Ontario’s New Democrats used to be synonymous with the environment. Recall, for example, NDP Leader Bob Rae being arrested for joining protesters who were preventing loggers from accessing Temagami’s old growth forest.
Or, further back, remember Stephen Lewis, Rae’s predecessor (once removed), leading a campaign against urban sprawl and the gobbling up of farmland by developers.
These images helped to define the Ontario NDP of the 1970s and 1980s as the environmental party in the province.
Today’s New Democrats have a more ambivalent image, however, and sometimes find themselves at odds with the environmental movement.
A case in point: Last week in committee at Queen’s Park, the New Democrats joined the Conservatives in pushing amendments that would have weakened the Endangered Species Act, a showcase piece of legislation for the environmental movement.
The amendments were defeated by the government, but not before a press release denouncing the opposition tactics was issued by five leading environmental groups: Wildlands League, Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature, Sierra Legal, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
“The NDP allege that they are friends of the environment, but their motions would undermine the Endangered Species Act,” said Rick Smith of Environmental Defence. “In this case, the NDP’s actions are completely at odds with its rhetoric.”
(An aside: Smith was briefly chief of staff to Jack Layton, the federal NDP leader.)
NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns – himself a former head of Greenpeace Canada – dismissed the reaction of the environmentalists as “overstated” and has been trying to arrange a meeting between the groups and senior New Democrats.
But Tabuns acknowledged the NDP caucus is divided on the Endangered Species Act, which falls across the fault line between the environmentalists and northerners, who see it as a threat to their livelihood.
The 10 NDP MPPs – three of them from northern Ontario, including the leader, Howard Hampton – will caucus today to determine how they will vote on third reading of the bill, which is scheduled for Wednesday.
The NDP was similarly split two years ago on the government’s greenbelt bill. In debate on that legislation, negative notes were struck by both Hampton and NDP House Leader Peter Kormos, whose Niagara Centre riding includes greenbelt land.
Insiders say that only a spirited intervention by veteran New Democrat Marilyn Churley, who has since quit the Legislature, swung the caucus in support of the bill.
But Hampton and Kormos both skipped the third reading vote and their absence was noted by the environmentalists.
Hampton and the New Democrats won kudos from environmentalists last month, however, with a private member’s bill requiring the government to come up with a plan to meet the province’s target for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the Kyoto deadline of 2012.
But at a press conference outlining the bill, Hampton stumbled when asked for his own plan. Among other things, he called for the closing of coal-fired power plants, major greenhouse gas emitters, just in southern Ontario, not in the north.
“We’re surprised that Hampton hasn’t taken a very strong leadership role on climate change and the coal phase-out,” says Jack Gibbons of the Clean Air Alliance. “It just baffles me. This is a huge political opportunity for them and the voters expect it from them.”
One stand on which Hampton and the NDP have received unqualified applause from the environmentalists is their opposition to construction of new nuclear power plants.
This stand also serves to differentiate the NDP from both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, who have said an unspecified number of new reactors are needed to replace the power we now get from plants that are nearing the end of their lifespan.
Ontario’s Greens are also anti-nuke, but mainstream environmentalists are wary of them, notwithstanding their eco-friendly name.
A coalition of 13 environmental groups plans to assess the platforms of each of the parties in the run-up to the October provincial election. While most of them are constrained by their charitable status from openly advocating a vote for one party over another, they can certainly compare and contrast the party’s stances on different issues.
The question is: Does the NDP’s opposition to nuclear power outweigh the party’s stance on other litmus test issues in the minds of the environmentalists?
The answer may become clearer this week in the vote on the Endangered Species Act.