This week in Electionland: Tar sands fever heats up, the press attacks Harper, and nobody talks about poverty

As a voracious reader of news, and as a blogger, I’m of two minds about the ridiculously long election campaign that we’ve just embarked upon.

On the one hand, I find myself wanting on an almost daily basis to throw in my two cents on the latest scandal or outrage or prime ministerial press conference. There’s a natural drama to a campaign that makes continuous running commentary both easy and lazily compelling; like the dramatic twists of a five-day-a-week soap opera, each juicy detail and revelation leaves you wanting more, even though the plot only creeps forward incrementally each day and the overall story arc going forward is pretty obvious to anybody who’s watched this sort of thing happen before.

And that’s what’s on the other hand – I don’t want to get too sucked into the petty drama of the whole orchestrated spectacle. As I noted last Friday in my coverage of the first leaders’ debate, electioneering in our current system is little more than well-organized propaganda and manipulation. The goal of party messaging is not to inform voters, but to persuade them, largely on a subconscious level. To engage seriously with such a process is, in many respects, to legitimize it, and that I do not wish to do.

All that being said, however, it is an important event, and it has the potential to be extremely revealing in terms of the actual functioning of the broken party system and the business-captured political class. I would be remiss to ignore it entirely.

So my compromise with myself is this: each Sunday, I’m going to be writing up the week that was in the election. This will, hopefully, undercut my impulse towards gossipy commentary, result in more insightful and thoughtful coverage, and allow me to focus more on broad trends than the frenzied daily news cycle.


Broadly speaking, then, the first week of this marathon campaign has in many ways set the tone for what is to come. Characterized by misrepresentations, partisan cheap shots, and shallow evasive discussion on substantive issues, the onset of this campaign offers little in the way of optimism or hope to people who feel compelled to follow the news (i.e. yrs truly).

Take for instance the issue of the tar sands. There’s been a surprising amount of talk about what candidates across party lines insist upon calling the “oil sands” and the numerous proposed pipeline projects to transport bitumen and natural gas from Alberta to ports on both sides of this country. But except for Harper, the party leaders have been exceedingly careful about actually taking firm positions on the issue of continued tar sands extraction and pipeline construction. As the Canadian Press points out in their analysis of the issue, there’s not much to gain for Mulcair and Trudeau from being clear on this:

A week into the federal election campaign, party leaders are treading carefully around pipeline politics as they try to build support from an electorate divided on the country’s energy future.

The campaign comes as Canada renegotiates its energy policy and Canadians debate whether to expand the oil and gas industry to boost the economy or dramatically scale back production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…

Brent Patterson with the Council of Canadians, a lobby group that opposes the expansion of Alberta’s oilsands, also doesn’t think the campaign will offer Canadians a clear vision for the future of the country’s energy industry.

“It’s still early but perhaps the odds are against there being a meaningful conversation about pipelines,” he said.

It’s not difficult to understand why.

Major oil and gas projects either approved or proposed have met with intense opposition from First Nations communities as well as activist and environmental groups across the country.

Many don’t want any more pipelines — period. Therefore, any reassurances about state-of-the-art technology to mitigate risks of spills are a non-issue for many.

And support for new pipelines is lukewarm at best in vote-rich Quebec but strong in Alberta, Saskatchewan and in parts of Atlantic Canada.

To be clear, though, Mulcair and Trudeau aren’t truly on the fence about these issues. They just don’t want to publicly take strong stands about them – they’d rather make carefully-worded non-committal statements and let voters believe what they want to believe. Consider Mulcair’s heated exchange with Elizabeth May during Thursday’s debate, when May repeatedly challenged Mulcair to take a position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline slated to run through Vancouver despite safety concerns and popular opposition. (For coverage of the debate, the major campaign event of the week, you can check out my day-after analysis.) After criticizing the procedures for assessing the proposal as being fundamentally flawed, Mulcair declared that we would have to wait and see what the regulators and scientists had to say about it.

Which is an odd position to take, and not just because of the obvious contradiction in his stance. Science has been speaking in a pretty united and loud voice on the tar sands lately. In January, a study in Nature concluded that the tar sands must be left in the ground if the world has any hope of avoiding catastrophic levels of global warming, and in June, over one hundred scientists publicly called on Canada to halt tar sands exploitation immediately:

Today more than 100 prominent scientists from across North America, including climate scientists, economists, geophysicists, and biologists, released a consensus statement entitled “Ten Reasons for a Moratorium” that shows why Canada and the United States should postpone new oil sands development.

“Based on evidence raised across our many disciplines, we offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects,” reads the consensus statement. “No new oil sands or related infrastructure projects should proceed unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights. [Our] ten reasons, each grounded in science, support our call for a moratorium.”

“If Canada wants to participate constructively in the global effort to stop climate change, we should first stop expanding the oil sands. More growth simply shows Canada has gone rogue,” says Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of governance innovation at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.

But not one major party favours actually acting on this urgently worded advice from experts. No leading politician is calling for an end to tar sands extraction. And that includes Elizabeth May of the Green Party. For those who favour preserving life on the planet over the employment of a few thousand oil workers and the further enrichment of a few mega-corporations, there literally is no major party to vote for.

