Fixing the damage caused by Dalton McGuinty’s failed energy act may be more difficult than simple policy reform.
Upon reading a recent article posted on the Ontario-based environmental blog “Enviralment”, I was reminded of just how much leverage simple politics has in influencing governmental decision making. Then, earlier this week, the Globe and Mail printed an article suggesting that McGuinty’s Green Energy Act screw-ups will single-handedly end the Ontario Liberal Party’s 7-year reign of power in Ontario. The mental fusion of these two ideas has led me to a frightening conclusion: McGuinty’s Green Energy failures could very well hinder the future implementation of sustainable energy policy in this province. The leverage of simple politics, the fear of a repeat failure, and a voting base that may now associate “green” energy with expensive and inefficient energy production, has created a sort of political “perfect storm” which will curb future attempts at sustainability.
It all started with so much hope – or, rather, apathy.
In February of 2009, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government implemented the Green Energy Act. At the time, it was a mysterious bill that much of the general public didn’t worry or care much about. It had the word “Green” in the title, which was enough for pop-environmentalist support, and seemed rather harmless to the rest. It wasn’t until this past summer that the Act began to show what it was made of.
In July, the Eco-Free program was implemented, only to be dismantled in under a month. McGuinty was forced to rollback the program due to mass pressure from businesses and consumers who were suddenly being taxed on thousands of products without any warning. Then, shortly after the program was axed, it was discovered that all the funds accrued during its’ brief run were being used to retool the program, rather than to dispose of harmful chemicals. Another embarrassing flop.
The Green Energy Acts’ summer of perils then spilled over into the fall. In September, it was exposed in the Ontario legislature by the NDP that in March 2010 the Liberals allowed the energy industry to increase their profits in order to fund future energy projects. This partially explained increased energy prices, and marked the first time in 100 years that Ontarians were being forced to front the bill of Ontario’s energy projects. Then in October, three world economic powers – the United States, the European Union and Japan – filed a complaint to the WTO claiming that the GEA violated Ontario’s international trade obligations. Shortly after Japan filed the first complaint to the WTO, the Toronto Star released a poll which claimed that 76% of Ontarians felt their province was going in the wrong direction, and 41% were willing to give the Progressive Conservatives their vote if an election were to be held.
What are those 41% of Ontarians expecting Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak to do? What would any politician do with regards to green energy after the massive failure of McGuinty’s policies? Yes, the Green Energy Act was a massive failure, but climate change isn’t going away. Something still needs to be done; it just has to be done in the right way. Tim Hudak has recently begun to speak up about what he would do instead, but he has only suggested he will reverse McGuinty’s policies. He has yet to say anything about how he would approach generating a green Ontario. In his defense, it is still early, and he has has plenty of time develop a realistic strategy. But keeping in mind the “politics of politics”, it seems unlikely Hudak will do anything “green” during his tenure. Not because of his or his party’s ideology , but because the word “green” has been tainted by the failures of the Liberal government. When attempting to generate a “green” Ontario (an attempt that, despite its failures and myopic approach, was still commendable) ends your governance, trying again sounds like political suicide to a newly elected government. This is where the long-term concerns of McGuinty’s failed efforts lies. Seeing that McGuinty’s policies essentially led to a Liberal fall from grace, future Ontario governments will naturally be very reluctant to implement anything “green”.
Voters may too have this reluctance: McGuinty’s failed efforts could very well generate a sort of environmental moral panic where Ontarians now associate “green energy” with what the GEA failed rather spectacularly to do. Future governments trying to implement similar energy strategies will likely come under greater public scrutiny, regardless of how improved their approach might be, simply because of the Liberals’ botched efforts. At this stage, “green” to Ontario means eco-fees, expensive wind and solar power, steep energy prices, and even international trade violations. This is not what “green” needs to mean, but for the general public, this is their first and only taste of what it does mean.
McGuinty, to some degree, has skewed Ontarian’s green consciousness. Politicians recognize the public has been misinformed, but it won’t matter come election time. Voters, like politicians, will surely be cautious towards getting behind anything “green” when it comes to energy policy. They will fear the repercussions, as illustrated by the GEA. If this hold true, expect little to be done in the future towards sustainable energy production in Ontario.
By the same token, however, the GEA experience has taught Ontario and any outside observers a very important lesson. Energy is a deeply ingrained part of our infrastructure. It is an essential service, but one that will need correction and reformation in the coming years. However, because of its delicacy and importance, change must be approached with a great deal of caution, intelligence, and foresight. These descriptors do not at all describe McGuinty’s GEA. It was noble, yes, but was done in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, and has ultimately done more harm than good. Tim Hudak and the rest of the opposition party leaders need to be aware of the public caution towards “green” energy policy the GEA has engendered, and must work towards correcting it – rather than ignoring it.
The coming months, or perhaps years, will be very interesting when it comes to energy in Ontario. As the 2011 election approaches, opposition parties will increasingly outline their energy strategies and hopefully, our next premier will be brave enough to put aside politics and outline a realistic “Green” energy strategy. Avoiding the topic out of fear is not what Ontario needs; Ontario needs a new strategy with the same goals. McGuinty’s missteps could be far more damaging than we think; hope lies only in how the opposition responds to this newly formed public resentment. With luck, the mistakes of the past will be treated as the lessons they are, and our new representatives will learn from the errors of their predecessors.
Follow me on Twitter @envirogy
Source: Globe and mail, Enviralment, The Toronto Star
- Hudak: Who dat? (theglobeandmail.com)
- Ontario scraps controversial ‘eco fees’ in latest about-face by McGuinty (theglobeandmail.com)
- Tories unveil pre-emptive ad blitz (thestar.com)