Canada Votes 2015

Liberals' TransCanada scandal highlights hypocrisy on climate in current campaign

Liberal campaign co-chair was also advising oil company on how to get Energy East approved by next government
Photo: Michael Ignatieff

The corrosive effect of oil on this country’s politics and democracy was on full display this week, as it was revealed that one of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s most senior advisors was simultaneously on the payroll of TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Energy East and Keystone XL pipeline projects.

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It’s not the first such scandal, and it won’t be the last. Regardless who wins Monday’s election, the Canadian government’s counterfactual oil and energy policy will continue to drive us towards the edge of a climate cliff with gleeful abandon.

Liberal campaign co-chair moonlights for Big Oil

On Wednesday morning the Canadian Press reported that the co-chair of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal campaign, Dan Gagnier, had sent an email to a handful of unidentified TransCanada employees with detailed advice on how to lobby a new government to ensure that planned “in-service” dates for projects such as the Energy East pipeline wouldn’t be threatened.

Gagnier had been a paid advisor to TransCanada since last spring and the Liberals were aware of his role with the company.

Trudeau and the Liberals initially stood behind Gagnier, arguing that he did not violate any ethical standards, but later Wednesday Gagnier resigned from the party’s campaign, offering in a statement that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but didn’t want to be a distraction for the campaign. In their own statement, the Liberals blamed the scandal on the Conservatives and their “negative and mean-spirited politics.”

By Thursday, that story had changed, and Trudeau was describing the actions of his former advisor as “inappropriate.” More details emerged in a Maclean’s story that day, which confirmed that Gagnier had been a paid advisor to TransCanada since last spring and the Liberals were aware of his role with the company.

The Carson connection

Gagnier has a long record in politics, including as a civil servant and foreign diplomat, and in the private sector, where he worked for Rio Tinto Alcan for 13 years. He was chief of staff to Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest from 2007 to 2009, and returned to the role in 2012 to help Charest battle the province’s students during the longest student strike in North American history.

It also underlines the fact that voters expecting strong action on climate from a Liberal government may be disappointed.

Gagnier was also vice chair or president of the oil-industry-financed Energy Policy Institute of Canada from 2010 until its closure in 2014. The organization lobbied aggressively for energy policies favoured by the industry, and Gagnier worked alongside Bruce Carson, the former Harper aide now facing four charges of illegal lobbying and influence peddling related to his work with the Institute. A 2010 monthly report from the group lauded Carson and Gagnier, together with former Encana executive Gerard Protti, for their work lobbying energy ministers.

Gagnier has not been charged with any crime related to his time with EPIC, and the allegations against Carson have not been proven in court.

According to RCMP documents obtained by Maclean’s magazine, “members of EPIC’s executive committee, which included Gagnier, ‘were aware of Mr. Carson’s communication with [holders of public office] in order to promote EPIC,’ contrary to the Lobbying Act.”

It’s a serious issue, notwithstanding party efforts to play off their campaign co-chair and senior advisor to Trudeau as a campaign volunteer. The scandal’s impact could hurt the Liberals, particularly in Quebec, where opposition to the Energy East pipeline hovers around 70 per cent. It also underlines the fact that voters expecting strong action on climate from a Liberal government may be disappointed.

Magical thinking as climate policy

Both Mulcair and Trudeau have flitted around the edges of opposition to pipelines, promising a tougher environmental review process, and in the NDP’s case a climate test for pipelines, but both leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to win public support for pipeline projects.

On the relentless expansion of the tar sands, our major parties have uniformly positioned themselves as champions of short-term profits über alles.

Both have also trotted out some variant of the line that we can continue exponentially expanding the tar sands and exporting ever more dirty oil, yet somehow also take effective action on climate change. The vast majority of scientists working in the field argue that we cannot do both, yet magical thinking has acquired the status of conventional wisdom in this election campaign.

Despite his repeated criticism of the Harper government’s record on fighting climate change, Trudeau has refused to set targets for emissions reductions under a Liberal government, justifying his position to CBC’s The House with circular logic: “What we need is not ambitious political targets. What we need is an ambitious plan to reduce our emissions in the country.”

An analysis of the parties’ climate policies by Environmental Defence found that the NDP’s plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than any other party, while the Liberal plan remains a question mark.

On the relentless expansion of the tar sands, our major parties have uniformly positioned themselves as champions of short-term profits über alles. A study in the journal Nature found that 85 per cent of the tar sands will need to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, echoing the consensus of the scientific community, but our political parties seem to think they know better.

As Hadani Ditmars eloquently argued in these pages earlier today, the Harper government has pursued an unprecedented war on science over the past decade. But what are we to make of the challengers to the Conservative crown when they promise to respect science, but ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus on the most pressing threat we face?

Where is the vision for real change?

No party has offered a vision for the future in this campaign, with both major opposition parties jockeying to appear the most similar to the Conservatives. Contrary to the Ottawa Citizen’s absurd editorial endorsement of the Conservatives which argued that “by any measure this has been an excellent election campaign,” I’d argue it’s been piss poor.

The range of the possible has been narrowed to a slight amelioration of the Conservatives’ worst excesses.

The range of the possible has been narrowed to a slight amelioration of the Conservatives’ worst excesses. The debate has not touched on serious differentiations of policy and vision, but instead on our basest fears and most elemental insecurities.

We have been robbed of the right to dream in this campaign, and so it is that many will vote on Monday for an end to the Harper decade, but few will troop to the polls to vote for an alternate vision that inspires them.

But notwithstanding the disappointing nature of the choices on offer in this election, you should vote. If you don’t, you’re just playing into the hands of a multi-year effort on the part of the Harper government to suppress the turnout among demographic groups unlikely to vote for them.

Just remember that democracy is about a lot more than voting every four years, and if we really want change we’ll need to be ready to keep fighting for it on Oct. 20 and all the days after that.

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