‘It’s a New Day’: Why Environmentalists Need to Change Their Strategy Under Trudeau Government

Ottawa climate protest

Nine and a half years. That’s how long Stephen Harper was prime minister of Canada — a long haul for environmentalists, who were all but shut out of Ottawa and often antagonized by the federal government.

Now that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have taken the helm, advocates have high hopes for a course correction on the environment and energy files. But after nearly a decade of working under hostile conditions, environmentalists need to make a course correction of their own if they want to effectively influence public policy, experts say.   

If I was running a large ENGO and my file was climate, it’s a new day,” said Allan Northcott, vice-president of Max Bell Foundation, which runs the Public Policy Training Institute to train non-profit leaders in how to effectively advocate for policy changes.

The opportunity is different, so it’s going to require a different plan, a different strategy.”

Many of the tactics advocacy groups undertake aren’t effective, Northcott told DeSmog Canada. 

It ends up just being noise. And there’s lots of noise,” he said. “Right now, everybody and their dog and cat has got an idea for what the federal government should do.”

Outside Game and Inside Game Must Work Together

Many environmental groups have spent a decade building up their “outside game,” doing things like gathering petitions and organizing protests. But now that government is willing to meet with environmentalists, the door is opened to influencing elected leaders and public servants directly, through an “inside game.”

This new context requires a shift in strategy. Essentially, the outside game needs to morph to complement the development of an effective inside game.

Just don’t assume that you can use the same set of tools. It is a bit of a specialized tool set,” Northcott said.

That’s why Max Bell Foundation created the Public Policy Training Institute. Faculty members include Jim Dinning, who served as an Alberta PC MLA for nine years and as a cabinet minister. Today, Dinning serves as a director on the board of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission.

One of the things we teach in our class is that there are very few absolutes,” Dinning told DeSmog Canada. “Most elected people are willing — more than willing — to listen to a point of view that’s contrary to the one they hold. The ability to change your mind shows that you have one.”

'Protest is not a Dialogue. It's a Monologue'

The key to being heard is to start with a respectful, low-temperature, evidence-based conversation, Dinning said.

A lot of people don’t think to do this, but the best place to start looking for a ‘yes’ is in the lowest levels of the public service that you can go to and get a ‘yes.’ The public service should play, and does play, a really important filtering and briefing role in advising ministers and deputy ministers and premiers and prime ministers,” he said.

Given that the chief of staff for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is Marlo Raynolds, former executive director of environmental think tank the Pembina Institute, meeting with the public service should be a logical first step for many environmental groups.

However, skipping over the public service and going straight to a minister or Prime Minister is a common mistake.

Public policy almost never happens in that way. If your first call is to the premier or the prime minister’s office, then it’s a bad call,” Dinning said.

As for protest, Dinning sees it as a tactic best reserved as a last resort if you’ve pursued dialogue with the government, but haven’t been able to make progress.

It’s certainly not a first resort,” Dinning said. “A protest is not a dialogue. It’s a monologue.”

Environmentalists Eager to Keep Pressure On Elected Officials

Environmentalists, however, are chomping at the bit to hold the Liberals’ feet to the fire, especially with the UN climate negotiations coming up in Paris in December.

Clayton Thomas-Muller is the ‘Stop it at the Source’ campaigner with 350.org, the group that organized a protest called the ‘Climate Welcome,’ which involved four days of sit-ins outside Trudeau’s residence beginning on the first day he took office to demand a freeze on oilsands expansion.

Four days after organizing those protests, Thomas-Muller facilitated a United Nations climate event at the National Arts Centre, attended by the chief negotiator for Canada and the French ambassador.

That’s the new landscape with a centrist party,” Thomas-Muller told DeSmog Canada. “Strategy and tactics have to reflect both pulling and pushing. It’s much more complex.”

Thomas-Muller said he’s full of hope based on the government’s first moves. “But we have to keep the bar where it is and raise it with intelligent multi-pronged approaches,” he said.

Politicians Must Balance Multiple Interests

It’s true that the early days of a new government are important.

If you’re interested in federal policy change, right now — the first six or eight months in the mandate of a new government — is the best time to get in there and try to help inform what they’re going to do,” Northcott said.

But governments are faced with tough decisions about balancing multiple interests.

Put yourself in the shoes of government, imagine where they’re at and what they’re trying to deal with at the moment,” Northcott said. “You’ve got to try to attach your issue to their agenda.”

With the public release of ministerial mandate letters, it’s easier than ever for groups to figure out what’s on the government’s agenda.

You have to basically demonstrate that you have a pretty good knowledge of the issue. And not just the issue, but the issue in its context,” Northcott said.

The presumption sometimes is that only ENGOs care about what happens in the enviro and energy space. And that’s just not real. That’s not politically real. You have to understand whose ox is going to get gored if your position becomes policy. You have to think about balancing out the different stakeholders in the policy ask.”

Dinning also stresses keeping in mind what any government minister has on their plate.

Remember that a minister has 50 other files on their desk,” Dinning said. “And the file that you are talking to me about is one of 13 meetings I’m having this morning. Be mindful of that — especially with a new government.”

Great Expectations: Campaign Promises Vs. Reality

You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose,” Dinning said. “The fact is, especially when you’re in opposition, you’re campaigning in a vacuum. You don’t know all the facts, there are a far greater number of layers of facts, of nuance: the world isn’t all black and white.”

That means sometimes after a government takes office, it learns new information that results in a campaign promise needing to be delayed or altered.

Further to that, Trudeau has promised to return to a “cabinet government” — in which policy decisions are made collectively, not just by the prime minister. If we want more of that open, collaborative approach to governing, we also need to be prepared to give politicians some leeway to change their minds.

As Don Lenihan of Canada 2020, a progressive think tank, wrote in a recent op-ed:

Back in the 1960s, cabinet government succeeded because ministers weren’t just selling an idea. They were trying to develop one. Public input and feedback were needed to get the policy right and the process was there to help them.

As a result, everyone was more open to seeing ideas change and evolve as the process unfolded. Decision-making came at the end of the process, not the beginning.

Nowadays, Lenihan writes, ministers who change policy proposals are often accused of “backtracking” or “flip-flopping,” which makes it tricky for politicians to really consider the best evidence on the table.

Politicians Follow Public Opinion

Ultimately, politicians are looking to advance policies that are broadly acceptable to voters.

The window of acceptability moves and changes over time. Squarely in the middle are the things that become policy,” Northcott said. “Most governments try to get right in the centre of the window because they’re serving all voters … In a way, that’s kind of what you would expect from a democracy.”

That leads us to the work environmental advocates can do to actually shift what’s inside the window of acceptability. In Northcott’s mind, that type of public engagement work is an entirely different kettle of fish than advocating directly for policy change.

Changing public opinion is absolutely vital to creating social change and requires a long-term strategy built around shared values. Doing that type of work requires a very specialized skill set all of its own.

Advocates sometimes look to politicians to lead public opinion. In my experience, most of the time, politicians follow public opinion, rather than lead it,” said Brenda Eaton, who served as deputy minister to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell.  “Sometimes you need the outside game to change public opinion.”

While there’s room for a variety of tactics to be used to advance environmental issues in Ottawa, it’s vital that environmental groups differentiate between those meant to alter public opinion and those meant to influence elected leaders directly — and put themselves in elected leaders’ shoes when trying to do the latter.

On that note, fewer than three weeks into their tenure, the Liberals deserve a bit of time to settle in, Dinning argued.

They’re still looking for the cafeteria,” he said. “The big decisions need time.”

Image: Protestors during a 2009 President Obama visit to Ottawa. Photo by Mikey G Ottawa via Flickr.