Canadian environmental leaders in Parliament face three key barriers to progress at the federal level, according to a new report released just over a week after the United Nations warned the politicization of climate change is a significant hurdle in North America.
“We know that most Canadians want to see climate action,” former Liberal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna told Canada’s National Observer. “But if you listen to the House of Commons on any day at question period where climate happens to be a topic or if you go to a committee, it's this over-partisanship where everyone's trying to score points … we just don’t have time for this.”
Authors of the new GreenPAC report, published March 9, talked to federal MPs about their experiences advancing environmental goals in the federal government and found toxic partisanship, party discipline and inefficient parliamentary processes are hindering this work. These findings are framed by the countless Canadian politicians clamouring for more pipelines to address global energy insecurity, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, federal interim leader Candice Bergen and Conservative federal MPs Michael Chong, Marilyn Gladu and more.
Interviews were conducted with 18 current and former MPs from six provinces and four parties — Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green — who were endorsed by GreenPAC as environmental leaders in the 2015 and 2019 federal elections. Their responses were anonymized for the study, but Canada’s National Observer spoke to two GreenPAC-endorsed MPs — McKenna and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May — about the report.
‘Opposition parties just want to make life hell for the government’
“The role of political parties, spin doctors and strategists in controlling what their MPs do has increased dramatically over the last number of decades,” said May. Early in her career, there was more collaboration between parties, she said, but things have shifted.
Now, “the opposition parties just want to make life hell for the government,” she said. “That's their whole thing.”
Party discipline can force MPs to vote along party lines even if strategists’ decisions on policy don’t actually line up with their party platform, instead of sticking to their party’s commitment and figuring out how to work together, said May.
According to the report, MPs described how “party discipline is enforced through the leader’s control over privileges, resources and appointments to coveted positions,” noting this was present in all parties except for the Greens, the only federal party that does not whip votes.
Two of Canada's federal environmental leaders — @ElizabethMay and @cathmckenna — weigh in on a new @GreenPACdotca report that looks at the biggest barriers to making progress on climate and environmental issues in Parliament. #cdnpoli
This stringent party discipline results in environmental bills being shot down despite widespread support and can prevent MPs from holding their own party leaders accountable.
McKenna doesn’t think it's possible to eradicate partisanship from politics until the Conservatives “actually decide that they're going to be serious about climate policy.”
“The reality is, we have one party that stands in the way of taking serious climate action,” said McKenna. “I know members of that party beyond (Michael) Chong supported a price on pollution. It is a Conservative tool, but they weren't allowed to say that.”
The problem doesn’t end with party discipline and the muzzling of MPs who back a carbon price, said McKenna.
When parties peddle disinformation and lies and mislead Canadians about climate change and policies like carbon pricing, “we are, again, fighting a narrative,” she said. “How do you fight misinformation — by Conservative politicians often, but also by right-wing media?”
The spread of misinformation is especially evident as politicians and fossil fuel lobby groups leverage the war in Ukraine to sow fear over global oil and gas supply and prices, said McKenna.
MPs notch small victories, but Canada needs ‘massive system change’
These barriers hindered the work of GreenPAC’s environmental leaders, but they were still able to make progress, the report noted.
Half of the interviewees said their greatest environmental victories came through private member’s bills, even though these bills generally fail to become law.
A bill to address environmental racism amassed the support of all parties except the Conservatives and made it almost all the way through the House before dying on the order paper when last year’s election was called. May recently tabled an identical bill and is hopeful it will pass with support from all the parties.
MPs told GreenPAC that tabling private member’s bills can raise awareness of issues. In December, for example, NDP MP Richard Cannings sought to draw attention to insufficient environmental protections for Canada’s lakes and rivers with Bill C-214.
Even bills that never make it to debate can mobilize Canadians to write MPs and “get people talking in the other caucuses and say, ‘This is a good idea, maybe we should do something about it,’” Cannings told Canada’s National Observer in December.
But most victories reported by MPs were project-specific, such as retrofitting a community building, and not systems-oriented, the report found.
“The reality is, the only way we are going to get the change we need is by having massive system change,” said McKenna, who left politics to focus on scaling climate and nature solutions. “But it's hard because if you're an individual MP, how do you get systems change?”
The report also found very few interviewees mentioned collaborating with Indigenous peoples, which McKenna said is “a reflection of how things are in Canada” and a “real loss” because not only are outcomes better with collaboration, it is a requirement for reconciliation.
Environmental leaders need electoral reform to be effective
Interviewees said electoral reform and reduced party discipline are key to fostering more environmental leadership in Parliament.
“In terms of looking at systemic problems in the way our electoral system is structured, nothing comes close to first past the post as a structural barrier to environmental leadership,” said May. “(It’s) because they know they can construct a majority government with one riding at a time. Winner takes all.”
May pointed to New Zealand’s switch from the first-past-the-post voting system to mixed member proportional representation in 1993 and the collaboration and co-operation that arose from the change.
McKenna says environmental leaders and governments also need to do a better job of reaching regular Canadians, educating them on complex climate issues, from electric vehicle policies to the carbon price, and using their input to help make policy decisions.
She says this “would put pressure on politicians because at the end of the day, you would have regular Canadians saying, ‘This is what we believe is important.’
“Climate change is an existential issue that we need to get absolutely laser-like focused on. And we are running out of time, and fooling around, delaying, fighting is a waste of time,” she said.
“At the end of the day, if you care about your kids or future generations, then that's what this is also about.”
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer