Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tar Can Stick

My friend BCL responds to Ignatieff's tar sands comments as follows, which speaks to a certain strategic perspective:
By definition, the fact that the development of the tar-sands is largely out of the hands of Canadians means it doesn't matter what side of the issue he's on. So let him pander. Its harmless and might help win a seat or two out West (though not in Alberta).
I agree, that what ultimately happens with the tar sands is largely out of Canada's hands. Couple that fact, with the simple reality that the Alberta government will decide, no federal party can reasonably think it can "shutdown" the tar sands, it just doesn't work this way, the nature of Canadian federalism and international economics suggest otherwise. In other words, Ignatieff's position isn't irrelevant, today and now, but it isn't exactly powerful in practice either. So, with that in mind, you can reasonably arrive at the "harmless" conclusion, right?

That conclusion assumes no negative political fallout from such a stance. The Liberals need to appeal to the west, defending the tar sands could actually help their credibility and bring some new support, in a region of the country where it's desperately needed. However, that is a view in isolation, that doesn't entertain the other dynamics, dynamics which question the "harmless" line.

Today in Question Period, it was quite telling to see Gilles Duceppe rise and instantly refer to the National Geographic piece. In both questions, Duceppe lumped the Conservatives and Liberals together as tar sands apologists. The next question went to Bloc MP Bernard Bigras, who again attempted to connect the Liberals to the Conservatives on the tar sands. Bigras went further, referring to Ignatieff as an oil sands lobbyist. Clearly, the Bloc strategy is to pounce on Ignatieff's comments and undermine his credibility on the environment file. Additionally, there is much for the Bloc to gain, by providing further evidence of a Con/Lib pseudo "coalition". And, there's the rub.

I believe, despite the criticisms from the other opposition parties, that the Liberals received something of a "pass" with voters in supporting the Conservative budget. I don't want to rehash all the arguments, as far as I'm concerned public opinion is a slam dunk, the media was largely sympathetic and the Liberals emerged unscathed, Ignatieff faired quite well, through the whole debate. I also believe the "probation" strategy is a good one, although each successive period that goes by, brings a risk that a negative narrative can take root. With that in mind, let me return to the Bloc argument today.

If the Liberal opponents can introduce other policy areas of convergence, beyond the budget vote, to show that in reality the Liberals are largely "the same" as the Conservatives, then you start to see a pattern, a pattern which is problematic. Look, the Liberals supported the Conservatives on the budget, evidence of similarity in foreign affairs, and now we see the same rhetoric on the environment. The reason the Bloc pounced, which I predicted yesterday, is because they see the tar sands stance as a way to show Ignatieff is out of step with Quebecers on the environment, don't look to him as an alternative to Harper, because he's the same. When one starts to look at a REALISTIC electoral map, you begin to see the potential backlash for the Liberals, and the notion of "harmless" begins to unravel. Is it really sound strategy to mimic Jim Prentice, with the best case scenario being a couple of seats, when you give opponents ammunition on more fertile electoral ground? Pretty risky stuff, if you ask me.

In fairness to Michael, he also made these comments yesterday:
We are where we are. We've got to clean it up and we've got to make it a sustainable place to work and live not only for the Aboriginal populations there but for the workers who live there. My concern is that at the moment it's barely environmentally sustainable and it's barely socially sustainable. The Conservative government has done nothing about this. We need to move forward.

What I'm arguing, isn't a complete retreat on the tar sands, because I recognize regional sensitivities, not to mention economic realities. However, Ignatieff needs to stress more of the above, his defence or courtship must demonstrate a balance. Not only will this play better in other parts of the country, but it should play within his target audience. Many, many Albertans are also concerned, so a strategy that recognizes, but also points to Conservative failure, one that presents a clear path to reconcile, has just as much political advantage than simply projecting unequivocal support.

Part of me sees the Ignatieff strategy to date as merely laying the foundation, building a sense of trust, which is the first step in this process. However, that's largely speculation on my part, a fact which is somewhat concerning. While it might not necessarily matter, and decisions made in Washington will determine our path, that doesn't mean we cede any moral ground, because then we don't really stand for anything, practicalities aside. There is a political downside, which means Ignatieff really needs to articulate a balance, he needs to speak frankly, because pandering alone will alienate. The Liberals are fine on the budget, but the more areas of convergence, the more you give credibility to counter narratives, a fact which shouldn't be lost on anyone.


Chrystal Ocean said...

"The Liberals need to appeal to the west, defending the tar sands could actually help their credibility and bring some new support."

Steve, beware imputing certain voters in Alberta as representative of attitudes in "the west." British Columbians, for example, tend to be much more environmentally conscious than our provincial neighbours. A good number of us abhor what's going on in the tar sands.

Also, never forget that less than 33.9 percent of Alberta's electorate voted for the Cons. They're a whole bunch of westerners who voted anything but and we'd love to have an alternative other than Harper, Harper Lite or Opportunist Jack.

ScottS said...

Are these "tar-sands" you mention anywhere near the oil-sands in Alberta?

Anthony said...


Even if Ignatieff is more balanced on this issue

The bloc and the NDP are going to assail him for it

This is part of the luxury of never having to govern

Steve V said...


I've lived in the interior and on the coast, so I get the distinction well. I only used the phrase, because it's part of an overall strategy :)


That's fine, but why give them credibility, why play right into their hands.


Sorry, you don't get to sanitize REALITY.

Anthony said...


Every prime minister is the leader of all canadians

Every prime minister needs to fight for every canadian industry

Ignatieff has been clear that the oilsands need to be cleaned up and no unbiased person in an election would dispute that

Ask duceppe why he supports the asbestos industry

Ask Layton if oil workers have families and kitchen tables

A prime minister is leader to all canadians and that is why the permanent opposition will stay where they belong

Steve V said...

Up to now, the clean up part has been an afterthought, always within the thrust of defending the tar sands. All I'm saying, he needs to highlight the other side more, or Ignatieff is playing a fools game of courting the elusive, while simultaneously alienating an easier fit.

I'm curious what he says in Edmonton tomorrow, in front of the Chamber of Commerce (sold out too, not to mention the 650 Liberals he will speak to later, at 100 bucks a pop).

I get the strategy, but it's a balancing act, and it's time to flesh out how you reconcile clean it up, with dig it out.

bigcitylib said...

Steve, alot of this seems to be about "tone" rather than content. It bugs me too that Iggy sounds like such a keener, but they say that you can't be ironic before a group of more than a few people, and similarly I'm not sure how much subtlety you can really demand of Iggy in this kind of situation.

Antonio's right as well. You can't compete in all 308 ridings if you're not willing to talk like this. Remember, people like me and you bash Harper for his negative remarks about the East all the time.

Steve V said...


I've been on board up until now, it's just that Ignatieff's zeal might be a touch too much at the moment, in the grand scheme. You don't have to go so far that your rhetoric is actually harsher than Alberta's own environment minister. There's a way to weave the economics with the environment, and still have it be quite palatable to many Albertans. Plus, in that way, you don't end up alienating others, it's unnecessary.

Jim said...

Steve, Antonio. Please answer the following honestly, if you were given the following quotes:

“je tire pas de leçons des journaux d’ailleurs.”
and “je prends pas de leçons des gens d’ailleurs.”
Translations: “I don’t take any lessons from foreign magazines.”
and “I don’t take any lessons from foreigners”

And if you didn't know who said them, would you be more likely to say the quotes came from George Bush, Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff?

Until yesterday I would have NEVER thought Michael would say such nonsense.

I really don't have much issue with what he said about the oil sands it was the dimissive attitude towards National Geographic and "foreigner's views" that really bothered me.

Since when did we become the anti-Science, anti-foreigner party?

I've yet to see a single Liberal even try and mount a defense of those specific quotes from Ignatieff.

Want to give it a go Antonio? After those comments were directed at the media primarily in your home province.

Koby said...

"I've lived in the interior and on the coast, so I get the distinction well. I only used the phrase, because it's part of an overall strategy :)"

I am sure you do get it. However, any strategy that talks about "the West" is going to hurt the Liberals. The term has a certain political and historical pedigree that has always worked to the benefit of first the Reform party and now the Conservative party, albeit to much lesser degree. The Liberals should not be looking to further entrench this term in the popular discourse. Rather they should be looking to lessen the likelihood that people out west will latch onto such a term by drawing out similarities between different cities in different parts of the country.

Karen said...

I'll give it a go Jim, because you see if you'd actually heard him and provided the context and the actual answer, you'd realise just how ridiculous what you wrote is.

He actually said, 'we're a great country and I have no lessons to take on that from elsewhere.'

Anti-foreigner? What absolute nonsense.

Look, I want to see Ignatieff put some meat on this skeleton that he threw out, but making something out of what is not...spinning for the sake of it, has just about reached it's saturation point in this country.

The Mound of Sound said...

There's a real disconnect in this notion of supporting the Tar Sands with vague provisos about cleaning them up. That's paying lip service to the problems and nothing more. It's completely disingenuous. Nobody wants to use the words "or else" which are the only words that really matter.

No one is saying the environmental degradation problems must be solved by 2011 or 2015. Because sure as hell without a deadline and an "or else" all this talk about cleaning up the Tar Sands is BS.

Neither Bert nor Ernie is willing to draw a clear line on remediation as a condition for supporting the Tar Sands development. That's why neither of them is to be believed.

Jim said...

knb: Here's the full context on both quotes:
Écoutez, la réputation du Canada est plus fort qu'un article dans le National Geographic ou n'importe autre. Nous sommes un grand pays, bon Dieu, et je tire pas de leçons des journaux d'ailleurs.

Nous avons fortement critiqué le gouvernement conservateur pour sa négligence dans ce secteur mais je suis quand même fier du fait que nous sommes -- nous avons une industrie d'une telle importance et je prends pas de leçons des gens d'ailleurs.

Prefaced with nice things about Canada sure but he's still bashing National Geographic one of the world's most respected scientific magazines and saying he has nothing to learn from foreign perspectives. Foreign perspectives are just as informed as Canadian perspectives and I've never heard a previous Liberal leader say anything otherwise.

Those last lines about needing no lessons from elsewhere simply didn't need to be said and I think he does still have lessons to learn on the oil sands from foreign magazines quite frankly because heaven knows no Canadian magazine has given us such an in depth look into the truth about the oil sands.

And I'm not the only one who saw his quote that way - take a look at this Canadian Press article here.: "The Liberal leader says he doesn’t take lessons from foreign publications."

I don't see when it became ok for Liberals to bash respected scientific magazines. But maybe I'm the only one who sees an issue with this.

Karen said...

Jim, with respect, I don't think he's doing that. He's saying Canada's reputation is stronger than to be ruined by one article and while he is critical that the Harper government hasn't done enough envorinmentally, but we have an important industry and he's not going to take the advice (ie shut it down) written by people who have no stake in that.

Again, I wasn't happy with Ignatieff's comments, but I heard him make them and with the fullness of the questions and the context of a scrum, he wasn't bashing as much as he was defending.

He's many things and you may not like him as leader, but he's hardly someone who discounts opinion out of hand, because they are foreigners.

Jim said...

knb to be clear I think Ignatieff has done a pretty good job on the whole as leader so far and I support him.

But I was really off put by his comments on this (and a couple other issues where he has seemed farther right than previous Liberal leaders), but it does seem to me that we have interpreted his remarks in this case in completely different ways.

I still see his remarks as bashing National Geographic, which I think is completely uncalled for. At the least I would say Ignatieff phrased his words in French quite poorly since the CP article sounded more like my interpretation.

But if your interpretation is in fact the correct one then well perhaps this was an overreaction on my part. Either way we shall agree to disagree on this front.

Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

And for the people who are defending National Geographic, they suggested Ignatieff and/or Harper just eliminate tens of thousands of jobs that could be saved if the government cleans up the situation.

Foriegn magazine tells you to fire tens of thousands of workers in a recession.

How much of a leader would Ignatieff have been had he said "sure i dont see an issue there at all"

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Mound has it right. Talk of cleaning up is never going to be more than talk. Cleaning up means developing a feasible system of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Best case scenarios say that only a tiny percentage of tar sands CO2 will ever be able to be captured and sequestered.

Antonio said: "Every prime minister is the leader of all canadians

Every prime minister needs to fight for every canadian industry"

No, Antonio. Industry is not more important than public health and safety. Industry is not more important than the health of the planet.

It is the PM's job to protect and defend Canadians. When industry threatens health, safety or the environment, it threatens the well-being of Canada and Canadians.

How about the nuclear weapon industry? Should Harper promote it? How about the illicit drug industry? How about the commodity brokerages whose speculation on grains has caused the starvation of millions worldwide? Should Harper fight for that, too.

Corporate prosperity is not synonymous with public well being.

Polls show that 75% of Albertans want a moratorium on new tar sands development. Iggy's pandering to the wrong Albertans.

The opposition will continue to draw parallels between the Cons and the Libs simply because Iggy's ill-advised stance is demonstrating that the Libs and Cons are Tweedledee and Tweedledum when it comes to the environment.

Fighting for industry is not fighting for Canadians. The God of Growth is a false god.

Fight for clean industry. Fight for revitalizing our economy and manufacturing sector through green collar job creation. Refuse to give the world's most environmentally destructive project a free pass. And talk of "cleaning it up" is a free pass. Can't happen. Won't happen.


Anthony said...

even if 75% of Albertans want to kill those tens of thousands of jobs, it is a leader's responsibility to ensure that a compromise can be found.

With regard to national geographic,no head of government would ever take orders from a news publication on how to manage its own domestic affairs, regardless of its reputation.

Alberta has a shitload of oil under it. Canada has a responsibility to find a way to extract that oil with as little environmental damage as possible. It is a tragic mistake to write off this precious valuable natural resource.

JimBobby said...

With regard to national geographic,no head of government would ever take orders from a news publication on how to manage its own domestic affairs, regardless of its reputation.

I wasn't aware that Nat'l G was issuing marching orders to the Canadian government. You are make a giant leap from:

"National Geographic is not going to teach me any lessons about the oilsands," he said.

to taking orders. Nobody except you, Antonio, is equating "teaching lessons" to "giving orders." Very weak debate technique: exaggerate the opponent's point to an extreme and argue with the extreme. Transparent and ineffective when confronted with real quotes.

All you're doing is justifying the expanded and continued use of fossil fuels for profit and to the detriment of the planet. Sorry. Money over public health and safety is a non-starter.

Iggy is all wrong on this and no amount of blind party faithful kowtowing and explaining is going to make his disdain for the environment acceptable.


Anthony said...

The NG piece was pretty clear in stating that Canada should shut down the oilsands.

I didnt mean taking orders the way you interpreted it and that could be my fault.

No government will make policy that affects thousands of jobs on a photo essay, no matter how compelling, from National geographic.

Anthony said...

and you are implying that I support the current dirty state of the oilsands so you just did exactly what you accused me of doing...

I have said several times that Canada needs to find a cleaner way to extract this oil

hi pot, kettle here...

Jim said...

Antonio, Steve thoughts on the Hebert article? In truth I couldn't stand her articles under Dion since she seemed to hold a grudge, but up until now she has given heavy praise to Ignateiff, this article seems to indicate she's now having doubts.

Is she alone with this perspective in the Quebec media Antonio? I don't consider Hebert any kind of guru it just seems to be an example of a Iggy-favourable Quebec media commentator now questioning Ignatieff's judgment so that's why I mention it. I hope Ignatieff listens to this perspective.


Trudeau looking lonely on left
Feb 27, 2009 04:30 AM
Chantal Hébert

OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau may eventually move up to a front-line political role but until then history is unlikely to record more than a trace of the first legislative initiative he moved forward Wednesday.

His wordy proposal to have a parliamentary committee study the introduction of a "national voluntary service policy for young people" is essentially an invitation to MPs to explore expanding the Katimavik program introduced in the days of his father.

As the NDP's Nathan Cullen noted on Wednesday, given the chance, as Trudeau had, to bring in a full-fledge private member's bill instead of just a motion, many rookie MPs would have come up with something slightly more ambitious for the first legislative act of their parliamentary career.

Despite its timid scope, the motion did serve one purpose and it was to formally align Trudeau with the activist wing of the Liberal caucus. Over the one-hour debate on the motion, that message was driven home further by the presence within camera range of Trudeau of Toronto MP Gerard Kennedy.

They both belong to a section of the caucus that has pretty much been reduced to marginal gestures since the de facto selection of Michael Ignatieff as leader, and the subsequent decision to support the Conservative budget.

Trudeau was not reappointed to the Liberal shadow cabinet and Kennedy, who served as industry critic under Stéphane Dion, was demoted to a second-tier role as infrastructure, communities and cities critic.

As key participants in Dion's leadership victory, neither probably expected anything more. Moreover, Kennedy did not help himself by coming out in support of Bob Rae literally hours before the latter pulled out of the race to pave the way for the Ignatieff's year-end coronation last fall.

But Kennedy and Trudeau also happen to represent two of only a handful of ridings that the Liberals actually won at the expense of other parties in last fall's election.

They campaigned on a brand of liberal activism that resonates in many core urban ridings. On that score, Trudeau's Montreal riding of Papineau and Kennedy's Parkdale-High Park are very similar in their makeup.

How Ignatieff will play in such ridings in the next election remains to be seen, given that he seems determined to move the party to the right.

Since he has become leader, he has talked a good game about building bridges to a host of natural conservative constituencies but said very little about maintaining those that link the Liberal party to more progressive ones.

On the day when Trudeau was making his modest first entry on the left-hand side of the legislative ledger, his leader was taking pot shots at National Geographic magazine for a graphic depiction of the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands, and making a pitch to rural Canada.

There is no doubt the Liberals should try to reintroduce themselves to voters in regions like Western and rural Canada, where they no longer have much presence, but the real question is: on what basis?

Ignatieff talks about the need to make up for years of Liberal neglect, but it is really his party's stance on some of the very issues that have distinguished the Liberals from Conservatives over the past decade – like Iraq, climate change and same-sex marriage – that have kept away many of the voters he is so determined to court.

Steve V said...

Chantal has never been a fan of Kennedy, but I find her "second tier comment a bit hilarious. Given the economic circumstance and the stimulus package, the critic's role on infrastructure and cities has never been more high profile. Seems to me, Kennedy has had more Liberal press releases than any other MP, and plenty of face time. I would argue that critic role is one of the most important, at this junction, so I think she used historical context in error, to try and further her point.

Anthony said...

im biased on the Hebert article simply because the most ambitious policy idea the young Liberals ever proposed in quebec was to make Katimavik national, and mandatory. (with agreement from the provinces of course)

social conscription...oh well...sounds great doesnt it...

I still think its a fantastic idea.

I am happy Justin is bringing katimavik into the limelight, and if its for the right reasons, even better.

Using Iraq as an example is a bit of a lark, since that decision was taken before Ignatieff entered politics.

Also, its not the left wing thats being marginalized in the party right now. It is everybody outside the inner circle. The grumblings in Quebec have already started, and if Coderre is going to fix it, it may take an act of God.

One organizer recently told me "It's Paul Martin all over again. Let's just pray these guys know what they are doing"

Judge for yourselves...

JimBobby said...

I have said several times that Canada needs to find a cleaner way to extract this oil

I'm always sayin' we need to find permanent world peace. Apparently, we don't need to find a cleaner way as much as we need to keep extracting as much as the wasteful world will buy. Clearly, the need for clean tar sands plays second fiddle to the need for profit.

I think you may have missed the part where I said:

And talk of "cleaning it up" is a free pass. Can't happen. Won't happen.

Clean tar sands are a lot like clean coal: a public relations exercise intended to stall any meaningful action.


ScottS said...

Steve V, hearing you speak about reality gave me a good chuckle. If it is reality you are interested in I'll try to make this simple. Oil sands produce oil, tar sands are more likely in La Brea California.

Steve V said...

" hearing you speak about reality gave me a good chuckle."

You want to belly laugh until you hurl, tape yourself. Get a clue.