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Editorials Remember when the Liberal carbon tax was a conservative idea?

Remember when carbon taxes were a conservative idea? It seems like it was only yesterday.

But that recent past has been shoved so far down the memory hole that, when reached for comment, spokespeople at the conservative ministry of truth insisted that, so far as they knew, Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Carbon taxes are now a thought crime on the Canadian right, the doubleplusungood subject of doublethink and duckspeak, and the main focus of conservative Twitter’s daily Two Minutes of Hate.

George Orwell had nothing on Canadian politics.

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Read more: Canada’s carbon tax: A guide to who’s affected, who pays what and who opposes it

April 1 was Day 1 of the federal carbon-tax backstop, imposed on the four provinces that have failed to bring in their own carbon taxes. The four – Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Ontario – are run by conservative governments. Canadian conservative parties now practise uncompromising opposition to carbon pricing; they insist that it’s a plot to spark a recession and destroy your family’s finances.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government did not declare April 1 as a day of mourning, but that’s only because “Ontario’s Government for the People” is visibly gleeful at the arrival of Trudeau’s Tax. They think attacking it is a winner. So do Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives.

On the evening of March 31, nearly all of Mr. Ford’s MPPs dutifully drove to gas stations and took photos and videos of themselves filling their cars. Then, just in time for Easter, they tweeted out their take on the (service) stations of the cross: the last day before carbon taxes; the last hour before carbon taxes; the moment at midnight when carbon taxes were loosed upon the world, the price of regular unleaded went up by 4.4 cents a litre, and Armageddon began.

But back to where we started: Carbon taxes, today’s conservative bugbear, began life as a conservative idea.

They’re an economically logical, pro-market way of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. A way of using prices – the basic mechanism of free markets – to reduce pollution. A way of putting billions of small environmental decisions in the hands of millions of people, rather than handing them over to a big government bureaucracy. And a way to tax something societies need less of, namely pollution, while lowering taxes on things we all want more of, like business investment and personal income.

And it wasn’t just egghead economists or cranky right-wing think-tankers who favoured carbon taxes. In 2008, the government of British Columbia – the Liberal Party, a.k.a. B.C.’s conservative party – brought in carbon taxes on fuels such as gasoline.

It was and still is a model for the rest of the country, since it was intended to be revenue-neutral – with every cent raised by the carbon tax going back into people’s pockets, mostly through tax reductions. Thanks in part to carbon taxes, lower- and middle-income earners in B.C. pay the country’s lowest income taxes.

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Then in 2014, Preston Manning, the godfather of Canada’s modern conservative movement, came out in favour of carbon taxes.

In Ontario, the pre-Doug Ford version of the PC Party was all for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Until Patrick Brown’s leadership imploded a little over a year ago, that was the Ontario PC platform. Higher taxes on pollution were going to pay for lower taxes on everything else.

Conservatives are usually in favour of remembering and honouring history but, on this topic, not so much. What happened to the Ontario PC’s pre-Ford platform? It’s now the Trudeau government platform.

In Ontario, gas prices went up by 4.4 cents a litre on Monday, thanks to Ottawa’s carbon tax. But the feds are returning every cent raised at the pump to the people and businesses of the province. The average person will receive more in rebates than they pay in carbon taxes.

The carbon tax, however, will bite a little. It’s supposed to. The whole point of raising the price of gasoline is to push people to think about how to avoid those costs coming out of their left pocket, while enjoying the carbon-tax rebate in their right pocket. A slightly more fuel-efficient car? Driving less? Taking public transit to work sometimes? The idea is to leave it to people to decide for themselves if they want to lower their carbon costs, and how to do so.

That used to be a conservative idea. Yes, really.

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In 2018, the federal government announced that all provinces would need to implement a carbon-pricing system by April 1, 2019 and those that didn't would fall under a federal carbon tax. But what is carbon pricing anyway?
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