The announcement by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver of an overhaul of environmental assessment rules kicks off one of the more critical debates that will be held during the life of this Parliament.
The political stakes are high because the debate could crystallize perceptions about both the Conservatives and the NDP for years to come. Where Canadians end up on this initiative will likely come down to two questions:
1. Whose motives will be more trusted: the Conservatives' or their critics?
2. Will people feel confident the details of the policy are sound?
Here's my take on the motive question. If Canadians conclude this package of reforms is about a government hell bent on economic expansion or smaller government, instead of smarter, more efficient protection of the environment, many will be wary.
So far, voters seem prepared to accept that some change is probably worthwhile. But at every turn, the public will be attentive to motive. When ministers talk about how long it takes to decide things, or the massive number of interventions that can be heard, this reinforces that the point of the exercise is good governance. However, spending millions to audit environmental NGOs may make voters wonder if the Conservatives are trying to stifle legitimate debate, or fear that their ideas won't hold up under scrutiny.
If the motive question is a risk for the government, there's risk for its opponents too. Should those who decry the proposals come off as disinterested in the economy, or indifferent to legitimate reform, they will find most Canadians drifting away and tuning them out.
In the opening salvos of this debate, the Conservatives and the NDP both made a pitch for the middle ground. Minister Oliver emphasized the importance of robust regulation, regardless of whether implemented by federal or provincial officials. His tone and message will help disarm the suggestion he wants a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection.
For her part Megan Leslie, the NDP environment critic, was quick to acknowledge that there are areas where regulation can be improved. She made clear that the Thomas Mulcair-led NDP refuses to be typecast as the party that never met a regulation it didn't like. If the NDP truly aspire to win an election (and a lot more seats outside of Quebec), taking a hard line against a wide array of major energy and resources projects would be politically disastrous.
If, as the debate unfolds, the Conservative motives are largely trusted, they will still need to ensure the policy features look sound. There have been several instances where a policy direction passed muster with the public, only to become undone by the details. Most want a well-equipped military, but not the procurement mess of the F-35. Everyone's against child pornography, but few liked the privacy features in Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's bill. The details of the environmental package will matter.
All in all, as these things go, this has been a pretty good start to a pretty important debate. While the passage of the legislation may not be in question, the debate is a test of whether there will be a healthy political competition between these two parties. Both the Tories and New Democrats will be weakened if they appear ideologically driven, and strengthened if they concentrate on sensible, pragmatic solutions.
There's a happy chance of something constructive taking place: an important piece of legislation getting a full and thoughtful debate on its merits.