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Globe and Mail

Leaders' campaign silence deafening on green issues
They're in the platforms but they have hardly come up,



Friday, November 24, 2000

OTTAWA -- When environmental organizations shamed Canada by awarding it several "fossil-of-the-day" awards in The Hague this week, the reaction from political leaders on the campaign trail was astounding -- for its silence.

The Canadian climate has already begun changing because of greenhouse gases. The number of endangered species is increasing all the time. Smog is a constant problem in big cities. And the tainted water scandal in Walkerton, Ont., is still fresh in everyone's minds.

Groups at the climate-change summit in The Hague termed Canada one of the least green of 160 governments attending.

Pollsters of all stripes say the environment is a top concern for Canadian voters. Yet political leaders have mainly held their tongues on green issues. Even the NDP has made them a distant second.

"It has been low profile in the election, and I think that's a reflection of the attention that's being paid [to environmental issues] by the leading parties," said Robert Hornung of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based think tank.

The New Democratic Party and the Progressive Conservatives both have strong sections in their platforms dedicated to resolving environmental issues, he said. Both have won praise from environmental groups for their platforms, but neither has managed to bring the issue to the fore.

The Liberals could have easily used environmental issues to position themselves as distinct from the Canadian Alliance, since the Alliance platform has very little to say on the environment, said pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Associates.

"It could have been an important issue," Mr. Graves said.

However, environmental problems are long-term and "don't have the same visceral alarm attached to them as health care or even taxes."

At the beginning of the campaign, it seemed like the Liberals were planning on making a big deal about the Walkerton water scandal. The party could talk about how Ontario Premier Mike Harris's lax standards led to disaster, and argue that an Alliance government would bring about similar results on environmental issues across Canada.

But while several prominent Liberals have indeed campaigned in the Walkerton area, they have not made a high-profile attack against the still-popular Mr. Harris or the Alliance environment strategy.

The Liberals probably realized that campaigning on the environment could cut both ways, Mr. Hornung said. The governing party could possibly win some political points by criticizing the Alliance platform, which is skewed toward voluntary measures and private-sector leadership. But the Liberals would also risk putting their own shabby environmental record in the spotlight, he said.

"They recognize they're weak," Mr. Hornung said.

Besides, the Liberals' support in Ontario has remained so strong that they have not needed to use the environment issue to differentiate themselves from the Alliance, he added.

Legislation to protect endangered species has died on the order paper twice because of election calls, he noted. And Ottawa has been slow to move on its commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

Still, pollster Chris Baker of Environics says the Liberals had strong support for their environmental record up until January of this year. Then, "the environment just dropped off the map in terms of an issue that is driving votes," he said.