In assessing the often-frustrating leaders debate, the Socialist Party of Canada nailed it when they declared that the tar sands were the winner:

Trudeau’s opposition to Harper is that he “cannot get our exports to market because there is no public trust anymore. People don’t trust this government to actually look out for our long term interests.” Trudeau is criticizing Harper for the success of the climate justice movement in delaying every major pipeline project, and is trying to convince Bay Street–including Big Oil and the other corporate power that fund the Tories and the Liberals–that he can do a better job of undermining the movement and ramming through pipeline projects.

Unfortunately Mulcair made the same argument, that his criticism of the Tories wasn’t in their support of the tar sands pipeline projects, but how they went about it. “Getting our resources to market is critical. But Mr. Harper has gotten the balance wrong, he’s gutted our environmental legislation and he knows that’s hurting jobs in our resource sector, it’s hurting our economy and frankly it’s hurting Canada’s international reputation.“ He went to explain that if we had an “objective” review process we could get people who oppose environmentally destructive projects to approve them…

The second tactic to get approval for tar sands pipelines is shared by the Greens and the NDP. As Elizabeth May explained, “Mr. Mulcair’s right, every single one of these raw bitumen unprocessed oil pipeline schemes is about exporting Canadian jobs, that’s why the Green Party knows it’s going to oppose every single one of them.“ But the Green Party is not opposed to tar sands, and instead calls for more domestic refining. Similarly, Mulcair opposes the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines because they export unprocessed bitumen, but called the proposed Energy East pipeline a “win-win-win,” for the economy, environment and jobs. But Energy East would devastate the climate, continue pouring resoures in the least efficient job creator (the oil industry) and continue basing the economy on the destruction of the planet.

Regardless of the destination of tar sands or where its processed, tar sands expansion continues industrial genocide against First Nations, from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at ground zero to the communities all along the pipeline routes. “Domestic refining,” using Canadian nationalism to continue to devastate Indigenous land, is no solution. Canada’s oil industry is concentrated in Chemical Valley, which surrounds and poisons Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Every year Indigenous activists organized a “toxic tour” of their community to show the environmental racism they live every day. Any pipeline expansion and any increase in “domestic refining” further erodes that community’s health and their right to control their land.

In short, the various parties are all offering more tar sands and more pipelines; the difference lies only in the level of regulation and the location of the refineries. And by centring their opposition to continued tar sands exploitation around the damage it does to First Nations communities and territories, the Socialists also manage to raise an issue that none of the major leaders are willing to talk about openly and honestly – the continued process of genocide which remains the foundation of economic growth in this country.

There is a taboo, it seems, on any open discussion of shutting down the tar sands – Big Oil’s defenders are ready to lash out with the defensiveness of an addict whose supply is threatened at the merest hint of it. The knives were drawn for NDP candidate Linda McQuaig this week when she made some vague comments on the subject – and watch how fast she and her party backed down:

Linda McQuaig, a well-known author and journalist and the NDP candidate for the riding of Toronto Centre, told a panel discussion on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that for Canada to meet its climate change targets, “a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground”…triggering a fierce backlash from Conservatives and Liberals.

A Calgary Conservative incumbent on the program with McQuaig accused the NDP of proposing a moratorium on the oilsands. Michelle Rempel also said it would kill jobs at a time of instability in the oil sector…

McQuaig later posted on Twitter that the NDP position is that sustainable development means stronger environmental reviews, which she says the government of Stephen Harper has undermined…

The federal NDP campaign office later released a statement from the party’s natural resources critic, who said McQuaig’s comments weren’t about the party’s position on the oilsands, but rather the possible constraints the industry would face under emissions-reduction targets.

“Ms. McQuaig was not referring to NDP policy, rather she was referring to what one particular international report has said that might be necessary under Stephen Harper,” said Malcolm Allen in the emailed statement.

You can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be seeing attack ads about this before the campaign is through. Even Stephen Harper deigned to comment on it, though no reporter actually asked him:

Harper also volunteered an answer to a question he wasn’t asked, reacting to remarks made last week by “star NDP candidate” Linda McQuaig, who told a CBC panel discussion that for Canada to meet its climate change targets, “a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground.”[…]

“That is the NDP’s not-so-hidden agenda on development,” Harper said.

“The NDP is consistently against the development of our resources and our economy. That’s why they have been a disaster wherever they’ve been in government and why they would wreck this economy if they ever got in, and why they must never get into power in this country.”

(That “not-so-hidden agenda” is rich rich payback by Harper, who has been smeared with the insinuation that he has a hidden agenda since he first became leader of the Reform Party, as was Doris Stockwell Day before him.)


 

As with the tar sands, so too with many other issues. There was a lot of bluster and positioning, and many buzzwords were deployed, but substantive and specific conversation was in extremely short supply. “The middle class” was shown to be incredibly popular and deserving of every consideration, but of the poor we heard little to nothing. Much was made of whether or not Stephen Harper finally acknowledged that Canada is likely in a recession, but beyond trite cliches about “middle-class families” “feeling the pinch”, the impact of our casino economy on working folks didn’t seem to register on the national stage.

