Fellow Liberals yesterday criticized Michael Ignatieff's suggestion that Canada consider a carbon tax, insisting it will cause economic and regional problems that aren't needed to improve the environment.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper led a Conservative charge against Mr. Ignatieff's remarks this week, raising the point in the House of Commons and comparing it to the controversial national energy program that became a lightning rod in Alberta for criticism of the federal Liberals.
But some of Mr. Ignatieff's leadership rivals also criticized the idea yesterday, suggesting it could prove controversial in the Liberal race.
Montreal MP Stéphane Dion, the former environment minister, said he will propose a series of environmental-policy tax reforms in the leadership campaign aimed at meeting pollution targets, but he will steer clear of any carbon tax.
"I've always been against it. I will have other ways to get there."
He said he does not understand Mr. Ignatieff's comments. After speculating on imposing a carbon tax, Mr. Ignatieff added he would not want to hit any part of the country harder than another.
"The first sentence he said is we need to protect Alberta. And in the second sentence he said carbon tax," Mr. Dion said in an interview.
Mr. Ignatieff did not propose a specific kind of carbon tax, but suggested during last Saturday's leadership debate that some form should be considered, saying the Liberal Party has to do more than simply promote the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas reductions.
"We've also got to have popular, practical, believable policies that may involve some form of carbon tax, for example, to increase the penalties on emissions. The time for action really is now," he said then.
Another leadership contender, former Ontario education minister Gerard Kennedy, said there are better ways to get the resource sector to reduce pollution, including incentives, possibly some trading of emissions credits as part of a transition to a cleaner industry, and incentives to encourage consumers to choose newer, greener technologies.
"I think a carbon tax is the clumsiest of the options that we've got so far, and therefore it's not part of my plan," Mr. Kennedy said. And he raised concerns that a carbon tax will divide Canada along regional lines.
"I lived in Alberta when the national energy plan came in, and fairly or not, people associated that with an undermining of the energy sector.
"In Canada, because we've got just Alberta and Saskatchewan with very significant resources . . . I think we've got to look long and hard about how we do this in a way that causes those industries to make changes that actually get them to get to zero net import for their new resources."
In Alberta, Mr. Ignatieff's comments provoked a bellicose response from Jim Dinning, the front-runner to replace Ralph Klein as Alberta's Progressive Conservative leader and premier.
"The [federal]Conservative government is not talking about a carbon tax," Mr. Dinning said in Calgary. "The federal Liberals will think about imposing one, but they will do it only against the violent objection of the province of Alberta and I will be there to stand for Alberta's interests on the battle lines."
Yesterday, Mr. Ignatieff said that he was not proposing an immediate imposition of a carbon tax but that he raised it as part of a debate about how Canada will revamp its tax system over the medium term to discourage pollution.
"Medium term, I think you want to shift the way we tax and incentivize in this country so that we relieve the burden on taxing profits and increase the tax burden we put on pollution behaviour," he said.
"But this is complex stuff, and I don't want to be caricaturized."
He said that he would not increase the tax burden on any one industry or penalize a region -- but did not explain how a carbon tax could be designed so that it did not fall more heavily on petroleum producers concentrated in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.
"We have to get a policy that has the support of all sectors of the Canadian public, especially the good people of Alberta," he said.
One politically savvy Liberal environmentalist suggested Mr. Ignatieff walked into a rookie mistake by using the phrase carbon tax without offering specifics.
There's no real definition of what a "carbon tax" would be, but it immediately evokes the idea of a straight tax on carbon products -- such as so many cents on a litre of gas or heating oil.
In practice, a carbon tax could be one of a dozen measures, including taxing consumers who buy oil and gas, taxing producers who extract resources, or taxing producers on their emissions.
Mr. Ignatieff did not provide specifics of what he would propose, but said yesterday that Canada's petroleum industry is not against measures that impose a higher tax burden on polluters.