Steven Guilbeault harbinger of doom or sacrificial lamb?

Justin Trudeau recently announced a major cabinet overhaul which is either a clever ploy to ditch environmental commitments, or an admission that key portfolios of the Government of Canada are now run by activist ideologues.

The interesting appointment of Mr. Guilbeault has raised ire in some quarters, jubilation in others. However, the answer as to why he was appointment remains somewhat of a puzzle.  Two possible, and opposing, theories arise. One is that the Trudeau government is clearly telegraphing an ever more dogmatic, ideological and aggressive environmental policy and assault on Canada’s resource sector. The other possibility asks whether Trudeau has put the environment on the back burner by placing an incompetent minister from a smaller portfolio to lead a larger one. A decade of political involvement leads me to not discount the latter, while still reluctantly believing the former is more likely.

Aside from his stunt in 2001 when he scaled the CN Tower to declare Canada and George Bush climate killers, Mr. Guilbeault first floated into the serious consciousness of most political observers for his handling of the proposed Bill C-10. The bill, extremely flawed from the beginning, drew fire for its potential to strangle freedom of speech online; in effect an attempt to regulate the internet. This was bad enough, but Mr. Guilbeault’s incoherent and word-salad laden press conferences made it worse. All and sundry were left wondering what the consequences of the bill would actually be and the government was thrown terribly off message.

Such performances do not normally merit a promotion, unless all a government cares about is blind loyalty and subservience. If Mr. Trudeau had wanted to thumb his nose at our resource sector and declare all out war he could hardly have chosen a better person. Unfurling a banner in manner Mr. Guilbeault did on the CN tower is not subtle climate policy and neither is appointing a Minister of Environment who spent years at Greenpeace and performed dangerous stunts like installing solar panels on Ralph Klein’s private home. Though the appointment may merely portend a reinvigoration of the fight started by Catherine Mackenna it also has the distinct feeling of a government fully in thrall to radical climate ideology and ignorant of economic reality.

The world is in a serious energy crunch. The price of a barrel of oil has sailed past $80 recently and shows no sign of turning back any time soon. This is a result of structural under investment in oil exploration, the result of government policy. The constant fear of peak demand has run headlong into the reality of peak supply. This is of course good for Canada: the oil and gas sector represents a contribution of over $100 billion of our GDP. As the economy recovers from Covid, we want and need a rollicking energy industry. However, the effects years of unrealistic government policy regarding the speed of our energy transition will unfortunately be felt by the middle class, the average Canadian. Gas and heating costs are set to soar in Canada and worldwide due to lack of supply. Our green transition will occur, but if the past month are teaching us anything it is that transition will be measured in decades, not years.

Which is why those who recognize the importance of fossil fuels to our prosperity can’t help but hope and wonder if Mr. Trudeau isn’t being crazy like a fox with Mr. Guilbeault. The absolute mangled job Mr. Guilbeault did at Heritage which confused many, but accomplished little, may be just the ticket for the Ministry of Environment right now. If Mr. Guilbeault can repeat his past performance – bungled and confusing lines followed by a PMO dressing down on what to actually say and do – Mr. Trudeau may have just pulled off his best trick yet: appearing to throw a bone to the environmentalists who supported him yet ensure that their minister is incompetent enough to have no tangible policy effect on the ground. Certainly not at COP26. Could Mr. Trudeau really be so oblivious to the lack of respect a professional activist who assaults the personal property of politicians will receive in Glasgow?

All this, of course, remains to be seen. The next few weeks will likely see Mr. Guilbeault come back to Canada from COP26 waiving a decree à la Chamberlain declaring environmental peace in our time. Meanwhile, oil and gas prices, along with Canadians’ heating bills, will rise. The effect will be the pricing out of those seeking to join the middle class and forcing those already there to wonder whether they can still consider themselves part of it.

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