It was a fairly small announcement with a very impressive guest list.

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This article was published 10/8/2016 (1988 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It was a fairly small announcement with a very impressive guest list.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne rushed to the idyllic shores of Lake of the Woods near Kenora on Wednesday to celebrate a partial restoration of federal funding for the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a cluster of 58 lakes that has been used for decades to study the science of freshwater and connected ecosystems. In all, Ottawa will contribute a $850,000 annually over the next two years to support the ELA's ground-breaking research.

Why would two premiers travel to a rustic location to mark an announcement of fairly modest magnitude? The ELA has an interesting back story, one that reveals as much about politics as it does about freshwater lakes.

The story of the ELA, in political terms at least, goes back to 2012, and a threat by the former Conservative federal government to close the facility.

Lauded by scientists for years, research at the ELA was credited with advances that helped lead to environmentally enlightened policies and laws all over the world. And it didn't cost all that much — about $2 million per year. In federal fiscal terms, that was roughly equal to the change that can be found between the sofa cushions in the finance minister's Ottawa office.

But despite all those factors, the Tories wanted nothing to do with the ELA. Scientists were laid off, a library connected to the Freshwater Institute was dismantled and researchers were told they could not discuss their research publicly. Scientists from around the world denounced the decision.

What did the Tories get for this act of blatant and aggressive austerity? The ELA continued, albeit in diminished form, when Ontario and Manitoba stepped up and provided the funds necessary for the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development to take over the entire operation.

Based on those results, some will argue the Tories were shrewd at interprovincial politics. By threatening to close the ELA, they were able to unload an annual expense on two provinces. But the true costs of the Harper government's decision on the ELA were not limited to government expenditures. There was a political price as well.

The ELA decision was portrayed by critics of the Conservative government — both partisan and non-partisan — as part of a "war on science." It was mentioned in the same breath as cuts to Statistics Canada, the elimination of the long-form census, and the gag order the Tories put on scientists to prevent them from sharing their expertise with the public. Research stations in Canada's High Arctic were closed, and funding for scientific research — both within government and through NGOs — was cut.

Although these policies were popular with hardcore Tories, they tended to worry voters who had only a casual relationship with the Conservative party. And that created a mathematical problem for Harper.

To maintain his majority, Harper needed to convince a fair number of centrists and moderate fiscal conservatives with more liberal social views to support his vision for the country. Any policy or position that smelled like far right-wing ideology — like a so-called war on science — would spook those middle-of-the-road voters, draining away enough support to deny Harper another election win.

And that's in large part what happened. The Tories did not lose a lot of support in the 2015 election. But combined with a surge in support for the Liberals, just enough people abandoned the Harper Conservatives to return them to Opposition status.

The war on science, symbolized by decisions like the threat to close the ELA, was not the sole reason why Tory support eroded. But it was an important contributing factor, and as such falls into the same category as other pointless and self-destructive decisions made by Harper and his government over their last few years in power.

It should be noted that the Trudeau Liberals have not restored ELA funding to previous levels. In fact, the announcement on Wednesday calls for less than half of what the Tories were providing before the threat to close down the facility. Even with the new support, the ELA will continue to rely heavily on Ontario and Manitoba if it is to continue operating.

However, this gesture from the Liberal government — and a broader commitment to spend nearly $200 million on freshwater and ocean science across the country — is deliberately designed to convince voters that the Liberals are a science-friendly government. They are banking on the knowledge that there are likely far more voters in this country who like the idea of investment in science than those who would prefer to close the ELA.

It is often said in politics that the politicians who enjoy the longest careers are those who can identify the hills that are worth dying on, and the ones that are not worth climbing at any time. Throughout their span in government, the Tories showed a remarkable capacity for making small, risky decisions that eroded their support come election time.

It seems obvious now that very few Tories believed that threatening research on a clutch of lakes in northwestern Ontario would ever have much of an impact on their re-election chances. But it did. And the decision of Pallister and Wynne to travel all the way to Kenora to mark a modest funding announcement from Ottawa clearly demonstrates that they are not going to make the same mistake.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.