Peace and Environment in the NDP

A conversation with Audrey McLaughlin, M.P. and William Blaikie, M.P

By Metta Spencer | 1990-06-01 12:00:00

Spencer: With its environmental emphasis, is the NDP turning green?

McLaughlin: We don't have to turn the NDP green. Bill Blaikie and I, and many of our other members, have been involved in the environmental movement for many years. We were involved when it was seen as a fringe movement and we were seen as kooks for even caring about the environment. So I feel strongly that we're not turning our party green! It is a priority in our party, and now everyone is co-opting an interest in the environment-which is good; it shouldn't be the purview of any one group. Everyone should look at it. One of the big challenges in our society is how to make the fundamental changes that have to be made to address environmental issues-and how to assure that the work transition can be done with fairness to workers. Workers should not have to bear the brunt of the changes that must be made.

Spencer: The NDP has close ties with labor. Some aspects of conversion may be hard for unions to accept.

McLaughlin: I feel the opposite.

William Blaikie: If the conversion is genuinely toward environmentally friendly ways of producing things, there are going to be jobs in it. I was the Environment Critic for three years, and we have never accepted that there will be fewer jobs in an environmentally sound economy. The problem is in assuring working people that in the transition they are not going to be left on the street. Our party is better able to make the difficult decisions precisely because, as a government, we would be trusted to take into account the concerns of people who are affected by the changes. The government right now is not trying, but if they did try, they would have difficulty. Workers in an industry threatened by environmental regulation would not trust Mulroney to have their interests at heart. An NDP government could come to larger eco-social agreements.

Spencer: But in Saskatchewan the NDP had a part in developing the uranium fuel cycle.

Blaikie: You're talking to the federal NDP here. There has been a long standing tension between the federal party policy and what the Saskatchewan government did when it was in office. As Environment Critic I was critical of the Blakeney government for doing that. We can't force federal party policy on a provincial government, but at least the nuclear debate has existed within the NDP. This ought to be valued. There is no debate in the Liberal or Conservative parties about nuclear power or uranium mining. The Liberal Party of Ontario has shown that they favor a nuclear future for Ontario. Jake Epp, since he became Minister of Energy, has been promoting nuclear energy, and uranium mining has always been taken for granted by both of them.

Spencer: Regarding conversion, Mary Wynne Ashford, the president of Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, proposed in our magazine a corps to create new environmental opportunities for young people to serve and also to use military people in constructive projects, such as disaster interventions and environmental catastrophes. I teach Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and my students are coming up with the same idea and writing term papers on it. The only military people I have heard commenting on this did not like the idea very much. Would there be interest in such a program?

McLaughlin: The military already does some of those things-at the Summerside base in P.E.I., for example. Cutting out the Tracker aircraft is an interesting thing the government has done, because that aircraft provides surveillance of fisheries and the illegal dumping of toxic waste. When we're talking about the environment and conservation, we're talking about fisheries and forestry and so on. Virtually all of us have certainly given speeches about the role of the military in an environmental disaster. Is Dr. Ashford talking about converting all the military to environmental work?

Spencer: I think probably not.

McLaughlin: Let me bring it back to the base. There are people, such as David Suzuki, who think all the military budget should be spent on environmental issues. In large part it's not a bad idea, but we are going to have a defence system and peacekeeping forces. But there's certainly a role for an army that has a group of people with the equipment and the mobility needed for certain environmental disasters.

Blaikie: There have been a number of precursors, starting with Katimavik, Environmental 2000, and other young people's programs concerned with environmental activities. If you take the Brundtland Report seriously, you have to redefine security…

McLaughlin: As in our common security paper.

Blaikie: Yes, to include security against environmental pollution. Then you'll want an armed forces that are involved with environmental protection. This came home to a lot of people with the Exxon-Valdez spill. All the navies of the world stood around not knowing what to do. We have all this alleged security against things that will probably never happen, but no security against things that are happening, such as oil spills. Or Canada's coastal waters being a planetary garbage dump because we don't have enough patrol aircraft, or a navy worth speaking of.

