’s emissions by about a 100 megatonnes (MT) in eleven years, but Trudeau, by trying to salvage the last target made in the dying days of his predecessor, is promising to reduce emissions by more than twice that in a span of less than fifteen years. That’s an accelerated and aggressive timeline. In that sense, the Harper government’s 2030 target was never unambitious, per se, but rather it was its past history Post-Copenhagen, that coloured it so. Unoccupied with taking sincere, firm action against climate change, the Conservatives over the course of their mandate seemed quite content playing a game of political high jump: resetting the bar occasionally, waving to the crowd, and forgetting altogether they first needed to run and jump if they wished to succeed.

It was through this process that they squandered years, nine whole years, doing nothing of any significance to improve Canada’s carbon record. As a result, meeting our Copenhagen target is likely impossible and the Paris target will be a great challenge requiring a gradual but far more accelerated and pronounced change in industrial, commercial and consumer practices than what we’ve seen previously.

If Trudeau really was ‘Harper 2.0,’ he would have raised the targets further, inviting more adulation. Meeting those new targets would be a different story entirely, however. In taking the heat this week for not increasing its targets, the new government is suggesting it hopes to actually meet them – which is, in and of itself, a novel concept for a country that hasn’t come close to meeting any of its emission targets: blowing past Mulroney’s modest ‘stabilization’ goal in 2000, Kyoto’s 2012 target, and now Copenhagen’s 2020 target; the latter of which has already been written off as a failure.

The government’s current projections  (high, medium and low) of Canada’s GHG emissions without further action.

Signatories ratifying the Paris Agreement, which Canada is set to become once the House votes on it this week, are agreeing to keep the global average temperature ‘well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels’ and ‘pursue efforts’ towards limiting that increase to 1.5 °C. Scientists consider a 2 ⁰C increase, a ‘red line’ where the more drastic impacts of global warming will appear: severe weather, food insecurity, flooding, mass migration, extensive ice loss, disease and weaker agricultural productivity and soil fertility. Harper’s 2030 target is ‘the floor,’ as McKenna calls it, in the sense that it’s slightly below even the reductions that must take place to support the latter hopes of limiting the world’s average temperature at a 1.5 ⁰C increase over pre-industrial levels. But it’s also a realistic goal.

Meeting that target for the Liberals will mean cooperating with the provinces to price carbon and regulate the energy and housing industry; each energy project, like the latest, becoming a test of the government’s commitment to improving its environmental record. That standoff has emerged as recently as this past week; now a tangled web of interests, amassing more and more weight each day as stakeholders across the country position and jockey themselves against the federal government. If he wasn’t already aware, the prime minister is learning the hard way that intergovernmental politics in Canada are colour-blind. Party loyalty never dissuades premiers and activists from attacking Ottawa. Neither compromise and cooperation comes easily or painlessly.

But Trudeau, unlike Harper, has staked his government’s record on cooperation with the provinces; meeting with premiers at multiple First Ministers meetings already. Yet building consensus on health and climate change will be far from easy. The provinces are already attempting to leverage the federal government, having requested Ottawa hold a meeting on health before its meeting on climate change.

Federal-provincial relations will be tested on the climate change file especially, as some provinces drag their heels. (Photo: Adrian Wyld, CP.)

The grievances are numerous: the Council of Federation believes the health transfers should be increased to the six percent pre-Harper escalator (code for ‘give the provinces more money’), Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia believe a carbon tax will raise the cost of living, while Ontario and Quebec believe their watered down cap-and-trade systems are magically the equivalent of BC’s carbon tax because, erm, pricing carbon at $15 per tonne in Ontario and Quebec is the equivalent of pricing carbon at $30 in BC – or, at least that’s the case according to Ontario and Quebec.

There could be a number of endgames at play here. One of which is to force the federal government to implement a federal carbon tax unilaterally and transfer the resulting revenue to the provinces; that scenario, regardless of whether it respects provincial jurisdictions or not, is sort of a dream scenario for premiers since it’s a fresh new source of revenue they can accept unceremoniously, pinning the blame entirely on Ottawa; gnawing mercilessly at the hands that feeds them like a pack of starving, rabid dogs. As a handout free from conditions, it’d be even juicier than a health transfer increase.

With that having been said, critics ought to judge the new government on its own successes and failures. It’s mere rhetoric on their part to revive the legacy of Stephen Harper every time the current government does something they don’t like.

The Harper government’s record on environmental, indigenous and intergovernmental affairs was not a standard worth honouring, nor are the comparisons between it and the new regime helpful. They’re different beasts. The Liberals’ calls to boost healthcare transfers with ‘targeted’ funding on mental health issues, for example, is wholly antithetical to Stephen Harper’s notion of ‘open federalism,’ which favoured shifting funding to the provinces without giving a bargaining position to the federal government to set conditions on health and social services in Canada.

Worlds apart: Harper, a creature of the so-called ‘Alberta Agenda’, a firewall federalist; Trudeau, quite literally a child of the competitive federalism that once thinned and grayed his own father’s hairline. Trudeau and his administration has not – and will not – proceed without its flaws, but a doppelganger of their predecessors they are not.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes


3 thoughts on “Trudeau, the new Harper? Hardly

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