After the federal Conservatives lost the 2019 election, in part because of a weak climate plan, some people in the party started to think about policy shifts that could help lead to future victories.
Strategist Ken Boessenkool, who had worked closely with Stephen Harper, was the most public advocate for change. In a series of pieces based on polling, he argued that the party needed a “credible” climate plan, including a consumer carbon tax that came with a personal income tax cut, to win enough votes in the Toronto suburbs to regain power.
Under Erin O’Toole, the Conservatives changed course in the 2021 election, and pitched a last-minute scheme under which the government would collect carbon taxes but return them to spenders via personal tax-free savings accounts, instead of as a refund at tax time – the existing Liberal plan. The Tories still made no gains in the Toronto suburbs.
Mr. O’Toole is now history, and the Conservatives under interim leader Candice Bergen are once again officially opposed to carbon taxes of any kind. The leadership front-runner, Pierre Poilievre, is staunchly against the notion.
But Mr. Boessenkool is making another push. And this time he is by joined Lisa Raitt, the former Harper cabinet minister and deputy opposition leader, and Jim Dinning, Ralph Klein’s right-hand man in the 1990s. They have started Conservatives for Clean Growth. Their goal is to help candidates for party leader “develop a credible climate, energy and economic plan.”
Details remain vague – and notably do not mention a consumer carbon tax. Their main pitch is Canada’s “unprecedented economic and technological opportunities as the world moves to net zero.” The group mentions a carbon tax on industry, as well as regulations, but also suggests producing and exporting more natural gas – a “cleaner energy” – is part of its plan.
The general direction is the right one. Canada needs a Conservative Party that sits at the mainstream table of climate debate. A strong majority of Canadians in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections backed parties that backed climate action, including an economywide carbon tax. But that doesn’t mean the discussion is over. The details of climate policy are voluminous. Getting them right will matter.
The Liberals, for example, are planning to cap and then lower oil and gas industry emissions. But what will the rules be? The framework is important. If the Conservatives wander back into the climate policy wilderness, and mostly just bellow disdain for the Liberal carbon tax, their absence from the debate will be bad for Canada.
And there is ample room for debate. The Liberals in their first and second terms put together, on the whole, reasonable policies. But since the last election, they seem to be flailing, and slow to produce new plans.
Canada’s task is enormous. Ottawa promises to cut emissions to at least 443 megatonnes a year within eight years; the last official tally of national emissions was 730 MT. The gap is the equivalent of slashing the emissions of the six provinces east of Manitoba to zero. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. An Official Opposition that didn’t exclude basic tools like a carbon tax and instead zeroed in on how best to push forward would be welcome.
Instead, the Conservatives appear to be going back in time, to 2019, when Andrew Scheer’s climate proposals were lacking and the party’s opposition to the carbon tax was religion. Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled Ottawa has the power to impose a carbon tax on consumers and industry, and top provincial Conservative leaders, such as Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, have quieted their once-vocal opposition.
One important point bears repeating: The carbon tax began life as a conservative idea. It’s a market mechanism. But because it’s a “tax,” too many Conservatives oppose it in a knee-jerk fashion and, by excluding it from climate policy, force themselves to advocate for onerous government regulations, the opposite of conservativism.
What’s clear is that it won’t be easy to get the federal Conservatives to change tack. Mr. O’Toole tried, and his attempt was one reason his MPs defenestrated him.
Pushing realistic policies like a carbon tax might be tough for anyone hoping to become the next Conservative leader. But as recent history has demonstrated, winning the next general election will be even tougher if the party isn’t seen as serious about addressing climate change.
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