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Martin Regg Cohn: Mike Schreiner emerges as a fresh voice at Queen’s Park

Martin Regg Cohn: Mike Schreiner emerges as a fresh voice at Queen’s Park
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Mike Schreiner is seeking an antidote.

As leader of Ontario’s Greens, he made history by winning the party’s first seat in last year’s election. Since then, Schreiner has emerged as a fresh voice to counter the bumper sticker sloganeering of Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.

The Kansas-born entrepreneur, who converted to Canadian politics years ago when he moved to Toronto for love, brings American can-do positivity to the job. Clean-cut and unfailingly polite, Schreiner seems straight out of central casting.

Perfect for the role of do-gooder — pro-environment and anti-Ford.

Can ? From his perch in the farthest corner of the legislature, outnumbered by opposition Liberals and New Democrats, Scheiner outshines his rivals with reason and passion, authenticity and accessibility.

But in today’s political environment, he faces an unsettling truth: The more his Greens have gained in prominence since the 2018 election, the more they’ve lost in the fight against climate change.

The same tectonic forces that elected him and vaulted the NDP to Official Opposition status — a collapse in the Liberal vote — empowered Ford’s Tories with a massive majority government, and enabled their scorched-earth policy toward global warming and carbon pricing.

Now, Schreiner is trying to recover lost ground, by studying the forces of populism that helped Ford defeat his rivals last year both in the PC leadership race and the provincial election that followed. That means learning lessons from populism at its best and worst.

“Ford is probably the most anti-environmental premier since the 1920s,” Schreiner tells me.

“This government’s focus seems to be dismantling environmental legislation ... without bringing in anything that could be seen as advancing environmental legislation.”

Hence the alternative that Schreiner has been reflecting on:

If you can’t beat populism — defined as persuasively popular policies — join it. If Ford’s vacant populism is overpowering the environmental movement, then opposition politicians must push back with a more purposeful and persuasive populism that inoculates them against nihilism.

Not just on the environment, but on pocketbook issues that people pay attention to.

That doesn’t mean the Greens will suddenly embrace buck-a-beer slogans, or concede that a carbon tax is too much for any motorist to bear. It means countering Ford’s wild claims that paying 4.5 cents a litre more at the pump is a “job-killer,” or “the worst tax ever,” or the cause of a “carbon tax recession,” as the premier continually claims.

On the day Ford’s budget was unveiled, Schreiner stole the show with a focused and accessible rebuttal in front of more than 100 journalists who sought out his views on social and economic questions after seeming indifferent to the politicians who preceded him at the microphone. While NDP workers spent 10 minutes putting their official logo and backdrop in place before Andrea Horwath made her appearance, Schreiner quietly waited his turn before bounding onstage to take questions without any preliminaries.

“I just used the flags that were already there,” he mused after the budget lock-up.

Apart from his vast collection of green ties, Schreiner doesn’t bother with props, pretence or a personal entourage. After toiling in obscurity without a legislative seat for most of his nine years as party leader, Schreiner is accustomed to flying solo.

Without the trappings of major party status, he relied on preparation and persuasiveness — buttonholing reporters and hounding columnists. Those skills now stand him in good stead, but Schreiner believes he has much more to learn.

While the Greens took root sooner in B.C. and P.E.I. (where the party is contending for power in Tuesday’s provincial election), they have long struggled to capture a steady 5 per cent of Ontario votes. The party’s long-standing policy of eliminating separate Catholic school boards in Ontario attracted attention in the 2007 campaign, but Schreiner hasn’t emphasized it in subsequent elections.

As he tries to turn the populist tables against the Tories, the Green leader says his biggest ambition is to “connect with the youth movement” by showcasing his own party’s idealism and environmentalism.

“I’m selling an inspirational, transformative vision,” Schreiner says. Against the backdrop of today’s populist politics, “I have to expand the way I communicate things.”
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