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Our View: Change overdue

Many Canadians are probably still scratching their heads over recent moves made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, not the least of which was the Jan. 4 cabinet shuffle that saw Rona Ambrose ousted from her post as federal environment minister in favour of John Baird.

Although no one in Harper’s inner circle will ever admit it, the change probably had less to do with Ambrose’s job performance (and despite her declared commitment to protect the environment for future generations) than it did with voters’ changing attitudes toward environmental issues.

The cabinet shuffle and the decision to hand the sensitive portfolio to one of the Conservatives’ “golden boys” was all about public relations and a desire to win votes in the upcoming federal election, which may or may not take place later this year.

Recent polls have indicated that environmental concerns (including the crippled Kyoto Protocol, global warming and climate change) are once again rising to the top of the voters’ list of political priorities, to a level not seen for at least a decade. NDP Leader Jack Layton has already identified the environment as a key issue for his party in the forthcoming campaign. Candidates from all the other leading parties are also certain to hammer away at the issue repeatedly in the coming months if they think such tactics will help them win additional seats in the House of Commons.

Following the swearing-in ceremony at Government House last week, Harper boldly declared that the Conservatives “need to do more on the environment”, as if that were a novel and innovative approach.

The statement came in the wake of the government’s ongoing failure to convince Canadians that its proposed (and heavily criticized) Clean Air Act is the best way to deal with a growing national and international problem.

However, the image that Harper worked so hard to cultivate during the election campaign one year ago was that of a leader who would distance the Conservatives as much as possible from the mess that Paul Martin’s Liberals left behind in Ottawa, would not pander to special interest groups and would resolutely act in the best interests of the country.

There was also a strong suggestion that Harper would not make major shifts in government policy simply in response to the vagaries of public opinion polls, even if that meant he would have to make tough and unpopular decisions at times.

But now Harper and his colleagues certainly appear to be positioning themselves for a campaign in which the national parties’ environmental policies will feature prominently, and where a given party’s stance on the environment could easily tip the balance in some ridings on election night.

Political manoeuvring of this sort is nothing new. Neither is the notion that back-room politicos will attempt to influence how elections will be won or lost through clever public relations acrobatics. Yet it’s disheartening to see how quickly the Conservatives have jumped on the public opinion bandwagon now that environmental concerns have once again captured the imagination of voters, especially after the party stumbled so badly with its proposed Clean Air Act – a piece of legislation that some critics have called “a national disgrace.”

As much as we would like to believe that the prime minister woke up late one night and had a soul-changing epiphany that his government should make tree-hugging a top priority, it’s difficult to imagine such a touching scene actually taking place.

Nonetheless, even if it turns out that crass political opportunism was the driving motivation behind the Conservatives’ apparent change of heart, at least it’s a shift in the right direction.

Only time will tell if they’re sincere and actually do something about it.

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