How Climate Change Could Impact Post-Election Power in Ottawa

This column first appeared in Policy Magazine.

With public opinion polls showing the Liberals and Conservatives in a virtual dead heat five months before the federal election, it is not too early to speculate what kind of Parliament Canadians will elect if the current preferences hold until voting day, October 21st.

The simple conclusion is that no party will have enough seats for a majority government. The other simple conclusion is that either the Liberals or the Conservatives will finish with the most seats. And, neither the New Democrats nor the Greens have any chance of topping the electoral standings.

But that doesn’t mean that either one, or even both of them, may not play a role of great significance after the next election. They may in fact decide whether the Liberals or the Conservatives govern, and for how long they retain power. Even if the Liberals come second, if the NDP and enough Greens elected agree to support a Liberal government, Justin Trudeau could stay as prime minister.

If you go back far enough, that is what happened in 1925. The election that year ultimately set off a constitutional crisis, but that came a year later with a subsequent election. In the 1925 election, also held in October, the Liberals, who had been in power for four years, were reduced to ninety-nine seats. The Conservatives, by any traditional measure, had won, with a total of one hundred and sixteen. The Progressive Party, a western protest party had twenty-four.

But with no one having a majority, the Progressives decided to support the Liberals, even though they had seventeen fewer seats than the Conservatives. The Liberals managed to govern for nine months before giving up office briefly in a confrontation with the Governor-General, and then winning back power in a subsequent election.

The issue that kept the Liberals in power in 1925 was high tariffs. The Conservatives were for them, the Liberals less so and the Progressives not at all. In 2019, the issues that could keep them in office are the climate change files of global warming, carbon taxes and pipeline construction. In the current political environment, the Conservatives have isolated themselves on opposing carbon taxes, building multiple pipelines and downplaying global warming.

In Ottawa, federal Conservatives have labeled the Liberals’ carbon tax a “tax grab” and say they will cancel it if elected. They have also said they will repeal legislation changing the environmental review process for energy projects, cancel a ban on tankers off the northern coast of British Columbia and speed up the stalled construction of the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

All of these are major requests of the oil and gas industry, which of course is headquartered in Alberta. That is the province that recently elected a Conservative provincial government, which cancelled the previous NDP government’s carbon tax, and is joining with Conservative governments in Ontario and Saskatchewan to challenge and replace the Trudeau government’s federal carbon tax.

Added to provincial Conservative efforts, the Globe and Mail reported that federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer met with oil industry executives who’ve formed a pro-oil advocacy organization called the Modern Miracle Network. The meeting was reportedly called to plan strategies for defeating the Liberal government in October.

The Liberals have tried to straddle both the energy and environment issues, spending more than $4 billion of taxpayers’ money to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline when its private backers gave up hope of it being built. But they are far more environmentally focused than the Conservatives. And the New Democrats are more green than the Liberals, and the Greens of course the most environmentally concerned of all.

So, it’s not far-fetched to contemplate a Liberal, NDP and Green arrangement after the next election. Maybe an informal arrangement, maybe an agreement to vote together on confidence votes like the NDP and the Greens have now in British Columbia, or maybe even a co-alition government if the seats in the Commons are more evenly distributed, like the one in Great Britian after the 2010 election in that country.

The glue holding such an ungainly arrangement together would be concern for what people worried about a warming globe, rising tides, forest fires and other disasters call the “challenge of this generation.”

The idea and the effect of such an arrangement would be to block further pipeline development and wind down the oil sands. And with the Conservatives now so openly the voice of the oil patch, it could happen. It could be 1925 all over again.  

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.