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behind the numbers

Mario Canseco weighs in on the environment’s role in B.C. politics

In 2007, the environment replaced the economy and health care in public opinion as the most important issue facing British Columbia. One of the reasons for this sweeping change was the added prominence that politicians and the media gave to global warming. It was the year Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize, and when initial discussions about a provincial carbon tax began to take shape.

At the time, the prevailing message from the B.C. government was that there was a way to manage the economy properly and ensure that the province remained a respectable environmental steward. The carbon tax, in its infancy, was accompanied by a carefully constructed advertising campaign geared toward motivating British Columbians to play a role in changing not just their habits, but the planet.

The political payoff from this inclusive strategy was immediate. The governing B.C. Liberals were lauded for their environmental policies, creating a gigantic communications problem for the opposition New Democratic Party. British Columbians learned to live with the carbon tax, and it was not a wedge issue in the 2009 campaign.

Environmental policy is not simple. Just two months into his first term as president of the United States, Bill Clinton described some of its complexities as positions "that will probably make everybody mad."

Now, just four months after the B.C. Liberals won the provincial election, pipelines, coal exports and fracking are already topics on which the provincial government will need to explain a vision to the population. Add in the need to amend the Water Act – an issue nobody talked about during the campaign – and there are plenty of opportunities, as Mr. Clinton put it two decades ago, to "make everybody mad."

Striking a balance between the economy and the environment is a huge challenge. A recent Insights West survey on the proposed expansion of coal exports from Metro Vancouver outlined this difficulty. About a third of Lower Mainland residents support expansion, a third are opposed, and a third are undecided.

Drilling down into the data, three groups can be identified. Younger voters who are engaged and informed tend to be more environmentally friendly, voice concerns about the long-term effect of government decisions, and generally lean toward protection. The oldest residents, who are more likely to cast ballots, are more worried about jobs for their children and grandchildren. This is the type of voter who can be persuaded by promises of economic growth, even if it is supposed to arrive a decade down the road.

Between these two extremes lies the middle-aged voter: the people who are starting a family, experiencing the early years of a lengthy mortgage, and figuring out how the government's decisions will help or hinder their livelihoods. British Columbians ages 35-54 are often split on these controversial topics. For every person that craves job creation, another one prefers environmental protection. For every staunch supporter of coal expansion, there is a worrier about greenhouse gas emissions.

In the end, handling both economy and environment becomes a question of trust. The previous B.C. Liberal government won three majorities, the past one after making an effort to move closer to the centre-left on environmental issues. The carbon tax did not alienate the traditional B.C. Liberal base. It was a policy developed to ensure the endorsement of two seemingly disjointed groups: the thrifty free-enterpriser and the passionate tree-hugger.

Now, a similar challenge looms for the current provincial government. The projects that will be discussed during the next four years will affect many areas, from conservation to First Nations governance. Faced with growing criticism from the opposition and environmental groups, the option of ignoring public sentiment to look at everything through the lens of an electoral victory would be ill-advised.

The previous Gordon Campbell government properly identified the environment as a unique feature of British Columbia's political landscape and made it part of its public policy efforts. The current government should follow the lead of its predecessor, and refrain from turning its back on the voices of dissent that make this province unique.

Mario Canseco is vice-president, public affairs, at Insights West, a Vancouver-based marketing research and polling firm.

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