STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH ME

For anyone who self-identifies as a radical centrist, these are trying times.  The political discourse on both social and economic issues has never been more polarized.  There can never be any nuance to any discussion of longstanding issues, no acknowledgement of the truth that, for many and even most of those issues, their endurance is testament to the fact that both sides have a point, and that resolution of these issues must be found in solutions that reflect the need to at least acknowledge if not accommodate the reasonable demands and expectations of both perspectives.  That is why it is important to note and salute political actions that reflect a balanced and centrist approach to any issue, and we are fortunate in Canada to have a rare opportunity to do just that.

The federal Liberal government is not one that has been thought of as being particularly centrist.  As a matter of style, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s colourful turbans come off as the personally appropriate equivalent to Justin Trudeau’s fashion forward sock choices.  And on social issues, the federal Liberals leave little rhetorical space on the progressive spectrum for those on the political left in Canada on touchstone issues like Indigenous rights, gender equality and cannabis legalization.  For social conservatives (and strident Conservatives), there appears to be no party of the centre.

That case, however, has never been as easy to make in the context of economic issues.  The rhetoric of the federal Liberals, both in the 2015 election and in government has been unequivocally pro-trade, and never more so than in the recent context of the forced renegotiation of the North-American Free Trade Agreement.  As true centrists, the Liberals’ commitment to free trade has always been conditioned upon the tabling if not insistence upon progressive notions of fair trade and human rights commitments, but the primacy of the concept of global free trade ahead of absolutism on these issues has always been clear.

The application of this commitment to centrism has, however, been less tested and thus less certain as it applied to environmental policy.  The bargain offered on the campaign trail by the Liberals was perhaps vague but undeniably centrist.  To address the legitimate local concerns raised by affected communities, Canadian provinces and enterprises bringing forward proposals to further develop and move product from the oil Sands would be asked to submit to a more rigorous and multi-lateral approval process to obtain what the Liberals deemed the required “social license”. However, once that process had been honoured and a decision upon the merits of the proposal were ruled upon, the development would proceed.  At the same time, the government would address the national and global issue of man-made climate change by imposing a carbon tax on a national basis to shrink the carbon footprint of Canadian businesses and consumers.

It was a policy position that many interpreted as a soft no; one that would empower environmentalists and opportunists to forever constrain a party committed to retaining the goodwill of all Progressives by withholding unanimity from any social license.  And in the early going, the federal government’s obvious discomfort in inserting itself into the growing economic and constitutional spat between the governments of BC and Alberta certainly seemed to reinforce that cynicism.  However, the boldness of the move to acquire the interest of Kinder Morgan in the Trans-Mountain pipeline is decisive and bold.  And most importantly, it is principled in a truly centrist fashion.  The overall policy offered by the Trudeau government addresses the economic need to provide immediate opportunities to Canadians while at the same time introducing an economic incentive to Canadian consumers and businesses to reduce their carbon footprint.  Those that wish to see the oil sands’ oil stay in the ground need only convince electorates in Canada and elsewhere to raise carbon taxes or otherwise voluntarily reduce consumption; any resulting reduction in global demand will hit higher cost oil sands production and shipment before almost any other source of fossil fuels.

The pipeline acquisition officially ends any honeymoon enjoyed by the federal Liberals with the radical wing of the Canadian and global progressive movement, freeing it from any inclination to even appear to be reflexively left-leaning.  And Canada now enjoys something currently seen in only a few democracies around the world: a truly centrist government.

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