not with a bang but with bluster

Last week, the world’s biggest balloon burst with a loud bang. Today, the once-elegant domed stadium of BC Place, Vancouver’s downtown…

Last week, the world’s biggest balloon burst with a loud bang. Today, the once-elegant domed stadium of BC Place, Vancouver’s downtown sports arena, droops over its girders, limp as a flat tire. The showpiece of Expo 86 is now one more mess to be cleaned up for the 2010 Olympics.

For anyone with a scrap of imagination, it has to be depressing in Lotusland these days: waiting to see what nasty surprises the weather has in store next as the post-apocalyptic imagery spreads from the North Shore to Stanley Park to Downtown. Not that there’s any proven connection between global climate change and the dome’s collapse, beyond its stark symbolism, but really, could there be a more fitting goodbye to 2006?

2006 was the year that it became impossible to ignore the global climate crisis. The evidence became too clear, the body of scientific opinion too solid, the contradictory opinion too obviously fake and industry-driven.

With a bang like a domed stadium pierced by a shard of ice, Canada woke up to the realization we’re not immortal. The whole damn thing could collapse, just like that.

Among the last Canadians to get the message about the climate crisis was our soon-to-be ex-prime minister, Steve Harper.

2006 had come and gone before Harper noticed that, what with the ice cap melting and all, climate change had suddenly become a major issue for Canadians. When the light did finally go on, Steve’s response was swift and masterful: he shuffled his cabinet. Rona Ambrose, former minister of Environment, had Harper’s full support when she abandoned Canada’s Kyoto commitments, and she had it when she released the government’s plan to do nothing about climate change until after most of today’s cabinet ministers are dead or in their dotage.

Even though the political winds have changed, she still has her leader’s unqualified support as she takes up her new post as minister responsible for curling trophies.

Harper has demonstrated his appreciation of the new reality by replacing Ambrose with John Baird.

Baird is the parliamentary equivalent of a hockey enforcer, whose only demonstrated ability in the House is the verbal shoulder check into the boards. His job as Environment minister will be to remind the voters at every turn that the Liberals didn’t do anything about climate change either.

Since being elected MP for Ottawa West-Nepean, Baird has rarely spoken in Parliament without raising the sponsorship scandal; it makes a fabulous smokescreen. But look for this tactic to fade, or possibly to cease abruptly, to be replaced by the what-did-you-do-about-the-environment-for-13-years motif.

Even scandal has a shelf-life, and the Conservatives have reasons to be glad of this fact. Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber and their own envelopes of cash have not rotted in the Tory closet long enough to stop stinking yet.

Baird has his own history, and although it doesn’t involve a lot of fat envelopes or Swiss bank accounts, it makes chilling reading.

Appointed minister of Social Services in the Mike Harris provincial government of Ontario in 1999, his first act in office was to call a press conference to boast that his party’s ‘workfare’ program had driven 15,000 Ontarians off the welfare rolls.

Pressed, he was unable to say if they had found jobs, or if they were starving under bridges — not that it mattered much to the Common Sense Revolution.

Baird’s worst moment may have come at a press conference in 2000, when he dumped a box of hypodermic syringes on the floor to highlight his plan to subject welfare recipients to mandatory drug testing, declaring his intention to “stop people from shooting their welfare cheque up their arm, and to help them shoot up the ladder of success.”

Baird planned to test 100 per cent of welfare recipients based on his claim that between four and 10 per cent used drugs, a figure he could not support with any concrete evidence.

2000 was also the year Baird introduced a welfare fraud hotline, and announced that anyone caught cheating would face a lifetime ban from social assistance.

These actions were based on the loud and oft-repeated statement that the system was plagued by fraud, another claim unsupported by reliable figures.

An example of the success of Baird’s punitive approach to social assistance is the case of Kimberly Rogers, a Sudbury woman who broke the rules by applying for a student loan while on welfare.

Sentenced to three months house arrest while pregnant, she died during a heat wave, when her cramped second-floor prison turned into an oven.

In the meantime, Baird and his staff were running up big expense accounts on dinners and drinks, cranking out an $870,000 brochure boasting of the success of their welfare reforms and contracting out the reorganization of the system to a foreign consulting company that ran $60 million over budget. 

Based on his record, Baird is just the man Harper needs in the environment portfolio. He has years of experience in defending retrograde policies with lots of bluster and showmanship and no supporting evidence. He knows how to go on the attack when cornered, and when to invent figures to support his point. His appointment is clear evidence that Harper plans to change only one thing about his environmental policy – the spin.

As for BC Place, it’s an ugly and depressing sight today, but take heart. It’s the one dome in this story that, having collapsed, can be repaired.