Can ‘ordinary voters’ be sold on climate change?

In his new book, Stephen Harper warns that standing up for the environment makes for bad politics, especially in a populist age when parties are looking for the votes of “ordinary” people.

“Political parties, including mine, have won elections just by opposing a carbon tax,” the former prime minister writes in the newly released “Right Here, Right Now.” “The reason is simple. It is ordinary voters who pay carbon taxes.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May holds exactly the opposite view. In a speech to her party’s convention in Vancouver last month, May said ordinary Canadian voters are more than ready to hear the truth about the climate crisis in the 2019 campaign.

“We really do need to level with Canadians,” May said. “If the one issue is survival, it’s kind of the issue.” She intends to build her campaign around the idea that Canadians are ready, even eager, to have politicians telling the truth to them, and climate change is a perfect entry into that discussion.

If the campaign does turn into a referendum on climate change and what to do about it — as politicians on both sides of the issue seem to be saying these days — Harper and May have effectively staked out the extremes of the debate’s spectrum.

May says climate change can be presented as a “hope” issue to the Canadian electorate, but it might just be the hope of avoiding a fearful future, as laid out in the new and disturbing report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.)

The report warned that the world has only about 12 years to get its act together to avoid climate catastrophe. Or, to look at it in political terms, about three federal election cycles. That means that some of the people currently sitting in Parliament — or vying for office in 2019 — could still be in the Commons when it becomes too late to act for the survival of the planet.

“We’re no longer talking about future generations,” May said in an interview yesterday. “We’re talking about the life span of our own children, who are alive right now.”

As an issue, the fight against climate change has never been easy to package in the political-marketing terms that now dominate elections. It’s complex, hard to distil into slogans, and many of its core messages are anti-consumer.

Political marketers, on the other hand, see voters as consumers who are constantly on the lookout for lower prices. Harper, a pioneer in political marketing in this country, frames this point in his book as advice to business.

He writes that there are few things more toxic in politics than “advocating higher taxes for others. It is the antithesis of rebuilding public trust.”

Clearly, that view has eager disciples at the provincial level. Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta’s United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney held an anti-carbon-tax rally last Friday night, and more provinces are abandoning Justin Trudeau’s old carbon-pricing consensus.

Canada’s politics have been more resistant to the rampant polarization infecting the United States at the moment, but climate change may be the great polarizer of 2019, or so it seems right now. May, in her recent speech, talked about this prospect.

“The other parties are immersed in conventional wisdom that wants to come up with election slogans that have to do with lying to people as effectively as possible,” she said.

May wonders why the IPCC report cannot become the Dunkirk of the current generation — a call for citizens and government to work together for a common aim. In the “darkest hour” of the Second World War, she said, people came together to fight a common enemy. May believes that citizens are ready to hear the same message when it comes to saving the planet within the next dozen years.

“I reject the idea that this generation of Canadians is less generous than our grandparents’ generation,” she said.

For all their differences, Harper and May are both saying the debate over climate change will come down to how you view the voters and what they’re willing to do. Are Canadians “ordinary” voters, or up for extraordinary measures?

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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