From television to the Internet

The Conservatives’ first few months in power have not been uneventful. As the new Cabinet gets to work and Parliament reconvenes, an agenda presents itself that is at once busy and risky for a minority government: an inaugural budget, child care and 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 technology enthusiasts in such a context is that policy may well trump process and administrative reform. In backing away from his controversial campaign comments about a supposedly Liberal-infested public service, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opted for systemic stability within the federal apparatus, deferring more radical change for another day (an anticipated majority, should things go according to plan).

One issue that could haunt the Conservatives, however, is that of climate change and their intention to abandon Canada’s commitments to the Kyoto accord. The government hopes that, since the environment did not rank high on its list of campaign priorities, a congested agenda will leave little space for a policy field that, rightly or wrongly, polls as secondary across much of the country.

Nonetheless, the politics are precarious: All three opposition parties 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 change action strengthens with each passing week (an article in the March issue of the leading journal Science demonstrates that Antarctica is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of its ice sheet annually). Canada’s performance in reducing pollutants and emissions is increasingly a stain, as Harper acknowledged during the election campaign when chiding Liberal Paul Martin for his misguided scolding of Americans (misguided since our record is inferior).

The global implications of bad behaviour may well be bleak. A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond, Collapse, documents the historical withering of societies unable to recognize self-imposed ecological destruction (the author cites his home town, Los Angeles, as today’s poster child). Still, the book offers optimistic lessons as well from those societies that have learned to adapt.

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

Canada’s new Environment Minister, Rona Ambrose, is herself a fresh face, someone lauded as intelligent, ambitious and an Alberta-based confidante of Mr. Harper. The file is therefore personally and politically significant, as attested by the need to balance Alberta’s energy interests with Quebec’s strong attachment to the principles of Kyoto.

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

The new government, by contrast, should make climate change and Kyoto the subject of a broad national dialogue. Launching an Internet-based venue for both education and engagement can help. It makes sense to invite Canadians to become informed and engaged on what may be the defining issue of this century. And as Ontario has demonstrated with its recent creation of a greenbelt surrounding Toronto and the so-called Golden Horseshoe region, online channels are gaining legitimacy.

Indeed, in keeping with the Conservative’s collaborative spirit across federal – provincial lines, this “national” initiative can be instigated by the federal Minister, but it would require careful crafting and pursuit via genuinely inter-governmental mechanisms. Local authorities matter here too – as, constitutional rigidities notwithstanding, it is here where future decisions surrounding land-usage and transportation matter.

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

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author of E-Government in Canada: Transformation for the Digital Age.

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