Among its members, it’s a running joke: the Green Party of Canada comes up with the big ideas and the other parties rip them off.
Many of those policies — same-sex marriage, cannabis legalization, a carbon tax and a guaranteed basic income — have now come to define the national conversation and, in some cases, Canada’s place in the world.
Kevin Bosch, who worked for almost 20 years with several Liberal prime ministers, said that although the Greens seldom get credit for it, they’re often the trailblazers in Canadian public policy.
“The other political parties look to what they are doing as (the Greens) put forth trial balloons,” said Bosch, who is now the vice-president of public affairs at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “I think they are the vanguard.”
The eight-month Green party leadership race has given its contestants a chance to thrash out new policy positions that could set the national agenda for years to come. Former Green election campaign director Sonia Theroux said the race is producing a flurry of new ideas.
“Similar to the role the federal Green Party plays on the national landscape, a leadership race plays that same role for a party,” said Theroux, now the co-executive director for the non-partisan Lead Now advocacy organization.
As online voting opens today, 35,000 registered members are getting a chance to decide which candidate will help shape that policy. Here are some of the ideas that could gain momentum and some perspectives on whether they might go mainstream.
A wealth cap
Several candidates have argued the wealthiest Canadians need to pay more. Candidates Dimitri Lascaris and Amita Kuttner have gone so far as to propose a cap on the amount of money a person can earn in Canada. Kuttner said she would tax income in excess of $100 million at a rate of 100 per cent.
Bosch calls the idea extreme.
“It may have populist appeal,” he said. “It probably would be seen as too radical for most voters.”
Theroux said she also isn’t sure that a hard cap has much runway but added there’s “fertile ground” for such a policy pitch in the electorate — especially among young voters who want to see extreme income inequality addressed.
Both Bosch and Theroux see a future for a wealth tax, a measure Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised to adopt in the recent throne speech. It’s a policy the Greens adopted for the 2019 election campaign as well.
Guaranteed livable income
All of the candidates have renewed their support for a guaranteed income, long a signature policy of the Greens. Theroux said she believes the idea has momentum now, in part due to the efforts of Greens.
“I’d say we are on the brink of a centrist federal government actually considering concepts similar to a basic income,” she said. “I am now seeing members of (the Liberal Party) starting to speak to it. And I think that is a massive paradigm shift.”
The Liberals are already transitioning millions of Canadians from their signature pandemic aid program, the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), to new benefit programs. Some have compared these benefits to a guaranteed livable income.
But there are doubts about whether governments can afford these programs without racking up unsustainable levels of debt, Bosch said.
“A basic income has to make economic sense,” Bosch said.
So far, only one leadership candidate — former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Glen Murray — has costed out how a guaranteed income program could be delivered by the federal government without increasing Ottawa’s ballooning deficit even further.
Ending fossil fuel use
In the spring, outgoing Green Party leader Elizabeth May grabbed headlines by declaring that “oil is dead.”
“My heart bleeds for people who believe the sector is going to come back. It’s not,” May told reporters. “Oil is dead.”
Several Green leadership candidates have seized on the idea and have vowed to phase out fossil fuels by 2040. Theroux said that, if anything, the idea is fostering important conversations among voters about the need for Canada to take radical steps to meet its climate commitments.
“The awareness of how quickly we have to move in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change is rapidly approaching,” she said.
Saying the era of big oil has come to an end is one thing, said Bosch, while finding affordable energy alternatives is something else. The Greens, he said, haven’t explained how the party would transition Canada away from fossil fuels.
“Just saying that we are going to wipe out fossil fuel over night is not realistic,” he said. “And you have to fill the energy mix with something else.”
He said he can’t see how the Greens could adopt a policy of eradicating fossil fuel use without also embracing nuclear power — which the party has traditionally opposed.
Border carbon tax
Leadership candidate Annamie Paul is urging her party to consider an new measure: slapping a tariff on imports from countries with lax environmental policies.
The tactic is being considered by the European Union, the world’s second-largest economic bloc. The idea is to ensure domestic businesses stay competitive by penalizing countries that maintain a competitive advantage by not doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Paul said. The policy is also intended to discourage businesses from relocating to jurisdictions with weaker environmental regulation.
“We are a party of innovation,” Paul said. “This is a policy that is complementary to our existing green member policy.”
Carbon border adjustments, Theroux said, would “level the playing field” for Canadian businesses that abide by stringent regulations.
But Bosch said the idea isn’t well thought-out and could complicate Canada’s relationship with the Trump administration, which pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.
“With the current U.S. administration, you might be just creating a tariff war,” he said. “Something that Donald Trump has shown he is not adverse at all to getting involved in.”