Canada's first climate change election

By Dr Carla Winston
Lecturer, International Relations, University of Melbourne

Canada’s federal election may well have been the country’s first 'climate change election'.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party retained power but fell short of a majority. And many suggest that key to this result was Trudeau’s 'strong action on climate change'.

But parties and voters differed sharply over the often-opposing needs of a resource-based economy versus an ecology-based one, as well as the amount of emphasis to put on wider climate change concerns.

These differences are often regional and showed up starkly in the distribution of votes across the country.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan frustrations with national policy and legal fights over oil pipelines translated into a Conservative near-sweep.

From Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, to the British Columbia (BC) lower mainland, near Vancouver, there are now zero Liberal members of Parliament, and only one New Democrat Party (NDP) MP in Edmonton, Alberta.

Several national policies instituted by the Trudeau government negatively impacted the oil industry, which is concentrated in these provinces.

Revised environmental impact guidelines, a tanker moratorium on the north BC coast, a revised Indigenous consultation process over a major oil pipeline that follows a Supreme Court decision and the introduction of a federal carbon tax all contributed to a sense of “western alienation” and a few half-hearted calls for Alberta to secede from Canada altogether.

Similar sentiments exist in rural and exurban southern Ontario, home to the auto industry and much of the country’s heavy manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the Green Party, NDP and Liberals all gained or retained seats on the coasts.

This is where concerns about oil spills, whales and fish stocks, indigenous rights to territory and development, and environmental tourism were strong motivations to vote for ‘anyone but the Conservatives’.

Part of the Liberal and NDP appeal in larger cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where an estimated 500,000 people marched in the climate strike, related to these parties’ commitments to environmental protection.

In Quebec, the Bloc’s opposition to the Energy East pipeline certainly added to its vote count from communities worried about the impact of spills along the pipeline.

However, the Trudeau government’s decision to buy the TransMountain pipeline, from Alberta to the BC coast, in response to corporate threats to end the project given legal setbacks has angered both the left and the right.

Trudeau was attacked from the right for policies that put the pipeline’s viability in danger in the first place, while progressives decried the government inserting itself into a pollution-creating project. The Liberal party likely lost votes from both sides of the electorate over this issue.

Some of these issues are regionally concentrated in terms of their impacts on the economy and environment, just as they are in Australia.

Oil- and coal-producing regions are inland, and these industries provide much-needed jobs. On the other hand, coastal economies depend on a more pristine environment which could be negatively impacted by climate change: tourism to the Great Barrier Reef, for example, is in real danger from warming seas.

A more general debate, without regional concentrations, also exists in both countries. The larger question on climate change and environmental stewardship mirrors Australian debates on coal-fired power stations.

Given the country’s natural resources and their impact on the climate, versus jobs and the price of power for residents – how much emphasis should politicians place on meeting emissions targets for the Paris Climate Accord?

While Australia’s preferential voting system manages these differences to produce an electoral outcome closer to actual voter preferences, Canada’s first-past-the-post system can distort the impact of these cleavages and spread or concentrate votes in inefficient ways.

First, although the Conservative party had a plurality of the popular vote, it was regionally concentrated: Conservative candidates won Alberta and the Prairies by much larger margins than the Liberals won in, places like Ontario.

That gave the Liberals more seats and the first opportunity to form government.

Second, the spread of NDP and Green voters across the country, and the dilution of those votes, also translated into a lower seat-per-vote-share ratio.

Third, many voters chose strategically rather than voting their preferred party: voting for whoever the strongest left-leaning candidate was  – Liberal, NDP or Green – in the hope of avoiding vote-splitting and accidentally electing a Conservative.

This meant that the vote share was even lower than polls suggested, a regular problem for the Green Party.

Lastly, there is only one explicitly regional party (the Bloc Quebecois) in federal competition.

Only running candidates in Quebec allows the Bloc to concentrate its vote share into a much smaller number of ridings (or electorates), electing proportionately more MPs per national vote share than any other party. It won 32 seats with only 7.7 per cent of the national vote, whereas the NDP, with double the vote share at 15.9 per cent, only won 24.

In any case, the re-elected Trudeau government will have to work harder to pass bills now that it has lost its majority.

Given that those votes are likely to come from the NDP and the Greens, and given their pro-environment platforms, there’s a real chance we’ll see stronger Canadian climate policy in the coming years.

Banner image: Shutterstock


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