MURRAY CAMPBELL

— Change is good: Grey is being deemed the new black and environmental issues have supplanted health-care concerns as the most pressing issue on the minds of Ontario voters.
Environmentalists are hoping that their issues will become the deciding issues of the coming election campaign. No one can say for certain, however, whether this will happen, despite growing concern about pollution, global warming and water quality.
“It might but it might not,” said Derek Leebosh, senior associate at Environics Research Group, whose poll, released yesterday, showed the environment is the most important issue in deciding vote choice in Ontario.
If that sounds illogical, it’s worth looking at how health issues have influenced voters over the years. People said they were the most important but, as often as not, they went into the polling booth with something else on their minds.
Health issues sank Gary Filmon in Manitoba in 1999 and Stockwell Day never quite got past the public perception in the 2000 federal election that he favoured two-tier health care but, in general, most Canadian elections are decided on a non-health issue. That’s because the parties stick so closely together in their health-policy positions that voters have a hard time choosing among them.
It looks like a similar scenario for the green front. The new poll, commissioned by a coalition of 13 environmental organizations, shows profound support for their ideas – so much so that Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, said “a number of these priorities have become so non-controversial that they have surpassed ‘mum-and-apple-pie’ status.”
The environmentalists’ poll confirms what the political parties are finding in their own surveys, which makes it certain that they will be offering voters green-friendly platforms. The days when a government could reduce environmental spending – as Mike Harris did after 1995 – are over.
The major parties still have a long way to go, however, in persuading voters that they’re on side. The survey showed that none of them is seen as a leader on environmental issues. Four in 10 of the respondents either said all the parties were the same or they couldn’t make a judgment.
“There’s a huge swath of unclaimed green turf out there up for grabs,” said Julia Langer of WWF Canada.
If voters acted with their hearts, they would be putting Green Party signs on their lawns, since the poll showed it had the best overall approach to environmental issues. That’s not going to happen, however. As Mr. Leebosh said: “People are looking for a green party, not the Green Party.”
Neither does the embrace of things green appear to be helping the New Democratic Party, even though it is unique among the parties in that it wouldn’t build new nuclear power plants and it would close the remaining coal-burning facilities. Even though 44 per cent said they would be less likely to vote for a pro-nuke party, just 20 per cent of those surveyed said the anti-nuke NDP had the best approach to environmental issues – the same score as the Liberals and just two points ahead of the Progressive Conservatives.
NDP campaign director Rob Milling shrugs it off. “Just because it’s the top issue doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to govern voters’ behaviour.”
It doesn’t matter to the environmentalists if voters judge the parties on a non-green issue as long as the parties are vying – as seems certain – to out-green each other in their platforms. “Our job is to make progress inevitable,” said Dr. Smith. “The fastest way to do that is to ensure … as much uptake on these ideas as possible by all parties.”
Environics interviewed 1,160 eligible Ontarians between July 3 and 7. A survey of this size is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.