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Parliament fiddles while Canada burns

The nation’s capital was shrouded in smoke from wildfires Tuesday. Some residents wore masks outside. Schoolchildren were kept indoors during recess. But the attention of the House of Commons was directed at other matters.

While smoke filled the air outside, the debate in the House was focused on metaphorical fires

An aerial view of a forest fire.

The first crisis of Justin Trudeau's time as prime minister was the wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alta., in May 2016. At the time, he felt it necessary to attach caveats when answering a question about whether climate change had caused the disaster. He cautioned against trying to make "a political argument out of one particular disaster."

Seven years later, with wildfires burning out of control in several provinces, Trudeau apparently feels less inclined to hedge.

"There are some politicians that still think you can have a plan for great jobs and growing the economy without having a plan to fight climate change," Trudeau told reporters at the end of a news conference on Monday. "But Canadians know that fighting climate change is necessary both to create those great jobs and opportunities but also to prevent the catastrophic and expensive losses that Canadians are facing increasingly over the years."

The presentation Trudeau led Monday recalled the pandemic-era news conferences of the recent past.

Federal officials prepared a line graph for the presentation showing the rapid and unprecedented spread of fires across the country. The area burned this year already dwarfs the amount of land consumed by the Fort McMurray fire.

Trudeau praised first responders, asked people to listen to their local authorities and assured the public that different levels of government are coordinating their efforts to fight the fires. He was flanked by half a dozen ministers and he came with an itemized list of federal actions taken in response.

WATCH | Drone footage shows the haze over Ottawa's skyline caused by wildfires:

Drone footage shows the haze over Ottawa's skyline caused by wildfires

19 hours ago

Duration 0:43

Smoke covers the Ottawa skyline Tuesday as forest fires continue to burn in Ontario and Quebec. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

In the vicinity of Parliament Hill, wildfires have not been an abstract concern this week. By the time the prime minister spoke, the nation's capital itself was already shrouded in smoke from wildfires in Quebec. On Tuesday, some residents of Ottawa wore masks outside — recycling the COVID-19 accessory to protect against a different kind of emergency. Schoolchildren were kept indoors during recess.

But debate inside House of Commons was focused on other matters.

The controversy over David Johnston's credibility continues, of course. But the remaining political oxygen in the House on Monday and Tuesday was largely consumed by metaphorical fires.

"Mr. Speaker, the finance minister pretended to have an inflationary epiphany back in November. She admitted that deficits lead to inflation finally. She said that she did not want to pour fuel on the fire of inflation," Jasraj Singh Hallan, the Conservative finance critic, told the House on Monday.

"It only took her six months after that to do a massive flip-flop and admit in her failed budget that she would never end her deficit spending and pour a $60-billion jerry can of fuel on the inflationary fire she started."

As a general rule, one should probably avoid such figures of speech when actual things are literally ablaze. But Conservatives insist they are focused on an economic situation — defined by inflation, rising interest rates and the high cost of housing— that also should be described as a "crisis." Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he is particularly concerned that many new homeowners won't be able to afford their mortgages.

With that as a pretext, the Conservatives have decided to go all-in on a fight against the Liberal government's latest budget bill. In the waning days of the spring parliamentary sitting, the Conservatives are demanding significant cuts in federal spending and the cancelation of planned carbon tax increases.

Unless or until the Liberals agree, the Conservatives say they'll do everything they can to tie up the business of the House — interrupting debate with points of order, forcing unnecessary votes and moving hundreds of amendments to the budget.

That the Conservatives would choose this moment to once again emphasize their objections to federal climate policy might seem ironic, or unfortunate, or some combination of the two. But Conservatives — in defiance of both widespread expert opinion and their party's own previous support for carbon pricing policies — have taken to arguing that a carbon tax won't reduce greenhouse gas emissions anyway.

Since changing leaders, the Conservative Party finds itself unable again to say what it would do instead. Poilievre will only say that "technology, not taxes" is the optimal path forward.

But that's now hard to square with the rest of the party's current stance. While Conservatives rail against the new spending included in the spring budget, they seem to ignore the fact that nearly a third of that spending was earmarked for supporting the development and adoption of clean technology.

The Conservative side's larger economic concerns are hardly irrelevant, either practically or politically. The Liberals surely sense that they have an advantage when it comes to climate policy. But that's no guarantee of re-election. If the average Canadian voter is worried about affording a house or feeding their family, they might not care who has the best plan to reduce emissions.

It is also necessary to consider the costs, trade-offs and feasibility of any policy to reduce emissions, no matter how urgent or noble the goal. No one — either on the political right or left — should get away with pretending that emissions will be reduced magically.

But it became all the more clear this week that Canada's climate debate is stuck in the past — and that the future of climate change is already here.

The smoke outside isn't penetrating the debate inside

It should be impossible to worry about the cost of living without also worrying about how climate change threatens to make life more expensive. If you're worried about everyone being able to afford a place to live, it only stands to reason that you should be worried about minimizing the number of homes that are swept away by floods or consumed by fires.

And if you're alarmed by the federal government's overall spending, you should be even more worried about the money the government is spending — and will have to spend — to support disaster relief and repair efforts.

Like the smoky air enveloping Parliament Hill, climate change eventually will permeate every political issue, from health care to national security. In many ways, it already is. But climate change is too often framed as a secondary issue.

WATCH | Nova Scotians face daunting rebuilding task as wildfire crisis stabilizes:

Nova Scotians face daunting rebuilding task as wildfire crisis stabilizes

10 hours ago

Duration 2:03

Charred remains and hard questions about the future await some in Nova Scotia. With skilled tradespeople in short supply and insurance companies backed up with Hurricane Fiona claims, some fear it could take years to rebuild.

Whether the federal government has moved as quickly or effectively as one might hope, climate policy in Canada has progressed substantially over the last eight years. But the political debate has barely budged from where it was 16 years ago, when then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion first proposed a carbon tax.

That is holding the national conversation back and limiting how far or fast Canada can move. In the absence of a real debate or substantive agreement on what to do about climate change, Parliament cannot truly seize a moment such as this — either to confront the fearsome threat or scrutinize the government's response.

The dissonance between the proceedings in the House this week and the scenes just outside Parliament's walls — between the unserious and the serious — has been jarring. And if history takes any note of these days, it might be remembered that Parliament fiddled while Canada burned.

Parliament can spend every waking moment haggling over the laws of man. In many ways, that's what it is supposed to do. But the laws of nature wait for no one. And if there are any MPs who still don't understand that, they only need to step outside and take a deep breath.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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