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Appointment of environmentalist Tzeporah Berman sparks Wildrose hysteria. Here's why

Tzeporah Berman

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Last year, when environmentalist Tzeporah Berman was appointed to British Columbia Premier Christy Clark's Climate Leadership Team, there appears to have been no controversy.

But then, the misleadingly named Liberal government headed by Clark is really a big-tent, small-c conservative party in many ways not unlike the old Alberta Progressive Conservatives under such leaders as Peter Lougheed and Ed Stelmach.

So when Premier Clark appointed the 23-member committee to advise her government on climate policy, it went without saying it would include representatives from the government, the academy, affected communities, business interests, environmental interests and First Nations.

For one thing, it would have had no credibility with civil society in B.C. without such a diversity of views. For another, getting effective opponents of past government policy like Berman on the team that makes long-term policy recommendations has the effect of co-opting them to your position.

British Columbia is not Alberta, of course. For many years, the environmental movement has spoken louder there than here, and it enjoys enormous support among British Columbians. Plus, there's almost always been a real opposition in the Legislature and it doesn't come as an earth-shattering development if the government changes hands now and then. So any B.C. leader is attuned to the need to pay attention to those realities.

Still, I don't think it's impossible to imagine that if an Alberta Progressive Conservative like Jim Prentice had managed to hang onto power in 2015, recognizing the problems this province faces getting its principal export to markets, he too might have appointed someone like Berman to something like the Oil Sands Advisory Group created by Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley last week.

After all, he might have reasoned, as Notley certainly recognizes, any pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast is going to have to pass through British Columbia.

The 18-member Alberta committee has a mandate similar to that of the group set up by Premier Clark last year, "to advise government on the oil-sands aspects of its Climate Leadership Plan and ensure that its initiatives are effective and widely supported."

There are three co-chairs -- one from industry, one from First Nations and one from environmental organizations. Berman is the environmental sector's co-chair.

Heaven knows, she's qualified enough in that role. She's a high-profile environmental leader with major successes in her resume, like the renowned Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in B.C. Like Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman, she's proved she is willing to go to jail for her convictions. She was honoured by the Royal B.C. Museum as one of 150 people who changed the face of the province. She's now an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto.

But when Berman was appointed, the Wildrose Party, the Harper government dead-enders who plan to take it over along with the Progressive Conservatives, and their online outrage machine went completely bonkers.

Why? The proximate cause was the use by Berman of an awkward literary metaphor comparing Alberta's tar sands to Mordor, the land of darkness and fire in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy during a recent interview with a British environmental reporter.

She has apologized for this, although, in your blogger's opinion, she hardly needs to have bothered. At least she didn't quote William Blake and call the tar sands "dark satanic mills," which really would have gotten the 'Rosies goin'!

If you actually listen to the recording of Berman's interview -- which the people screaming about her are counting on you not to do -- she sounds restrained, even a little sympathetic to the industry, and appears to be responding to accusations she's gone soft on the tar sands.

She defended herself, by the way, by explaining, quite reasonably, that "the solutions in the climate era aren't black or white. They're various shades of grey. And we're not going to go from no climate policy to the policy equivalent of 1.5 degrees overnight."

The Wildrose Party, as its press release writers tend to do in such circumstances, put its own fanciful interpretation on Berman's words, claiming in the headline of its release, without providing a back up quote or any evidence in the text, that she "calls industry 'toxic.'"

The release also identified Berman as an Ontarian -- fightin' words around these parts, unless of course you happen to speaking about Ontarians like Stephen Harper or Jason Kenney.

To hear the reaction from the outrage machine on the Internet, you would have thought Berman was, well … an Orc!

But the real reason for the fury at Berman's appointment, it is said here, is that in the minds of leaders of the Wildrose Party, and the groups backed by the federal Conservatives and the Manning Centre who are pushing for the union of the PCs and Wildrose under Kenney, there is no place for disagreement, let alone dissent, from the party's hard ideological line.

The Wildrose Party is as pure an ideological entity as you can find in Alberta politics. Can you imagine a former union local president like Robin Campbell being allowed to run as a candidate in a party run by Kenney or Opposition Leader Brian Jean, let alone becoming finance minister as he did under Prentice? It would never happen.

Nowadays, under interim Leader Ric McIver, the PCs have moved well to the right of centre as well.

In this regard, the Alberta conservative movement is in danger of taking the path chosen by the Republican Party in the United States, in which ideology Trumps everything else.

If there was a flaw in the creation of the NDP's Oil Sands Advisory Group, it wasn't with the appointment of Berman.

It was the failure to spell out the reasons for this appointment clearly, loudly and more than once, instead of letting the Wildrose Party and its outrage machine define her for those citizens for whom the first impression is the entire story.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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