Social democracy spreading across Canada

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair shores up support with oil sands critique

Even after visiting the site of a massive oil sands project in Alberta, and changing his tone marginally in order to emphasize environmental ramifications, it seems the Western premiers and most Canadian media are unanimous in viewing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s position on the oil sands as his first significant gaffe since taking the official Opposition leadership reigns.

The issue revolves around Mulcair’s criticism of the Alberta oil sands, voiced in an editorial for Policy Options magazine and in an interview with CBC radio, which draws a connection between natural resources development, a higher comparative value of the Canadian dollar and the hollowing out of Ontario’s manufacturing sector.

The basic concept is simple: expensive oil exports drive up the comparative value of the dollar, making manufactured goods more expensive to purchase and less competitive in the global market place.

As a result, manufacturing becomes less viable and the industry vacates from an unprofitable area.

Mulcair compared this process to the “Dutch disease,” a phenomenon that inflated the value of the Holland dollar after significant petro extraction, and hobbled the country’s broader economy.

The solution Mulcair offers is simple (and perhaps simplistic): refine more of the raw bitumen from the tar sands in Canada and ensure that companies pay the full cost associated with oil sands pollution.

Within a week of Mulcair’s interview with Evan Solomon of CBC radio this summer, Alberta premier Alison Redford, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and British Columbia premier Christy Clark all spoke out against Mulcair, calling his statements everything from “goofy” to “potentially dangerous.”

Several editorial boards and columnists also chided the NDP, largely ignoring the economic arguments in favour of the national unity bogeyman, claiming the NDP leader is pitting one part of the country against the other.

On the surface, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Mulcair’s argument other than potential economic flaws. And even on that front, there are several economists and think tanks (including some commissioned by the Harper Conservatives) who agree with Mulcair’s diagnosis of the overall problem.

It is clear the NDP seeks to diversify the Canadian economy and create conditions whereby the oil sands can be made more sustainable. Can either be done? Does Canada need to “diversify?”

These are questions meant for robust debate, not fear mongering around national unity.

Why, then, has Muclair’s position been so widely decried? And why is he bringing up the oil sands now?

That requires a more fervent analysis of the current political climate.

In Quebec, the social democratic Parti Quebecois under Pauline Marois has just been elected to a slim minority government.

Considering the premier has just a four-member plurality in the National Assembly, she lacks any substantive mandate for sovereignty and is instead guiding her party (and the province) through a sharp left turn, particularly on the environment.

She does this with the full backing of the NDP, and many Quebecers. Evidence of this was clear when Mulcair participated in a rain-soaked march for the environment alongside hundreds of thousands of Quebecers on Earth Day this year.

These are questions meant for robust debate, not fear mongering around national unity.

In Ontario, economic discontent, particularly in manufacturing, is fuelling concerns about the “petrodollar.”

A recent remark by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty linking his stalling provincial economy with the high Canadian dollar attracted Western outrage similar to what Mulcair is currently enduring.

On that point, McGuinty is undoubtedly supported by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who currently holds the balance of power in a Liberal minority.

Just as Jack Layton was seen as a viable alternative after holding balance of power status and other important roles in three minority Parliaments, recent polls show Horwath’s NDP in a position to win government in Ontario.

In British Columbia, Christy Clark’s Liberals are almost certain to lose the next election to the NDP.

There are grave concerns in the province about the potential environmental effects of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is slated to connect the Alberta oil sands with a port at Kitimat, B.C.

B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix has been at the forefront of the debate around Conservative changes to the environmental assessment process and the federal government’s open vilification of environmental groups, all related to the pipeline.

This is not to say provincial trends can’t change, or that they concretely signal federal changes.

However, it is clear Thomas Mulcair seeks to build bridges between these radically different political cultures, all of which are poised to embrace social democracy if they haven’t already.

He appears to be succeeding, as recent polls show the federal NDP dangerously close to winning government if an election were held today.

In short, Thomas Mulcair is uniting progressive forces in Canada, just as Stephen Harper successfully united the right.

The Western premiers and the federal government know what’s in the offing. By using national unity rhetoric, they are not resisting an economic discussion so much as attempting to buttress NDP electoral success.

Ethan Cabel is a politics student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 67, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 3, 2012)

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