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Pique n yer interest

Sharpen those carrots

For some reason our entire model of governance is based on moving donkeys from place to place.

As the common wisdom goes, you can drive a donkey forward by whipping its backside with a stick, or you can lure it forward by dangling a carrot in front of its nose. Push or pull. Coax or cajole.

In case you missed it, the farmer in this analogy represents government, and carrots and sticks are instruments of policy such as laws, taxes and regulations. We, collectively, are the donkey.

Don’t be offended. While we reason fairly well as individuals, and can be justifiably proud of getting our shoes on the right feet before we leave the house in the morning, as a collective group we’re really not all that bright or dynamic. Sometimes we need that dangling, or a lash with a stick, to get us moving in the direction we need to go.

Politicians are all about carrots. They want the donkey to like them, to trust them, to follow them everywhere — they need the donkey’s continued support now that the donkey’s got the vote. The trouble is, after a while the donkey comes to expect carrots all the time and loses its sense of urgency. In fact, the donkey is so well fed these days that he can even refuse the odd carrot against his better judgment.

And the stick? The donkey isn’t quite sure what to do when suddenly threatened with it. He resents the whole idea of the stick, and can’t understand why the farmer would even go there when the carrot thing works most of the time.

So he leaves the farmer no other choice. The farmer can’t let the donkey pick and choose what carrots to follow, even when it’s for the donkey’s own good. It takes guts to wield the stick. Very few politicians have the guts, and should get some credit when they reach for the swish.

I’ll give you an example of positive stick-work.

Last week Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a carbon tax, which will likely cost about eight tenths of a cent per litre at the gas pumps and a comparable amount on home fuel and energy bills.

The tax is expected to raise more than $200 million a year, every penny of which will go into public transportation — the only real remedy to global warming that’s available to most of us. The government did ask energy companies not to pass along the new tax on consumers, but there’s little doubt that the public will end up paying.

At first, anyway. As gas prices increase, more people will take public transit. More people will insulate their homes and switch to energy efficient fixtures and appliances. The benefit for the environment will be significant, but in the long run the people of Quebec — the donkey in this case — could end up saving themselves thousands of dollars a year.

Right now they resent the stick (in this case a small carbon tax) but in time they’ll grudgingly acknowledge that the farmer knew what he was doing. Short-term pains can add up to long-term gains.

Whistler has its own carrot and stick issue going on these days with Council investigating the possibility of banning the use of plastic bags, at the behest of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment and a group called Greener Footprint.

Plastic bags are becoming a bigger issue, prompting whole countries to implement bans and surcharges. While most bags do wind up in the landfill, or in a recycling program, bags also have a tendency to get into trees and into the waterways where they can clog channels and create havoc for wildlife. There is a powerful environmental and aesthetic argument for getting rid of plastic bags once and for all.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler does have some power under the Local Government Act to make bylaws in this area, although it’s doubtful that those powers could ever supercede other Canadian and provincial laws regulating commerce and industry. As a result, it’s also doubtful that a plastic bag ban could withstand a legal challenge by the plastics industry.

Still, one municipality in northern Manitoba has already brought in a ban, and Rossland, B.C. is expecting to be rid of plastic bags by the end of the summer. Whistler can certainly try to do the same.

That’s where the stick comes in. I don’t imagine people will be too happy with a grocery bag ban, or the possibility of paying extra for every bag they use.

Over time, however, people would stop grumbling and get used to bringing packs and reusable bags to the grocery store, while retail stores will adjust by giving their clients paper bags. Or they could start asking people if they actually want bags instead of automatically bagging every single item that comes up to the till.

Considering that Canadians use about 10 billion plastic bags a year, for an average of five minutes each, the long-term benefit of a ban could be enormous. At the very least, we’ll get to live in a town where bags don’t blow from the trees, or line the edges of local creeks.

Even the most stubborn of us donkeys can appreciate that.