Yukon Senator Daniel Lang likes to present himself as a man of the people.
But, on Tuesday, he and his unelected Conservative colleagues in the upper chamber overturned the will of the majority of Canada’s elected parliamentarians, by killing a climate change bill that had passed Parliament.
Such a move is virtually unheard of.
The last time the Senate overruled Parliament, during a snap vote without debate, was before the Second World War.
The Senate was famously defined by John A. McDonald to be a place of “second sober thought.” Senators usually propose small improvements to bills.
They’re also known to delay bills they dislike. And occasionally they will outright reject a bill, but it’s virtually unheard of for them to do so without debate, calling witnesses or commissioning a study, said Larry Bagnell, Yukon’s Liberal MP.
“It was obviously a very partisan decision by the prime minister,” he said.
When the Liberals controlled the Senate, they would periodically foot-drag on passing Conservative measures, to the dismay of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. That led him to say something in 2006 he probably now regrets: “I’d prefer that the unelected chamber would respect the decisions of the chamber elected by the people.”
“All of a sudden they’ve changed their tune,” said Bagnell.
“It was a purely partisan, political move,” said John Streicker, Yukon’s federal Green Party candidate. “It disrespects the spirit and intent of a democracy.”
The NDP-sponsored Bill C-311 would have set targets for Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. These targets fall under the “low end” of recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Streicker.
But they’re more ambitious than the Conservative’s plans, which mirror those of the US administration, to cut emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.
Given the drubbing the Democrats took in the recent midterm elections, it’s unlikely America will make any big moves to actually curb carbon emissions soon.
Conservative senators waited 193 days before killing the bill.
To Bagnell, it’s clear they waited until enough Liberal senators had retired to give Conservatives majority control of the upper house.
Lang didn’t return calls to the News before deadline. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the bill as “completely irresponsible” during question period on Wednesday. He warned it could result in “throwing hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people out of work.”
Streicker says this is “ridiculous.”
“We’re dependent on an energy economy that won’t sustain us in the future. If you don’t have targets, you don’t start the transition. You don’t start the transition, and your problems come later.”
But a shift to a green economy requires more than targets. Past Liberal governments had those under the Kyoto protocol, yet Canada’s carbon emissions continued to rise.
The missing ingredient is “a price on pollution,” said Streicker.
Whether that comes in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system is unimportant. Both would punish companies and consumers for making dirty decisions, and reward them for making green ones.
Three years ago, Harper described climate change as “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.” But public enthusiasm for fighting climate change has waned since the recession. Harper’s government has shifted its priorities accordingly.
Streicker sees the recent splurge of stimulus spending as one big lost opportunity. “We were investing in hot tubs instead of investing in retrofits to improve the energy efficiency of our homes,” he said.
During international climate change talks, Canada’s negotiators have been accused of willfully obstructing progress. “Canada is seen as part of the problem internationally,” said Streicker.
For the past two years, Canada was given the “Colossal Fossil” award by the Climate Change Action Network.
The recent resignation of Jim Prentice, who was the federal environment minister, leaves Canada looking especially ill-prepared for the next big United Nations climate change meeting in Cancun, Mexico, later this month.
Now, the demise of the climate change bill makes Canada look even worse, said Streicker.
“We just killed a bill that would give us some indication we’re planning on doing something,” he said.
“We used to be a leader.”
What are we now, then? “Dead weight.”
Streicker has written to Lang “to offer to brief him on the science of the issue,” he said. “I’m worried the science he’s receiving is not well informed.”
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