Imagine if the Conservative Party of Canada, instead of treating carbon taxes as a mortal sin, embraced them as the logical solution to an urgent problem.
Imagine if Conservatives, not Liberals, were the strongest supporters of revenue-neutral carbon taxes – that is, using carbon tax revenues to pay for cuts to income taxes.
Imagine if Conservatives took global warming seriously, and responded with a policy that was environmentally and economically sound.
It’s not far-fetched. It could happen. In fact, it almost did.
In early 2018, Patrick Brown, leader of the country’s second most important conservative party – the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario – was preparing for a spring election that he was almost certain to win. At the centre of his platform for governing Canada’s largest province was an economy-wide carbon tax.
He’d been pushing the idea for years. “Climate change is a fact. It is a threat. It is man-made," he told the annual PC convention in 2016. “We have to do something about it, and that something includes putting a price on carbon.”
Unlike Ontario’s then-Liberal government, which created an opaque cap-and-trade system whose revenues went into what the PCs not unfairly criticized as a slush fund, Mr. Brown’s plan was for revenue-neutral carbon taxes. Every dollar raised would be used to cut other taxes.
It was a plan that environmentalists, economists and tax reformers could all get behind.
But Mr. Brown abruptly stepped down from the leadership in January of 2018, over allegations related to personal behaviour. Not long after, the PCs and the province ended up under the leadership of regressive conservative Doug Ford. The idea of using carbon pricing to reduce emissions, and using carbon taxes to pay for lower taxes elsewhere, was junked.
It was, however, picked up by the Trudeau Liberals. The federal carbon tax, imposed on provinces that refuse to bring in carbon pricing, is exactly what the Ontario PCs once proposed.
But in Election 2019, that conservative economic idea was demonized by Conservatives, who insist that the federal government’s revenue-neutral carbon-pricing scheme is a Liberal plot. Not so. It began life on the right side of the aisle.
And today in Ontario, the PC government’s most visible carbon policy involves ordering all gas stations to post anti-carbon tax stickers on gas pumps. It’s legally questionable, politically shameful and economically illogical.
Had Mr. Brown not been replaced as PC leader, Ontario would instead be run by a right-leaning government touting carbon-pricing’s benefits, rather than assailing it as a lefty scheme. It would make for a very different image of what it means to be a Canadian conservative.
If federal Conservatives hope to win the next election, and more importantly if they aim to govern well, they need to take global warming seriously and respond with a plan that addresses it intelligently – and conservatively.
Mr. Brown had such a plan, and he was not alone. Back in 2014, the godfather of modern Canadian conservatism, Preston Manning, came out in favour of carbon taxes. He pointed to their economic logic and their reliance on markets and individual choice. He also reminded conservatives about the importance of conserving our country’s inheritance, including the environment.
Way back in 2008, the country’s first carbon tax was introduced in British Columbia – by the provincial Liberal Party, a.k.a. B.C.’s right-wing party. That carbon levy paid for other tax cuts, giving B.C. the lowest provincial income-tax rates for lower- and middle-income people.
And in 2016, federal Conservative MP and leadership candidate Michael Chong proposed a revenue-neutral federal carbon tax as the centrepiece of his platform. He called for carbon taxes to rise to $130 a tonne by 2030 – more than four times this year’s federal level. But the revenue would have financed huge cuts to federal income taxes.
Without an honest and serious plan for reducing carbon emissions, of the type Ontario’s PCs once had, the Conservatives probably can’t win the next federal election. And without a serious plan, they certainly don’t deserve to.
What else is the Conservative platform missing? Adult talk about spending, the size of government – and the deficit. More on that in the coming days.