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Mulcair's Environmental Gambit

Say what you will, but Mulcair has bonafides in the environmental field and as Canada abandons international climate accords like Kyoto, any opposition leader -- let alone Prime Minister -- needs to understand the environment file deeply, and the role our environment plays in our economic future.
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NDP MP and leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair has staked his leadership bid on the support of the NDP's remaining environmentalists by pegging "sustainable development" as the cornerstone of his campaign. It's a policy decision he hopes will clinch him the leadership of the federal New Democrats.

Mulcair is betting he can find a way to rally the party's environmental wing around his idea of sustainable development, however he will come to define the term in the weeks remaining until the March 23-24 leadership convention in Toronto.

Other leadership front runners have emerged with positions on the environmental folder. Nathan Cullen is focusing on clean energy and energy efficiency; Peggy Nash on renewables based on the German model; and Paul Dewar on environmental pollutants.

The environment might seem like a strange field for candidates on the left to differentiate themselves with, given that the NDP has long touted its environmental credentials. It's like Republicans in America debating which GOP president was the best, when the answer is perpetually Reagan.

The difference in Cullen's approach to the environment can only be so different from Mulcair's, or Dewar's from Nash's, when all belong to the same team. All support clean energy, sustainable development, environmental protection, and the like, so what separates them will only be degree, or emphasis in the case of Mulcair.

His sustainable development plan focuses around an effort to address emissions from Alberta's oil sands. Mulcair is proposing a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon emissions, based on the "polluter pays" principle.

"We're leaving it to future generations the cost to clean up the soil, the air and the water that's being devastated by the way in which we're exploiting it right now," Mulcair claimed in the National Post. He points to his history as a "tough enforcer" in "applying legislation in the public interest," regardless of whether it is in the best interests in his constituents.

Mulcair points to his support of the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Newfoundland and Labrador as an example of this, a project which is hugely unpopular in Quebec because of the federal loan guarantee offered to what Quebecers perceive as competition for their own hydro power. But he would support this and other renewable energy plans that are in the best interest of the country, he argues, even if they remain unpopular in his home province. The needs of the many, etc., etc.

It shows Mulcair unbeholden to the province that brought the Dippers to the dance in the last election, which is dangerous for the Outremont MP. So while he may want to cast a wandering eye around the party to build his support nationwide, he would do well to keep Quebec happy -- at least until after the leadership convention.

Another key component of his sustainable development policy is a more nuanced approach to the oil sands in Alberta, above and beyond the cap-and-trade system. Rather than call for the outright abolition of oil sands production as many in his party demand, Mulcair is taking a more pragmatic approach by recognizing what lefty environmentalists across Canada (myself included) have typically been loath to admit: namely, that the oil sands cannot be abolished outright because they are a significant part of Canada's economic engine, and that any effort to do away with them could be disastrous. And not only for the oil and gas companies.

Which leads to two points. First, rather than alienate the more pragmatic Dippers in the party, Mulcair is calling for the abolition of oil sands subsidies, some $1.4 billion in taxpayer money the oil and gas companies receive. And secondly, this plan would be part of a larger move to cure Canada of its "Dutch Disease," the situation brought about by a decline in the manufacturing sector as natural resource extraction grows in significance.

Think of manufacturing jobs fleeing Ontario while oil and gas companies plan inter-provincial pipelines to sell their fuel to Asian markets. Mulcair says continues in the National Post: "One of the parts of that balanced economy was a manufacturing sector and we've lost hundreds of thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs since the Conservatives came into power six years ago."

There is room for alternative energy plans in his sustainable development idea, but renewables as a whole failed to make the same waves as his thoughts on cap-and-trade and oil sands did. While noting that it is on his radar, I would hope that Mulcair will focus more on what future renewable technologies can accomplish as he proceeds.

It's not surprising that Mulcair would choose the environment as the field to distinguish himself in the race. He served as environment minister in Jean Charest's Liberal government in Quebec City from 2003 to 2006.

Say what you will, but Mulcair has bonafides in this field; and as Canada abandons international climate accords like Kyoto, any opposition leader -- let alone Prime Minister -- needs to understand the environment file deeply, and the role our environment plays in our economic future.

So far, Mulcair has run a professional and organized campaign which has been characterized by a strong showing at the first debate, a string of thought-provoking policy announcements, and a growing cadre of academic, political, and union support, including former Governor General Ed Schreyer.

He is also assuming that what the NDP needs to win is less a radical shift to the centre to make life even harder for the Liberals, but to move the political spectrum in the NDP's favour. How? By taking a page from Stephen Harper's playbook and attempting to redefine the Canadian political landscape in terms favourable to the New Democrats -- namely, by framing the centre as inherently centre-left, and the NDP as the natural party of the latter.

And by defining the spectrum on behalf of the party, Mulcair in effect would be challenging the Liberals to claim that ground from the Dippers at the polls.

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