For Conservative governments, the environment has always been something of a policy dilemma and not for the reasons some might think. Parties on the liberal-left and their fellow-travellers in the environmental movement have naturally assumed that conservatives are not green and simply don’t care about the environment. The opposite is true.
Consider the sterling environmental achievements of conservative governments both in Canada and abroad. Just think of Brian Mulroney’s “Green Plan” that dealt with real environmental problems such as pulp-and-paper mill effluent and the United States’ National Environmental Policy Act, which was the brainchild of Richard Nixon. Conservatives are not necessarily better than other parties on the environment. It’s just that they are certainly no worse. But no matter what they do as governments, the environmental community never gives them credit. I speak from personal experience, as former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon’s environmental advisor from 1988-1996.
The partisanship of the environmental movement was blatantly expressed by the hysterical rantings of the Sierra Club’s Elizabeth May in the run-up to the last election. May was part of the “Think Twice Coalition” of VERY CONCERNED CITIZENS who collectively accused Stephen Harper of every environmental and social sin imaginable. One would think that May, as one of Canada’s most vocal environmental activists, would have at least had the political smarts to remain non-partisan and see what she could wring out of the new government.
But these juvenile antics have created a huge opportunity for Harper to forge a new style of “populist” environmentalism that actually delivers results. This point was made by the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who wrote in his “advice to the new prime minister” National Post column of Feb. 2: “Canadians want a clean environment and proposals that work.”
A new view of environmental policy combines the optimism of a highly advanced technological and wealthy society with the pragmatic “can-do” attitude of the business community. This optimistic view can be labeled “modern environmentalism” as opposed to the “gloom-and-doom” apocalyptic scenarios offered by the “post-modern” environmental activist community.
Modern environmentalists believe that a clean and healthy environment is a birthright of advanced free-market democracies, much in the same way these societies expect ever-increasing life spans, comfort and personal security. And free-market democracies are uniquely capable of delivering on all these promises, and more.
Modern environmentalists think that wealth creation is a good thing, and we view the market as the natural sender of signals for us to do the right thing. Just watch high oil prices spur “smart green” technological developments in solar, wind, and geothermal energy.
As a trained economist, Harper knows all of this and is uniquely positioned to fashion a new, modern environmentalism for Canada. He’s not in the least beholden to the “post modern” environmental activists; they’ve written him off anyway so he should just ignore them.
His old boss, Preston Manning, agrees.
In an article in the December 6, 2004 issue of the Western Standard titled, “Preston Goes Green,” Manning said regarding Alberta, “If some group properly led and organized politically were to figure out how to marry the Alberta commitment to marketplace economics and fiscal responsibility with a genuine proactive approach to the conservation of Alberta’s natural resources, the times and conditions are nearly ripe for such a group to form the next government of Alberta.”
A federal Conservative manifestation of Manning’s advice would result in an environmental policy consistent with that world view. Among other ideas, it would emphasize results not process, use market forces and incentives to enhance environmental quality, rely on unbiased science, enhance the use of modern technology and eliminate perverse public policies that actually cause environmental harm. Harper has a pile of money to re-direct away from wasteful bureaucracies in the environmental departments of the federal government into programs that actually deliver real environmental results.
Harper also has a natural constituency of conservationists from which to draw—namely Canada’s 5 million anglers and hunters. They are “real” conservationists who do “real” work such as the restoration of the wild turkey in Ontario. From gun control to the proposed Animal Cruelty Act to possible bans on lead fishing weights and a general “anti-use” bias, these groups felt very threatened by the previous government; and for good reason.
These groups voted massively for the Conservatives and through the “gun control wars” have become organized and politicized. They represent an opinion base for the new government and one that Harper has already started to cultivate if his presence at the 77th Annual Conference of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters last year is any indication. Smart. Or better, Smart and Green.
Finally, Canada’s young people have strong environmental beliefs but are also concerned about their economic future and public safety. Grafting a conservative environmental policy on to a conservative economic and law-and-order agenda is a winning “smart green” combination for Canada’s youth. And a winning combination for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and his new Minister of the Environment, Rona Ambrose.
This article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald, February 16, 2006.