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BC NDP’s John Horgan charts a new green path

John Horgan file photo.
John Horgan file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

It only received scant media attention but the speech recently given by NDP leader John Horgan on climate change could prove to be a groundbreaking moment for his party and for B.C. politics as a whole.

Speaking last week to a left-wing think tank that included prominent environmentalists on its program, Horgan outlined how he will closely align his party’s election platform to bold initiatives to fight climate change.

In doing so, he acknowledged this issue hasn’t always been front and centre for him, given his own background working in the energy field in government in the 1990s. Back then, he was part of an NDP government that aggressively pursued the expansion of an oil and gas industry, including pipelines and the practice of fracking.

But, he now says, things have changed and so has he.

In the 1990s, he said, then-NDP environment minister Joan Sawicki was already talking about the growing problem of climate change but he chose to ignore her.

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“I was working for the minister of energy at the time, and I heard her. I understood it. But it wasn’t inside me. And when I left government, I didn’t think a lot about it,” he told the crowd.

But he’s evidently thinking a lot about it now, and has taken the position that it is the most important issue of all and therefore has to be aggressively fought against. All NDP policies presumably have to be based on this commitment.

He admitted his party has had trouble with issues such as the carbon tax and other measures created to fight climate change, but insisted a new and changed approach is needed.

“I’ve listened a lot. And I’ve learned a lot. I know the B.C. NDP has struggled with the issue of carbon pricing over the years,” he said. “But those years have also been years of reflection, undeniable evidence and fresh understanding for me.”

As proof of that change, he offered what he called “a simple pledge” to the appreciative green crowd.

“I promise a climate plan that will ensure emissions go down — that we will reverse the trajectory of pollution growth that the B.C. Liberals have put us on,” Horgan said, adding that a “fair price on pollution” is needed and that a series of other policies must be adopted in short time.

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Presumably, this ends any chance the NDP could ever officially embrace any LNG project, given the increase in greenhouse gas emissions that come with them. It may also weaken its support for the mining industry and some other resource-based industries.

On the other hand, Horgan is pledging to focus on things like transit, tougher regulations, solar panels, energy-friendly buildings and more. Some of his plan was announced before, but some was new and the overall message was by far the strongest signal yet that the party is changing, big-time.

All in all, his speech made it crystal clear the NDP is trying to make a clean break from a past where it was closely aligned with the natural resource sector and its unions.  I’ve long wondered how Horgan could go from being so pro-industry to being all-in on fighting climate change, but his speech explained that in detail.

Ironically, one of those applauding his new approach at the speech was prominent environmentalist and climate change campaigner Tzeporah Berman.  Her support perfectly illustrates how much the ground has moved here: in the 1990s, she aggressively (and somewhat successfully) led a campaign against the NDP over its forest policies.

She dogged former Premier Mike Harcourt on his trip to Europe when he was trying to sell B.C.’s forest industry, organizing demonstrations at his appearances where ever she could. And here she was last week, on the same stage applauding one of Harcourt’s successors as party leader.

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The new approach may cost the party some old allies, but it may also gain it support from would-be Green Party voters. Whatever the result at the ballot box on May 9th, it’s clear Horgan is taking his party on a path not even dreamed of when it last formed government in this province.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.