From television to the Internet

The Conservatives’ first few months in power have not beenuneventful. As the new Cabinet gets to work and Parliamentreconvenes, an agenda presents itself that is at once busy andrisky for a minority government: an inaugural budget, child careand health care changes, softwood lumber and new defence spending,Senate elections and institutional change and, perhaps, eventually,even a free vote on the definition of marriage.

As with the Martin government, the danger for technologyenthusiasts in such a context is that policy may well trump processand administrative reform. In backing away from his controversialcampaign comments about a supposedly Liberal-infested publicservice, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opted for systemicstability within the federal apparatus, deferring more radicalchange for another day (an anticipated majority, should things goaccording to plan).

One issue that could haunt the Conservatives, however, is thatof climate change and their intention to abandon Canada’scommitments to the Kyoto accord. The government hopes that, sincethe environment did not rank high on its list of campaignpriorities, a congested agenda will leave little space for a policyfield that, rightly or wrongly, polls as secondary across much ofthe country.

Nonetheless, the politics are precarious: All three oppositionparties signed on to the Kyoto accord in the previous Parliament.Environmental groups may have retreated from the file temporarily,but abandonment of such a core issue is not on.

Science and morality also matter. The case for climate changeaction strengthens with each passing week (an article in the Marchissue of the leading journal Science demonstrates that Antarcticais losing as much as 36 cubic miles of its ice sheet annually).Canada’s performance in reducing pollutants and emissions isincreasingly a stain, as Harper acknowledged during the electioncampaign when chiding Liberal Paul Martin for his misguidedscolding of Americans (misguided since our record is inferior).

The global implications of bad behaviour may well be bleak. Anew book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond, Collapse,documents the historical withering of societies unable to recognizeself-imposed ecological destruction (the author cites his hometown, Los Angeles, as today’s poster child). Still, the book offersoptimistic lessons as well from those societies that have learnedto adapt.

Here at home, despite rejecting Kyoto as flawed and unworkable(a view in which Canada is not alone), the Conservatives promisedstrong action on climate change. The key questions now pertain tomeans and timing, and here the new government may find short termcomfort in the failure of the Liberals to offer a credible plan tomeet our Kyoto-mandated targets.

Canada’s new Environment Minister, Rona Ambrose, is herself afresh face, someone lauded as intelligent, ambitious and anAlberta-based confidante of Mr. Harper. The file is thereforepersonally and politically significant, as attested by the need tobalance Alberta’s energy interests with Quebec’s strong attachmentto the principles of Kyoto.

For those readers wondering what, if anything, this column hasto do with digital technology and e-government – alas, the momenthas arrived. The Liberal plan was predicated on communications –primarily via television advertising. Canadians were invited bycomedian Rick Mercer to take the “one tonne challenge,” a glitzy,expensive and rather inconsequential campaign (one which arguablyhelped the Conservatives by diminishing the seriousness of theissue).

The new government, by contrast, should make climate change andKyoto the subject of a broad national dialogue. Launching anInternet-based venue for both education and engagement can help. Itmakes sense to invite Canadians to become informed and engaged onwhat may be the defining issue of this century. And as Ontario hasdemonstrated with its recent creation of a greenbelt surroundingToronto and the so-called Golden Horseshoe region, online channelsare gaining legitimacy.

Indeed, in keeping with the Conservative’s collaborative spiritacross federal – provincial lines, this “national” initiative canbe instigated by the federal Minister, but it would require carefulcrafting and pursuit via genuinely inter-governmental mechanisms.Local authorities matter here too – as, constitutional rigiditiesnotwithstanding, it is here where future decisions surroundingland-usage and transportation matter.

The Liberals acted as though they could tell Canadians thatclimate change is important, Kyoto is sacred and their behaviourhad better change. Such an approach – personifying politics in theera of television – is woefully out of step in the Internet age.The Conservatives can now do better. 060993

Jeffrey Roy ( an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author ofE-Government in Canada: Transformation for the Digital Age.

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