Australia, Canada Going Backwards on Climate Policy

One of the more troubling developments in recent environmental policy is the definitive shift in the policies of both the Canadian and Australian ...

Apr 26, 2014

One of the more troubling developments in recent environmental policy is the definitive shift in the policies of both the Canadian and Australian governments. Both countries have experienced a resurgence of conservatism after a period of centre or centre-left governments. Australia, lagging slightly behind, has yet to make a large impact; however, Canada has now become infamous for its tar sands projects and the slashing of funding for studies on climate change and the effects of environmental degradation. What ties these two countries together, apart from similar histories, is the lack of commitment to progressive environmental policies despite being seen as the most socially progressive countries in the Anglosphere.
Since the turn of the millennium Canada has undergone a profound shift in how it represents itself at a federal level. The beginnings of this new electoral landscape were formed in 2004. With the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party, right-wing of politics presented a more united front. In contrast, the left was splintering. The Liberal Party was losing votes to the New Democratic Party, a social democratic party with strong ties to organised labor, and an up-and-coming Green Party. The new landscape came into its current shape in the federal elections of 2011. The Liberal Party of Canada, historically the mainstay of Canadian politics and policy, surprised many when it fared so poorly in the election. In Canada's 308 seat Parliament, the Liberal Party only held 34 seats — to give perspective on this dramatic shift, they had held 155 seats following the 2000 federal election.  For the first time in Canada's history, the NDP was the official opposition. This was partly because of the failure of the Liberal Party, but the NDP also stomped through Quebec, wresting control of the province away from the Bloc Québécois, which has had almost total control over the province since the 1990s. This radical change in the left gave Stephen Harper's Conservatives an absolute majority, meaning they could push through a series of environmentally disastrous reforms. Canada is now the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and has spurned any international, binding climate change treaty, refusing to sign the Bali Protocol and instead latching onto the ineffectual Copenhagen Accord with its non-binding targets.
What is more ominous than international commitments which have little sway over sovereign nations is how Canada is acting within its own borders. Its tar sands projects are already irrevocably damaging pristine forest that soaks up our already dangerous carbon emissions. The burning of the oil produced here will contribute more to greenhouse gases worldwide. Pumping of the oil through pipelines with the potential for spills has already ignited fierce battles in the United States over the Keystone XL pipeline, which takes the oil from the tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Facilitating this destruction has been the Harper government’s repeal of laws designed to protect the environment. A swathe of legislation was repealed to allow the Enbridge Pipeline to go ahead. Additionally, Harper has cut funding for research groups which study the environment. Physicians who diagnose new rare cancers in northern Alberta as a result of the waste from this mining are pressured into not releasing their findings. With headlines like Huffington Post’s “Canada’s climate policy worst in world: report,” it is clear that the world is coming to realise the damage which Canada is inflicting, singlehandedly, upon the environment. With large polluters, such as China, wary to commit to cutting pollution as more developed countries still spew out large amounts of pollutants, Canada’s actions have the potential to derail a global climate movement.
Australia is starting to go down the same road. After a conservative government was voted out in 2006, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proclaimed climate change to be the “greatest moral challenge of our time” and signed Australia on to the Kyoto Protocol — only 9 years late. An emissions trading scheme could not get through a divided upper house and was then replaced after an election with a more stringent carbon tax in 2012 by Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard. However, in 2013 Australia went down a path similar to Canada’s over the last half decade. With the union-based Labor party suffering from declining unionisation and a strengthening Green party, a divided left meant that the more economically conservative working class, Labor’s traditional base, shifted to the conservative party, the Liberals. The leader of the Liberals, Tony Abbott, came to power with a clear vision of the future of Australia’s environmental policy: a repeal of the carbon tax and the encouragement of mining and logging. Although Abbott again faces a divided upper house, he has already abolished the Clean Energy Fund, which contributed money to profitable renewable energy ventures, and the advisory body, the Climate Commission.
Both Australia and Canada are starting to be seen as environmental pariahs. The most disturbing development is the rejection of the scientific consensus on global warming as this undermines the legitimacy of the entire movement. Not all hope is lost. Direct action by environmental groups is proving to be somewhat effective, and challenges to legislation through litigation are now having a greater effect than lobby recalcitrant governments. The environmental movement is nowhere near death, and the growth of green groups in parliaments in Canada and in Australia points to an awareness of how business as usual is no longer possible. In the short term, change is looking difficult, and long-term change hinges upon a motivated population eager to see a more sustainable future that is more aware of the challenges the world faces as a whole.
Connor Pearce is opinion editor. Email him at
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