By Aaron Freeman
Many MPs and other political observers were quick to dismiss NDP Leader Jack Layton’s recent deal with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to overhaul the government’s Clean Air Act. But while his actions are consistent with the opportunistic dealmaker stereotype that critics have saddled him with, Layton has provided an opening for Kyoto advocates to put their money where their mouth is.
A private member’s bill sponsored by Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez is calling on the government to draft a plan to meet our 2012 Kyoto target. The bill, which has now reached the House environment committee, is being used as a bludgeoning tool against the Conservatives, who argue Canada’s Kyoto target is unrealistic and will not be met.
All three opposition parties are calling on the government to re-commit to Kyoto and come up with a plan to adhere to our international obligations. But it was the Rodriguez bill that placed the Liberals at the head of the pack. It also provided a powerful foil against the government’s own Clean Air Act, which the Liberals, Bloc and, until recently, the NDP, are committed to defeating.
While the NDP supports the Rodriguez bill, they also silently fret that the Liberals, whose own Kyoto plan last year was tepid, did not deserve the mantle of climate change champions. As a party that thinks of itself as the green leader in Parliament, the NDP felt short-changed.
And so, just as committee debate on the Rodriguez bill was set to begin, NDP Leader Jack Layton dropped a bomb. Back in the House of Commons, he invited Prime Minister Harper to sit down with opposition parties and redraft the Clean Air Act. The Prime Minister accepted, at which point there was a steep drop in the chamber’s atmospheric pressure coinciding with gasps of disbelief from the Liberal benches.
As other opposition MPs and even some environmentalists claimed, Layton’s move was an opportunistic effort to shift the green spotlight away from the Liberals.
True enough. But get over it.
Layton has since re-affirmed his support for the Rodriguez bill as an ace in the hole, just in case the government fails to negotiate in good faith. The Clean Air Act will not interfere with the environment committee’s debate on the private member’s bill, and won’t even interfere with the equally urgent work on the committee’s other file, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act review.
Instead, the Clean Air Act will be referred to a legislative committee, before second reading, an indication that the government will accept serious changes to the bill. Legislative committees are structured differently from standard parliamentary committees. For example, in the environment committee, the four Liberals and two Bloc members, if they choose to work together, can outnumber the four voting Conservative members, leaving the single NDP vote irrelevant. But in a legislative committee, the government side will have an extra member, since it loses the right to appoint the committee’s chair. In terms of numbers, this will give the NDP the deciding vote if they opt to back the Conservatives.
This too can be seen as a crass attempt to increase the clout of the NDP beyond its numbers.
But a legislative committee, unlike standing or special parliamentary committees, can also remain sitting during a recess. As a result, no time will be lost during the six-week break coming up. Especially with an opposition chairing the committee, there is every reason for the committee to report as soon as the House returns in the new year, and for the House to at least begin debate on the bill before an expected budget in late February.
This is no mere technical matter. The Layton-Harper deal now places the opposition parties firmly in the driver’s seat on Kyoto. Together, they have a clear majority, and the chair of the committee is even drawn from their ranks. If they so choose, the opposition can now draft a meaningful Kyoto plan, something the Rodriguez bill on its own cannot do. Of course, this means walking the talk, something politicians often have a hard time doing.
MPs and environmentalists should not reject this strategy simply because it may have been motivated by political considerations. (What in politics isn’t, after all?) Instead, they should embrace the best chance they have to come up with a meaningful Canadian plan to make the shift to a Kyoto economy.
The hour is late on climate change, and the opportunities are becoming scarce. We can’t afford to waste this one.
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opportunities expressed are his own.