In late June, Ipsos-Reid released a poll which surveyed Canadians on what issues they thought should be central to the upcoming campaign. The results were striking:

The number one issue that Canadians say they want the party leaders to talk about during the election campaign is the ‘rising cost of living’ (54%).

In second place, and related, is ‘rising food prices’ (40%) and rounding out the top five issues are both the ‘shaky economy’ (36%) and ‘retirement pensions’(36%) tied for third (and fourth) place with ‘environmental protection’(28%) in fifth place.

The top four issues are ones which matter most to those who feel economically insecure. “Rising food prices” isn’t a middle-class concern – that’s something poor folks worry about, and people living beyond their means. That so many respondents to this poll selected these issues suggests that we are a nation on the verge of an economic crisis. And yet to listen to the leaders talk about the “technical” recession, and proposing boutique tax credits to help homeowners renovate, one could easily be fooled into thinking that the issue of poverty is marginal to the campaign.

Going forward, I fully expect that leaders will mostly ignore these popular concerns, at best giving them lip service without seriously engaging with them.


Another striking trend this week was the widespread media scorn for the Prime Minister. Of course, there were polemics from all the expected corners – the Star put up a nice long-form piece on how Harper’s changed Canada over the last decade, and the Tyee posted probably the most exhaustive litany of the HarperCons’ crimes and scandals that I’ve seen anywhere (part one; part two). The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, who helped break the Duffy scandal, pushed forward the publication date for his forthcoming biography of Harper, which apparently reveals new details about the PMO’s vindictive grudge-war with the Supreme Court of Canada.

But the most striking attack came from the National Post. I’ve long noted that the conservative press has given up on Harper, but things reached new heights this week, and for this type of explicit attack from sources which should be sympathetic to come so early in the campaign is a sure sign that the press has it in for Harper. And you don’t get attacks more damaging that this one from John Robson, who whinged, “I can’t vote for the Harper Conservatives. I just can’t.

Elections are such infuriating spectacles that sometimes one doesn’t know which obscenity to utter first. But I’ve decided to aim my initial outburst at the Harper Tories.

I cannot vote for them. I just can’t. They should be my natural choice but their coarse, vindictive, proudly unprincipled cynicism must not be rewarded with electoral success, regardless of the consequences…

It doesn’t matter where you look. The Tories talk tough in foreign affairs and praise the military. But they gut defence to fund cynical handouts. They rope in the rubes by feigning concern about traditional marriage, abortion and God. But they do nothing…

These people are not honourable. Indeed, they laugh at honour. They cherish the low blow, the devious tactic, the unprincipled bribe, in a relentless, sneering, partisan tone. People I know and like retweet Pierre Poilievre with vicious glee. I weep for them and my country.

And to be clear, Robson is attacking them from a hard-right point of view.

Histrionics aside, this is a key indicator for those who are following the horse-race aspects of the campaign. With even the conservative papers acting increasingly hostile towards the HarperCons, it’s hard to see how they find a path to victory – especially as their base skews older and is less likely to get their news from the echo chamber which is social media. Furthermore, disenchantment with the system as it currently exists has become so thoroughly mainstream that there’s nothing remotely controversial about Robson’s opening sentence. Folks are, by and large, disillusioned with this whole process – a likely explanation as to why so many are willing to settle for “Anything but Harper”.

While I’m on the subject of how campaigns are won and lost, I came across this great summary of how the ground game works for the different parties in Saskatchewan, including voter ID and the get-out-the-vote apparatus, and why the Liberals are at a structural disadvantage there.

Lastly, for those who care about polls (and I’ll admit, as cynical as I am about these things, I do love some good old-fashioned number-crunching), The Hill Times released an extremely fine-grained study which took a riding-level look at the state of the race and concluded (I’m simplifying greatly here) that the NDP is probably in the best position going forward. There’s lots of charts and stats, so click through if yer interested – I don’t want to clutter this space up.


 

The week to come is bound to be a tumultuous one. Harper tried to set the tone today by making a marquee announcement on Stopping the Terrorists by Not Letting Them Go to Where All the Other Terrorists Are, but many media observers saw this as a cynical ploy to distract media observers from the upcoming resumption of the Duffy trial. Nigel Wright, the Prime Minster’s chief of staff at the time of the Duffy scandal, will be taking the stand, and it’s anybody’s guess how loyal he’ll be to his former boss. Make some popcorn and expect fireworks.

With the trial as its centrepiece, expect this week to feature more blistering attacks on the HarperCons, coupled with desperate attempts on their part to change the subject. Remember, this testimony isn’t a surprise – they’ve known it’s been coming for months, and the CPC brain trust has had plenty of time to figure out how to spin what will be said, and how to distract attention away from any damning details. Expect new tax credits – it’s their go-to campaign distraction.

If you know of any excellent, insightful, interesting, or unique sources of news on the election that you think I ought to include in my daily reading, please let me know in the comments!

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