New Liberal Government Needs To Move From Division To Unity

Former prime minister Kim Campbell famously said that elections are no time to discuss serious issues. She was roundly critiqued for the statement, but looking at energy and environment in the federal election you can understand what she was getting at.

As one would expect in a democracy, the political parties developed policy positions to distinguish themselves from each other. All good.

Their platforms sometimes made up for in ambition what they lacked in substance. Less good, but still to be expected in a campaign.

Most troubling was that energy and environment were handled in ways that divided Canadians. Pipelines, carbon pricing, oil and gas production and climate action became ‘either-or’ wedge issues, with support or opposition split along partisan lines.

How the returning Liberal government will rise above this divisiveness with a minority of seats in the House of Commons is one of the most important questions for the new government.

Canada faces urgent policy challenges as it charts its energy future in an age of climate change. What is the future of the country’s oil and gas sector, both domestic and export? How will Canada lower emissions in ambitious but feasible ways? Who should make the decision about whether an energy project should go ahead, be it a pipeline, power line, wind farm, LNG terminal or nuclear waste repository? How can Indigenous communities benefit from energy development in meaningful and inclusive ways? And how can the country capitalize on innovation potential across the entire energy sector to bolster competitiveness?

Answering these questions in ways that unify the country — not divide it — is pivotal, not only for energy and environment, but for national unity (the Liberals didn’t win a single seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan, largely over its handling of energy and environmental issues).  

This is a tall order, but there are ways forward.

Watching the election campaign, you would think Canadians were hopelessly polarized on the issues.

But survey data from Nanos Research and Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa reveal this is not the case. There is strong agreement among Canadians on a broad range of energy and environmental issues.

Canadians don’t see things in stark terms, tend to be pragmatic and balanced in their views, and believe that energy and environmental objectives can be aligned rather than pushing in opposite directions.

Take oil and gas. Almost eight in 10 Canadians agree (45 per cent) or somewhat agree (32 per cent) that Canada’s oil and gas sector can play an important long-term role if it operates in an environmentally responsible way. And two-thirds agree (35 per cent) or somewhat agree (31 per cent) that oil and gas exports can contribute to combatting climate change if they displace energy sources in other countries more damaging to the climate.

But Canadians also want climate action. More than half support (29 per cent) or somewhat support (26 per cent) growth in the oil and gas sector, but six in 10 would be more supportive if Canada had more proactive climate policies.

As to carbon pricing and energy affordability, two of the main wedges in the campaign, over six in 10 Canadians support (39 per cent) or somewhat support (23 per cent) new fuel taxes if the revenues go to green projects. And nearly six in 10 support (31 per cent) or somewhat support (28 per cent) meeting Canada’s climate commitments even if it means higher energy prices.

What about who should make decisions about energy and environmental issues? While some provinces have tried to assert jurisdiction over carbon pricing and interprovincial pipelines, Canadians are looking for federal leadership on these files. Seventy-one per cent think Ottawa should lead decision-making on major pipeline projects, and the same number think the federal government should lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Majorities across all regions support these views.

In addition, a growing number of Canadians prioritize the national interest in energy project decision-making. A majority think that when it comes to energy projects, the national interest matters more than local, Indigenous or provincial interests (64 per cent, 61 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively). And these majorities are increasing since Nanos/Positive Energy first asked these questions in 2015.

But Canadians score governments poorly on uniting the country on energy issues. Almost half say governments have done a poor (28 per cent) or very poor (20 per cent) job of developing a shared, long-term vision for energy. A scant 17 per cent say Canada has done a good (15 per cent) or very good job (two per cent). An even smaller number (13 per cent) believe Canada has done a good or very good job at building public confidence in energy decision-making.

What does all of this mean for the incoming government? First, Canadians are less divided on energy and environmental issues than the election campaign suggests. This will be crucial to bear in mind in a minority Parliament, where debates will continue to be divisive and polarized along partisan lines.

Second, Canadians see greater alignment on energy and environment than many of the party platforms. There is room to move from divisive to unifying approaches.

Third, Canadians are looking to the federal government for leadership and increasingly believe that the national interest should prevail in energy project decisions. The task for the Liberal government will be promoting the national interest in ways that unify — not divide — the country. 

Finally, Canadians are dissatisfied to date with how governments have performed on these issues. Clearly there is room for improvement.

The new Liberal government faces a major challenge: how to make the shift from a divisive campaign to governing in ways that unite the country. This means moving from polarized partisan debates — the stuff of the campaign trail —to sound, stable broadly supported policy, the stuff of governing. Doing so in a minority Parliament makes this especially daunting. But the stakes are high and will be with us for the long term. Unifying approaches can advance both energy and environmental objectives. Divisive approaches are likely to fail and won’t address either energy or environmental imperatives.

The Positive Energy/Nanos survey of 1,000 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, was conducted between August 29 and September 4, 2019. The margin for error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The complete survey results are available on the Positive Energy website: https://www.uottawa.ca/positive-energy/sites/www.uottawa.ca.positive-energy/files/2019-1485_positive_energy_omni_-_populated_report_w_tabs.pdf