The federal Liberals’ decision to go big on a carbon tax was as surprising as the response to it by conservative politicians was predictable.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called it an attack on his province’s economy. His counterpart in Saskatchewan, Scott Moe, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lied to Canadians about increasing the tax. Federal Conservative party leader, Erin O’Toole, said the planned hike was the last thing people needed.
The most perplexing reaction to the announcement, however, had to be that of Ontario Premier Doug Ford who, at a news conference held to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, said the tax “will be the worst thing you could ever see.”
Given that the virus has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 people in his province, it was as bizarre a take as there was.
Many did not see the Liberals going all-in on the carbon tax, including most environmental organizations. From $30 a tonne now, the tax will go up to $170 a tonne by 2030, which, if all goes according to plan, will allow Canada to meet, if not exceed, its obligations under the Paris climate agreement. There are other measures that make up the Liberals’ climate package, but the one around carbon pricing is the pivotal piece.
While it was always understood that a carbon tax would have to reach a heightened level to have meaningful impact, few believed a government in this country would have the guts to do it. It was always thought to be political suicide. But as society increasingly accepts the notion that climate change poses an existential threat to the planet, the political risks associated with taking bold action to remedy the problem have lessened considerably.
The fact is, while always talking a good game when it came to climate action, Mr. Trudeau was not making any real progress on the issue. He was constantly getting slammed by progressives, including those in his own party, for not being serious about meeting our Paris commitments. Incrementalism was not getting the country anywhere. His choice was to continue along the same fruitless path he was on or do the right thing and see what happens.
If he were to lose an election on this issue, I’m guessing Mr. Trudeau’s conscience will be good with it. At least he will have gone down fighting the good fight. On the other hand, if he were to win a majority, then his climate plan becomes his signature achievement and the defining element of his political legacy.
As important as this policy is to the future of Mr. Trudeau and his party, it’s equally so to Mr. O’Toole and the Conservative opposition.
It’s hard to imagine that as we prepare to move into 2021, with increasing warnings about the economic catastrophe that awaits the world if urgent action isn’t taken on climate change, that the Conservatives would run on a plan that doesn’t get us anywhere near our Paris targets.
Mr. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, tried to go the status quo route in the 2019 election and was criticized mercilessly for it. The new Conservative party leader has vowed to do better, but what does that mean? It’s difficult to imagine the Conservatives doing anything as audacious as the Liberals.
Plus, Mr. O’Toole remains beholden politically to the likes of Mr. Kenney, Mr. Ford and Mr. Moe. So where does he go on this issue? The Conservatives’ preference seems to be plumbing the regulatory route for an answer to cutting emissions. But that is difficult to do without imposing a heavy financial burden on the industry.
It’s one of the reasons the Liberals decided against going down that path themselves. Increasing the carbon tax was deemed a far more efficient and fairer way to go. Plus, Canadians are likely to start getting used to (and enjoying) the carbon tax rebate cheques they will receive.
While many don’t understand how a carbon tax works, they do understand a cheque in the mail every four months. And it’s virtually a certainty they will start receiving them before the next election.
The Conservatives talk about broadening their tent, but it’s hard to see how they do that when the party seems so at odds with popular sentiment on the most pressing issue of our time. The values represented by those who care about the environment, who want our political leaders to take serious action on climate change, are being embraced more broadly among citizens in Western democratic countries, not the opposite.
At least the federal Liberals believe this. And in the not too distant future they are going to put that theory to the test.
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