Environmental Issues Demand Work Across Party Lines: Interview with GreenPAC’s Aaron Freeman

Aaron Freeman has been working on environmental policy, in one fashion or another, in Canada for 25 years — long enough to witness what he calls the steady decline of environmental priorities in Ottawa.

And yet the majority of Canadians claim they care deeply about the environment and expect governments to act on major environmental problems like climate change. So how to resolve the disconnect?

Freeman launched GreenPAC, a non-partisan political action committee, in March as a way of mending the divide between environmental concerns and environmental action at the political level.

Recently GreenPAC released a list of environmental champions from across the political spectrum and urged Canadians to support their campaigns.

DeSmog Canada asked Freeman to break down how he sees strong support for environmental candidates making the difference when it comes to making environment a top priority in Ottawa once again.

Q: GreenPAC has endorsed strong environmental candidates but do they actually have power to be strong leaders within their parties? Why shouldn’t people vote for candidates that represent the parties with the strongest environmental platforms?

Aaron Freeman: Party discipline has been with us for a long time and it has become a more and more powerful force in Ottawa.

But this isn’t a recent phenomenon: it’s been around since the '70s. I mean, we’ve heard about the Harper government, but we also heard about the Chretien government, the Mulroney government, the Trudeau government. So it’s not a new phenomenon.

At the same time, when we have made progress with environmental issues in Ottawa it has been with ordinary Members of Parliament, working across party lines and pushing for change within their parties. And that has been a very effective political force in Ottawa.

That has resulted in legislation like the Species at Risk act being passed. It has resulted in toxic chemicals being regulated and banned.

I’d say most of the time that we’ve made progress in Ottawa, that dynamic has been at play.

Q: So how does this factor into your work with GreenPAC?

AF: As it relates to GreenPAC we need a force that is politically relevant in our electoral system that sends a strong message to parties that environment matters —that it matters politically. And right now we don’t have that: environment consistently punches below its weight in politics.

The way to achieve this is by embedding leadership in all political parties. The way to do that through our electoral system is to elect people that we send to Ottawa.

If we’ve sent leaders to Ottawa, they can make the difference because they have a mandate, a political mandate.

It [will be] environmentalists who helped get those folks elected and that’s going to carry political weight within their parties.

Q: I’ve been speaking with other politicos and experts about this election who say voters are increasingly voting for a party, rather than a candidate who represents them and their constituency. But GreenPAC is recommending voters find strong candidates with a good environmental record to throw their weight behind. Why?

AF: The key verb there is finding, finding the candidates — we often don’t do that, or support them when we do.

You can imagine the conversation between the environmental sector and the environmental leaders we’re trying to get to run for office.

We’d have a conversation that goes something like this:

You’re a fantastic leader on the environment; you’ve delivered in your field of expertise. We really want to see you run and there’s a nomination race coming open in your party and your community. We want to see you run.

We won’t endorse you, we won’t support you, and we won’t show up. But we love you and we want you to run.

It’s a ludicrous conversation.

That’s completely unappealing especially if you aren’t of politics and many of the best people — who should be running but aren’t — don’t come from politics. That’s a completely unappealing proposition.

So we need to change the conversation a bit.

We need to say to prospective leaders: before you give me your answer, know that there are 200 people in your riding who share your values. In fact they share those values to the point where they’re willing to dig deep and give to candidates in other ridings who share those values. Would you be willing to sit down with 50 of them?

That’s a completely different conversation.

Q: So is this what GreenPAC does? Makes those conversations happen?

AF: We’re in the business of recruiting, nominating, electing and supporting environmental leadership. We are building a conversation, we’re building a community of people in different parts of the country who want to do that, who want to build leadership at the local and national level.

There will be people, there are already people in our network who want to take this to the provincial level in their province, to their municipal level, perhaps even within the party level.

And that’s a really interesting conversation that starts on October 20th for us.

Q: You’re the president and the founder of GreenPAC. Can you tell me a little about what led to you starting this?

AF: I’ve been involved in environmental policy issues for 25 years.

What I’ve seen is a consistent decline of the political relevance of environmental issues. The public supports environmental issues very broadly across all demographics across all parts of the country, they want that leadership.

But the support for it is spread out — it’s diffused. It’s a top issue for five to 15 per cent of the population and it’s a second or third priority for a solid majority of the population across all regions. In our electoral system there is no way to translate that into political relevance. It’s a geographically based electoral system and the support for environmental issues is spread out.

So environment chronically punches below its weight in politics for that reason and other reasons as well.

We’re all making difficult choices in who to vote for in this next election.

What GreenPAC is about is moving beyond having to choose between the lesser of two evils at the ballot box and actually focusing on an agenda that will change the face of leadership and turn Canada around on its environmental performance.

Q: You have been around since March and you just launched your list of endorsed candidates that you crafted with a panel of experts. What has the response been so far?

AF: It’s been amazing. We’ve received a lot of media attention but also a lot of public attention.

The message is really resonating with people. People want to do something tangible to really make a difference. They’ve seen where we’ve gone on the environment and the lack of leadership with environmental politics.

They want to do something tangible to turn that around. GreenPAC offers them the opportunity to do that. 

Read more about GreenPAC and check out the Candidate Matching Tool to find environmental leaders who share your values.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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