The peace movement has always been critical of military spending. But some kinds of military spending, if directed toward sovereignty for environmental purposes or environmental clean-up, would be dollars well spent. In that case the traditional analysis would have to change about budgets-or you could take it out of the defence budget and put it in the environment budget;then everyone would be happy.

McLaughlin: We have got to stop thinking of the environment as a discreet area of interest that one Minister or one group can deal with. Stop thinking that the environment is a concern of "environmental groups." We all fall into this. But it was clear in the House when we were approaching the Defence Minister: "Why don't you stop

the low level flights over Labrador? We know the environmental consequences. Certainly, the people living there know them. Stop until we have a proper environmental assessment."

Then we asked the Energy Minister, "Why don't you stand up and say you'll go for that 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide emission?". But they don't. And we'll never get out of the environmental mess as long as our society keeps this linear thinking: "The environment is here. And the military is over there. And social problems are there. And international development is here." As a party, we have to ensure that our own language doesn't follow that kind of traditional thinking. To talk properly about the environment, we have to take a holistic view.

Spencer: A couple of years ago at the Disarmament Ambassador's Consultative Group there was a proposal to have the Environment Minister be part of a privy council, in on the very earliest stages of all planning, whether it be military or industrial, at the highest level. Would you encourage that?

McLaughlin: We certainly have! And the Conservative government promised to do so. They said every major piece of legislation would be assessed for environmental impact. But when the Goods and Services Tax came up, where's the environmental assessment for that?

Blaikie: Or VIA Rail?

McLaughlin: Yes, absolutely!

Blaikie: The Brundtland Commission urges that every budgetary decision be environmentally assessed before it's taken. It was a budgetary decision to cut passenger rail service by 50 percent. I asked Mulroney, "Did you have an environmental assessment?"

He said "Well, no, because it's just a budget decision. We don't assess budget decisions."

I said, "You said you were going to abide by the Brundtland Report."

Even though we weren't successful in getting the cuts stopped, the VIA debate was a watershed, in that we took a decision which conventionally has not been seen as an environmental issue but as a transportation problem. We succeeded in getting a larger debate around the environment on this kind of issue. We didn't win the issue but we won something conceptually by at least having it seen to be environmentally a bad decision.

Spencer: Tell me about your "common security" paper.

Blaikie: It was adopted by the federal council of the party in April of '88, and being so adopted, became the policy for the next election, since there was no convention between council and the election. It still represents party policy in its overall approach. Obviously many things have changed on the international scene since the spring of 1988. I mean, 1989 was, to put it mildly, different! Some aspects of the paper are obsolete, such as passages concerning what military purchases might be needed.

The international affairs committee of the party has been reconstituted. I am co-chair of it, along with Tessa Hebb. We will build on that paper, which set a precedent by being the first time a political party had fully accepted the notion of common security.

McLaughlin: The common security paper ties in with the environmental issue by saying clearly that the environment is international. Our security depends on the security of others, and that's just as true with the environment. In fact what I was pursuing yesterday with the Minister was that the pollutants in the Eastern Arctic are primarily from Eurasia-from Russia. INCO has offered to assist one of the largest smelters with emissions. Their emissions are ten times what INCO's were before they started a cleanup. But INCO cannot do a lot of that because, under an agreement among the 17 Western nations party to the NATO treaty, you can't transfer the technology. So here is a ludicrous situation: a Canadian company offering assistance, in the interest of all of us, and not being able to give it. Russia must be suffering even more since they get the pollution first hand, while we get it second hand. Our regulations are based on the Cold War philosophy.

Blaikie: A similar thing is happening in Sweden. The Swedish can either try to get a little more emissions out of their own system or they can take the same amount of money and spend it on converting Polish plants. For the same amount of money they would reduce far more of the emissions that are actually going to Sweden.

This is It's related to the debt question. Brazil is chopping down the Amazon rainforest to get either cattle and/or timber to get hard currency with which to pay their debt-which they can never pay anyway. It's our common atmosphere that's being destroyed by our insistence that these people pay their debt.

Spencer: How would you approach the debt question?

