Dec 6, 2010

The Vision Thing


For many years now, the year 2010 has had an almost mythic quality to it. More than just a decade-ending round number (we never collectively named that decade; I like “the naughties” myself), it had deep meaning for BC because THEY WERE COMING. The Olympics. Vancouver 2010.

In the early days, utopian olympianism ruled the province. For some, hosting the games was vision enough. To convince others during the bid process, commitments were made to protect the environment, house the homeless, and spread the gold to all corners of the province. The Olympics would stimulate the economy, shine a spotlight on BC, and oh would the benefits trickle down.

I’m not saying this was a great vision for BC; in fact, it is one I voted against in a Vancouver plebiscite. And by the time the actual event happened, those lofty social and environmental goals had been long abandoned, discarded like the debris from digging the Canada Line. At best, the Olympics deliver a good party, and it was an expensive one – though for many a hockey fan, maybe the costs were justified the instant Crosby’s final shot crossed the goal line.

Whether you were an Olympic booster or not (and cynical promises aside), the Olympics were a vision for BC, a lofty ideal made into built form through billions of dollars of investments. But the party is over; only the empty condos that were the Athletes’ Village remain as the last guests to leave.

Ten months later, BC is a province adrift. More than just angry with the deception around the HST, the public writ large is not happy with politics as usual. Dissent has unseated Gordon Campbell as Premier, and Carol James as Leader of the Opposition. Most of the media attention has focused on the internal political machinations within the two big BC parties, and the ensuing horse races for power.

But there is a bigger issue at stake: can any candidate for either party articulate a vision for the province that excites voters? Given where we are at, it may not take much, but it would be nice to see something bold that challenges us as people, and that is appropriate to the times we live in. Both the Liberals and NDP are tragically lacking any vision at the moment, and without a vision the political contest becomes just about attaining power to wield as you see fit, rather than the other guy (usually, a guy).

I’m biased because of the work I’ve been doing on CCPA’s Climate Justice Project, but I think BC could get behind a Big Project, an exercise to repurpose the province for the next generation and that engages the public in a deep manner. The two planks of that are how we make BC truly sustainable and socially just.

First, sustainability. It was recently reported that 2010 is on pace to be the warmest year in recorded history (if we have much colder than expected December, we could drop as low as number 3, but looks like we’re number one). At the same time, global talks on climate change are currently on, though widely ignored by the media, mostly because they appear dead on arrival. The sheer inaction, stalling and cynicism – of which Canada is a huge perpetrator – has overwhelmed any good intentions. Success is going to require a lot of work in a lot of places, and here BC could truly be a leader.

BC could build on its already existing Climate Action Plan and take aggressive action in a way that boosts the economy and improves people’s lives. We have not seen any new climate action announcements since a flurry of initiatives in 2007-08. I still see some make passing reference to “BC’s leadership on climate issues” but that is fading, and in truth we are mostly lucky beneficiaries of the WAC Bennett vision from the 1960s that built out the province’s hydropower. We legislated targets that would basically take BC in 2020 to where the average European country is now, but we still do not have a plan to achieve them.

Some pieces of this puzzle, big investments in public transit, are so obvious one wonders why politicians are not tripping over themselves to promote them. And there is a nice tie-in to the Olympics here, which showed that if the political will and funding were present, transit use could soar above present levels. Imagine what could happen if we put a multi-year, multi-billion package to build out transit infrastructure on the table. Add major retrofit programs, training for green jobs, research, and adaptation planning – there is a lot of good work for a lot of people on tap if we want it.

The best part is that we already have a mechanism to pay for it: the carbon tax. A plan that strengthened the carbon tax (continued to increase rates, expanded coverage) while using proceeds to help low- to middle-income households and make big public investments could be a winner if it was at the centre of a bold vision. Next year the carbon tax will pull in about $1 billion in revenues, and that is still at a low rate relative to what is needed (modeling for the Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute by Mark Jaccard and associates finds that the carbon tax needs to be $200 per tonne by 2020, or twenty times today’s rate).

In going green, however, social justice cannot be ignored. As we make investments to reduce our carbon footprints, that collective action must also reduce inequality. In the past couple decades, BC has become a deeply unequal society and that needs to change. Not only because that would be a more morally just outcome, but because we all would benefit from the better social and health outcomes that arise from more egalitarian societies. That means the wealthy need to take a smaller slice of the pie (on this front, the income share of the top 1% has not been this high since the 1920s) so that the poor can have some too. But it also means rejecting crony capitalism in BC – the cozy corporatism of political influence, the business always knows best mentality, and the “cut it down, rip it up, ship it out” dominance of the resource economy.

Instead, it means reinvesting in the public realm and asserting public control and leadership. What if every kid in a BC public school had the benefits of their peers in private school? What if we actually invested in prevention and public health? What if we had a high-quality early learning and child care system?

And what if BC were to become more profoundly democratic? People are angered at undemocratic, often autocratic decision-making that affects their lives, and it looks like that anger is being channeled to right-wing populist movements like the US Tea Party or Rob Ford’s “ending the war on the car” in Toronto. Progressives should point to many alternative models, some of which we already have experience of in BC, that could be developed to make sure that people have a more meaningful say, and that elected politicians deliver rather than disappoint.

The politics of the future are at the intersection of climate and justice, and this has to be a project led enthusiastically by the BC government. It is about collective action and bringing British Columbians together around a common purpose. I see our Climate Justice Project as a place where that conversation about the future we want is happening.

The big question: are any of the candidates in the Liberal party or NDP brave enough to articulate a vision, and leader enough to rally people around it?

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