08/01/2012 05:16 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Hey Ottawa -- There's Nothing National About the Pipeline Debate

The "national energy strategy" recently debated by the provincial premiers is going nowhere fast, not least because the "national" part is completely meaningless.

According to the premiers, there are no national interests that require Ottawa to be involved except to ensure that specific infrastructure such as pipelines gets built at the request of the provinces. They contend that because provinces own their natural resources -- whether hydro or oil and gas -- there are only separate provincial, not national, interests in energy matters.

If one province needs the cooperation of another province, for example, to export power or resources across provincial boundaries -- pipelines from Alberta, hydro power from Newfoundland -- this is a matter to be resolved by the affected provinces, not Ottawa.

That Stephen Harper's national government plays a supporting role in this charade, cheering on the premiers from the sidelines, demonstrates how diminished Canada has become as a nation. For Harper's incredibly shrinking Canada, the national interest is defined narrowly as "building pipelines" -- consistent with keeping Canadians' expectations of their national government at the lowest possible level, the more easily to be manipulated and fine-tuned as the next national election approaches.

In Harper's world, there is no need for much national attention to climate change or environmental protection. Even long overdue oil sands monitoring is still emerging at a glacial pace.

This isn't good enough. In order to build a prosperous, sustainable economy that fairly benefits all Canadians, Ottawa must play the lead role in strengthening Canadian economic fundamentals, and this includes setting out clearly and precisely Canada's national interests with respect to related issues of energy and the environment.

We can develop our natural resources in a way that balances economic development and environmental protection. But we need strong and consistent national leadership that acknowledges and addresses the genuine threat of climate change and that actively promotes sustainability in all areas: on the supply side, by reducing dependence on carbon-based energy sources; on the demand side, by encouraging greater efficiency and energy conservation at the community level; and on the science side, by boosting Canada's capacity for scientific research and innovation.

As leader of a Liberal government I would therefore focus, not on the now-meaningless concept of a national energy strategy, but on the specific fundamentals that Ottawa must establish to build a sustainable national economy over the long-term. Most notably, this includes establishing a national price for carbon that realistically reflects the environmental cost of economic activity, through a national carbon tax on all producers and consumers.

The majority of economists and leaders in the energy industry advocate the carbon tax over "carbon trading" as the most effective signal to producers and consumers to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. It will yield substantial revenues to reduce other taxes or fund energy-related technologies. Any national carbon pricing system has to be fully coordinated with provincial programs like those already in place in B.C. and Quebec.

Like the GST, the tax would have a single structure and single rate. The revenue raised would be sent back to the province in which it is generated, to be used for whatever purpose it chooses, such as assistance to vulnerable consumers and industries. A national carbon pricing system is essential if we want to get anywhere near acceptable targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases by mid-century, and ensure that Canada is an effective player in global climate change forums, not an obstacle to progress.

While a national carbon tax is central to meaningful national action on energy and the environment, my proposed program as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada sets out other fundamentals requiring firm national leadership to help Canadians build a sustainable and prosperous economy:

* Assure free internal trade across Canada to maximize economic opportunity and meaningful jobs for Canadians. This means not just reducing interprovincial barriers but also maintaining efficient, effective national environmental protection and employment standards to prevent destructive economic competition for investment and jobs across the country won by the provinces with the weakest environmental standards and employment protections.

* Reduce the growing inequality of access to education and skills that underlies too much debilitating unemployment, and introducing workable labour market policies which include the transformation of Employment Insurance into easily accessible transitional support that provides all Canadians with the experience, skills and mobility necessary to find fulfilling work without suffering devastating impacts in-between jobs.

* Build up our scientific capacity in all areas, but especially with respect to energy science and clean energy technologies, with substantial and unfettered federal support such as through the establishment of an independent National Academy of Sciences. Enable and require scientifically-sound and evidence-based assessments of human and environmental risks of economic development to anticipate and prevent pipeline leaks, or incidents such as a BP or Fukoshima.

* Coordinate public policies with private investments across key sectors of the economy to repair, upgrade and expand our infrastructure to world-class standards. Facilitating new opportunities for long-term investment, openly and accountably -- not through obscure tax expenditures or tax credits -- and more generally, transforming and simplifying our tax system so sufficient revenue is raised transparently and fairly to support excellent public services of comparable quality across the country.

Building a sustainable national economy in our fast-moving, hyper-connected world is a challenge and a responsibility of all Canadians. We're entitled to expect our national government, on our behalf, to act in the national interest and help establish the long-term structural and regulatory fundamentals that will benefit us all. If Harper's Conservatives are unwilling to provide such bold national leadership, then Canadians are equally entitled to replace them at the earliest opportunity.