Blaikie: Ultimately the only way to address it is by creating a just, participatory, sustainable, international economic order. In the short term, until the global economic elite recognizes their own self-interest, ways have to be found to release the pressure. Right now a sub-committee of the External Affairs Committee of the House is drafting a report on that. We're hoping to have some influence on its outcome. We have criticized the government's adherence to the "structural adjustment." In order for countries to get their economies in order-as order is understood by the IMF and the World Bank-kids have to die. It is insane and immoral to demand that countries punish their own populations, which already are not in great shape.

Spencer: We heard that the White Paper on Defence will be revamped, but without public consultation.

Blaikie: We are urging that they come up with something new. The problem is that they're trying to do it within the department, secretively.

McLaughlin: The new White Paper, I daresay, probably won't say that the Soviets are a great threat. That seems to be the line they were most criticized for.

Spencer: Let's talk about NATO.

McLaughlin: (laughing) We always like to talk about NATO!

Blaikie: I'm unclear as to the position of the peace movement on NATO.

Spencer: A little divided. A minority (but perhaps a growing minority, since the situation in Europe seems less dangerous) think that NATO may fade away by attrition.

Blaikie: There has never been a formal position by peace organizations, and we've been criticized as overly preoccupied with the question. As far as we're concerned now, the policy of withdrawal from NATO, which has existed for a long time in the party, was designed with the view that Canadian withdrawal might kickstart a process of disengagement-that it might begin the dissolution of the military blocs.

McLaughlin: That's already been kickstarted by somebody else!

Blaikie: Yes, it wasn't kickstarted by Canadian withdrawal, but by the events of 1989, so the debate about Canadian withdrawal from NATO-at least as it existed until 1989-has been overtaken by events. The question now is: How can NATO and the Warsaw Pact be absorbed quickly into a new security architecture for Europe? The most immediate question regarding NATO is: Where will the united Germany fall in? There is a lot of legitimate debate about whether a united Germany should be in NATO for as long as NATO exists. Or should there be a neutral Germany? These are all different questions. They are not questions that can be answered in the terms that existed until the fall of '89.

Spencer: How unified is your party on Canada's membership in NATO? Is it agreed that it has been overtaken by events? Or is it still a live issue?

McLaughlin: It is always an issue in people's minds, but Bill talks about there being new questions. The NDP's been saying: Let's start from different assumptions. Our NATO policy was very much in terms of starting from new assumptions. The question of Germany is a very real question. I've spoken with many Eastern Europeans who are here about what happens with Germany and whether it goes to NATO. I also spoke to the President of Czechoslovakia, who sees it a very different way. Are you asking whether within the party we are united or fighting about it? No, we're not fighting about it, because everyone realizes we're talking about new questions and new assumptions. If NATO was what it was supposed to be earlier, in economic and political terms, that might be one thing. But we have just been discussing how the environment and international cooperation are not bloc issues any more. Well, surely that's true of military issues as well.

Blaikie: I made a statement on this in the House for the party. I said that to talk about Germany-in-NATO or Germany-as-neutral was in both cases to be captive to the assumption that Europe would be divided.

McLaughlin: That's right.

Blaikie: I mean, either you're in NATO or you're neutral between two opposing sides. We say, this is an opportunity to implement the doctrine of common security. We have a lot of European friends who also think that way-such as President Havel, who is talking about a "European security commission." Others are talking about new "architecture" for Europe.

Gorbachev is talking about "common European home." Everybody's thinking now about how to get a new and united Europe. We are trying to push the debate and say, let's not try to put this new wine into old wine skins.

Spencer: As to how Germany can be absorbed into a larger framework, I've heard people talking about the EC

[European Community], or the CSCE [Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe] as two of the options. But I wonder whether the CSCE framework will be adequate, given that it's a system in which decisions are made by the consensus of nations.

Blaikie: Not in its present form. No exis ing institutions are adequate. You're talking about what structures the new institutions can develop out of. The CSCE and the Council of Europe are interested. They've been here making their case for why they're the institution in which all this can happen. There's a lot of debate. You've got Europe 1992 on the econom c side, which is affecting it. And you've got questions as to whether we're going to have a "German Europe" or a "European Germany"-whether the new superpower is going to be Europe collectively or a united Germany. How does Canada stay involved in this? I think we have a right to be part of it and not simply concern ourselves only with North American matters.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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