Franz Hartmann is the executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. In a series of posts leading up to the municipal election this fall, he’ll be discussing environmental priorities for the city and assessing the leading candidates’ environmental policies.
With just over four months to go before election day, some Torontonians are just now beginning to turn their minds to the mayoral election campaign. What they’ll discover is that the front-running mayoral candidates have said little of significance about the environment.
Yes, there has been much discussion about public transit, which has a huge environmental impact. And yes, a few candidates have mentioned the environment in their speeches. Some have even posted short policy discussions about select green issues on their websites. Even so, an observer could rightly conclude that this topic has been largely neglected.
For a city that prides itself on being an environmental leader, this is—at best—a peculiar situation. Why is it that none of the front-running candidates has taken an environment stance and run with it?
The simple answer is that the environment is too closely associated with the current mayor. This election has become a race amongst the majority of candidates to see who can most effectively run against the so-called “Miller legacy.” And because that “legacy” includes strong environmental advocacy, it means everyone else has decided to downplay, if not entirely ignore, the environment.
While there is no doubt that Miller and the councillors elected in 2003 and 2006 have made some major inroads in improving Toronto’s environmental policies, there is also no doubt that these inroads are not just a product of the current administration. Surprisingly to some, most of the significant actions taken since 2003 can actually be traced back to policies adopted by the two councils led by former mayor Mel Lastman.
In April 2000, city council unanimously adopted the megacity’s first Environmental Plan, which laid the groundwork for action on energy conservation, sustainable energy, pollution reduction, and green economic development (to name but a few areas). Then later that year, just before the 2000 election, council agreed to push a very aggressive waste diversion strategy.
Unfortunately, this piece of environmental history has been forgotten by most of the current crop of mayoral candidates. Because of this amnesia, they’ve wrongly concluded that any serious discussion of the environment, especially any issues that Miller has worked on, is toxic.
A related reason most mayoral candidates have not run with the environmental issue has to do with messaging. A cardinal rule in campaigning is “stay on message.” To date, the message of three key candidates has been all about a dysfunctional City Hall: “City Hall isn’t working,” “stop the waste at City Hall,” “get City Hall open for business.”
Any serious discussion on environmental issues invariably leads to an acknowledgment that while City Hall hasn’t been perfect on the environment, much progress has been made. This doesn’t make for simple messaging. Imagine a candidate putting forward a plan to build on the city’s Sustainable Energy Plan, adopted by council in November 2009, and then in the next breath criticizing City Hall for not working. As they say in the biz: it’s not an easy message track.
Mayoral contenders have instead opted for a simple message track that results in ignoring the environment. By adopting this approach, they appear to assume that Torontonians aren’t sophisticated enough to handle an even slightly more nuanced position, one which holds that City Hall has done some good things environmentally, even while it may have done other things badly. Candidates need to acknowledge that Torontonians will understand a message that says: “Like everything in life, good things and bad things happen, even at City Hall. One of the good things has been the slow but steady progress in building sound environmental policies that will transform Toronto into a green city.”
It’s time candidates started talking about the environment in a serious way. Torontonians have been waiting for candidates to offer thoughtful ideas about what they will do to continue building on ten years of environmental success. They’re still waiting.
Candidates who present a serious green vision will see a real boost in their chances to become Toronto’s next mayor. For candidates who remain silent because of their messaging strategies, and because they perceive the environment is too heavily associated with Mayor Miller, the pay-off will likely be a footnote in the history of failed Toronto mayoral campaigns.