This is Part 3 of a four-part series that outlines the crisis of confidence in national governance and the urgent need for Canada to develop clear long-term national goals for which our federal government is directly accountable. Part 1 focused on Canada’s need to break out of election-cycle thinking. Part 2 discussed a new approach to the building and maintenance of our crumbling infrastructure. Part 3 proposes the development of a national environmental and energy strategy.
I have been writing, lately, about our political leaders’ debilitating short-term vision, and the absence of clear, over-the-horizon national goals for the country. In Part 2 of this series, I suggested ways to establish and achieve those goals, and restore confidence in the value of public action, in relation to renewing our national infrastructure. Here, I will address another area where Canada has lagged shockingly: the development of a sustainable national energy strategy.
The federal government continues to be missing in action when it comes to issues of the environment and green energy; as of yet, no meaningful national goals or objectives have been set forth. Provincial constitutional responsibility for “natural resources” has emerged as a convenient excuse for the federal government to abdicate responsibility for a clear matter of national concern: to ensure all Canadians have reasonably comparable access to green energy and a clean environment. In doing so, the government chooses to ignore the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada has long confirmed federal government jurisdiction over matters of national and international concern when it comes to the environment. The result is a dysfunctional patchwork of provincial initiatives and global condemnation of Canada for contributing nothing significant to global efforts to address climate change.
The federal government’s abdication of responsibility with respect to the environment and green energy is all the more surprising in light of the fact that prominent private-sector leaders in the oil, gas, pipeline, energy retail, and electricity industries have called for clear and consistent national policies – such as an economy-wide price on carbon – to facilitate and guide their investments. What is needed, in their view, is a clear statement of Canada’s interests and objectives with respect to energy; clear national regulations; infrastructure investments; and even immigration and education policies – all of which amount to a national strategy to help corporations map out an energy-development agenda and prioritize initiatives, including research and development, and training.
A July meeting of federal and provincial energy ministers, ostensibly called to discuss a “national energy strategy,” ended in predictable disarray. The federal minister of natural resources had nothing to contribute, and made no discernible impact on the conversation. The absence of any direct input from the equally anemic minister of the environment confirmed the national government’s disinterest in the process. A few days later, there was more of this inconclusive talk at the annual meeting of premiers and territorial leaders (the pretentiously named Council of the Federation, completely unrelated as it is to the federal government). All things considered, Canadians can be forgiven for not having the slightest clue as to what our elected national representatives intend to do.
Ontario’s premier objected to Ontario tax dollars going to support the Alberta oil and gas industry, demanded more support for his province’s green-energy initiatives, and strongly disagreed with a communiqué’s reference to the questionable concept of “responsible and sustainable development of the oil sands.” The Saskatchewan premier claimed not to understand what Ontario was going on about, since Ontario now receives $2 billion in equalization payments from the other provinces. He then described a national energy policy as merely “combining the efforts of the provinces, Ottawa, and the industry into deliberations about transportation, regulation, environmental issues, as well as marketing or branding” (whatever that means).
Quebec’s minister of natural resources insisted that, while some national collaboration might be desirable, energy is a provincial competence: She pointed out that Quebec already has its own strategy emphasizing hydro, wind, and energy efficiency, and indicated that any involvement from Ottawa was not welcome. Moreover, she argued, since Hydro-Québec built all its own transmission (and other hydro) infrastructure, Ottawa should not be supporting other provinces’ hydro projects, such as Newfoundland’s Lower Churchill development.
Finally, Alberta’s energy minister defended “responsible and sustainable development of the oil sands,” and reminded other provinces that equalization payments depend on revenues from Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
Despite the desperate need for bold national leadership to rise above this dissonant cacophony of provincial voices and ensure concrete progress towards Canada’s green-energy future, the federal government remains content to muddle along, making ad hoc one-off deals with provinces – a loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill development here, a contribution to the Old Harry oil and gas development in the St. Lawrence there – and establishing toothless, window-dressing-only, regulations of oil-sands development that fail to address habitat destruction, air and water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions. This is not good enough.
Canadians are left completely in the dark in terms of the national purpose served by any of these initiatives and expenditures, with no effective means of holding the national government accountable for monies sucked into the black hole of federal-provincial fiscal relations, and no national goal (such as establishing Canada as a leading green-energy power by mid-century) to guide us. This national incoherence stands in stark contrast to the many individual Canadian researchers and businesses that are out front as real innovators in green technologies, and that would benefit from clear and consistent public leadership and investment.
Canadians must directly challenge this incoherence. We have to demand that our national leaders establish ambitious national goals and long-term objectives designed to build stronger ties among Canadians rather than attenuate them, beginning with forward-thinking policies on the environment and energy. Among other things, this could include integrating matters of energy, natural resources, and the environment in a new department more reflective of our 21st-century challenges, and providing a single minister with a clear mandate to pursue national goals relating to green energy and sustainable living. (The current cabinet committee on Economic Prosperity and Sustainable Growth that ostensibly includes “environment and energy security” among its concerns has a mandate so vague as to be meaningless.)
To ensure real accountability for clear national goals and objectives in areas involving intergovernmental co-operation, we must also establish a new institutional framework for federal-provincial fiscal transfers, such as a permanent non-partisan advisory commission (similar to the Commonwealth Grants Commission in Australia. Such a commission would manage all federal transfers and report regularly to Parliament through a dedicated committee of the House of Commons or Senate that has real powers to influence government policy and expenditures. Federal contributions to provinces and other levels of government would be more transparent and subject to public scrutiny to ensure consistency with national goals, and would respond to the best interests of individual Canadians, rather than to the demands of provincial/territorial leaders or political gamesmanship.
The billions of dollars in equalization payments require particular attention: They have become almost completely unhinged from any principled goals of greater equality of public services across Canada, and currently operate in an alternate universe only rarely understood, even by experts. Establishing national objectives, such as the development of a long-term energy strategy, is a priority. A restructuring and rethinking of equalization payments is a promising mechanism by which we might re-orient the national agenda away from its current fractured, regional focus.
In the next, and final, piece in this series, I will look at our frustrating inability to achieve meaningful improvements in the lives of aboriginal Canadians.