Published sometime in 1999
The recent cover story (Feb 27th) about former Environment Minister Christine Stewart’s signing of the Kyoto Accord focused on political will and principled leadership.
Leadership is the art of getting people to do what they wanted to do in the first place, whether that already know it, or don’t know it yet, or could not do it alone.
We live in a democracy. Democratic and accountable government is about acting on the will of the people. Anything else is called a dictatorship, or a one-term democratic government that acts outside the will of the people. Successful democracies expect their politicians to serve the public will instead of imposing their own will or principled leadership.
We know that democracy is messy and sometimes chaotic. The most efficient and beneficial government would be a benevolent dictator who always does the right thing in the complete and long term interest of the population, whether they like it initially or not. But those are very rare. Hence, we adopted the less risky but more complicated method of democratic and accountable government.
In any election, we expect a political party to propose a platform that we like and to seek a mandate that respects the will of enough people to get elected. By advocating any other position, a party would not be elected. Candidates who propose unpopular policies are actually advocates of their small constituency and not leaders at all. Elected governments that act on their own political will are judged as arrogant and are thrown out.
Sometimes, a government will make an unpopular decision, either by obligation, foresight, or ideology. They can get away with it if it goes unnoticed, is forgotten at election time, proves to be beneficial and popular by the time the next election comes around, or is overshadowed by other issues that earn the support of the electorate.
Let’s apply this to Christine Stewart’s signing of the Kyoto Accord.
First of all, the Chrétien/Martin government of the time was elected for three terms largely on a platform of fiscal prudence and economic development. It is widely recognized that the Liberal Party was successful on that platform. They were not elected to implement extensive environmental protection measures.
Secondly, there was a prevailing opinion at that time in business, government and the general public that you could not spend money on the environment and create jobs at the same time. Those of us who advocated otherwise were simply in a minority position and had no hope of getting elected.
Thirdly, Christine Stewart could go as far as negotiating a revolutionary international agreement in Kyoto. The environment was on the political radar screen and the government was prepared to somewhat push the envelope of environmental protection. But the government, based on their reading of the public will and their elected mandate, was not prepared to declare it a priority nor invest significant amounts of money.
Therefore, I view the delayed implementation of the Kyoto Accord like all other major developments of Canadian public policy: public health care, public education, the social safety net, anti-smoking legislation, gay rights, drinking and driving, and so on… They were all implemented gradually, sometimes against early public resistance, initially with small steps by government, and then universally only when the public is ready to accept them.
I view Christine Stewart’s work on the Kyoto Accord as the visionary ground work that pushed the envelope despite an unwilling electorate. I view the government’s initial hesitation to invest heavily into it as the normal, if unfortunate, reading of the public priorities of the time and their understanding of their elected mandate.
Since then, things have change and public opinion has evolved. So let’s get on with it. This is not the time to dwell on what previous governments should have done. Let’s move swiftly to implement significant and effective reductions in carbon emissions and all pollutants.