British Columbia's carbon tax, although set too low, is at least clear, transparent and relies on the market to lower carbon emissions.
By contrast, what Ontario is about to do to lower emissions is complicated, bureaucratic and relies on government to force-feed change. As such, it breaks just about every rule of public administration and sound economics. It is ambitious and visionary, but not all ambitions and visions are wise.
Ontario's plan (which might yet be tempered when cabinet ministers realize its economic and political dangers) is the brainchild of Environment Minister Glen Murray. As such, it perfectly reflects the personality and mindset of the minister.
Mr. Murray has had a varied and colourful political career, characterized by high energy, personal volubility, enormous self-confidence, a propensity for becoming a true believer and a sweeping faith in the ability of government to rearrange society.
All these characteristics were on display years ago when Mr. Murray became mayor of Winnipeg in 1998, after nine years as a city councillor. He made a splash in Winnipeg for many reasons, one being that he was the first openly gay mayor of a large city in North America – a matter of note then.
Mr. Murray was always a bundle of energy, hectoring the Manitoba government, badgering councillors, leading the country's big-city mayors in a campaign to get more money from other levels of government. He acquired the limelight and relished it.
He was re-elected in 2002, but then things went downhill. Always the expansive, confident thinker, he proposed a scheme to reduce Winnipeg property taxes in exchange for revenue from other taxes (mostly from suburbanites) that would have seen most people paying more.
As with his climate-change ideas in Ontario, intellectuals and advocates loved his Winnipeg ideas. The provincial government, mayors from small municipalities around Winnipeg – and, as things turned out, most citizens – didn't agree. Mr. Murray, whom some considered a visionary, couldn't bring enough allies to the table. He was convinced he was right, bulled ahead and lost the debate.
Perhaps feeling that Winnipeg was too small a venue for his fertile brain and boundless energy, and having been in municipal politics a long time, he accepted entreaties from Paul Martin's Liberals in the 2004 federal election to run in Winnipeg's Charleswood-St. James. The media called him the Liberals' "star" candidate in Manitoba. The "star" lost – narrowly, with the political tides shifting against the federal Liberals and too many voters resenting him as a big spender. Spurned in Winnipeg, he drifted to Ontario, winding up in Toronto, where his ambitions turned him to provincial Liberal politics.
Mr. Murray was minister of higher education before becoming environment minister. At higher education, he exasperated university presidents for his propensity to throw out grand ideas and make pronouncements that they considered unworkable or could not afford. Some of them made their views known about him to the premier's office. Eventually, he was transferred to the environment portfolio, environmental issues having always been of keen interest to him.
He could have opted for the route of the B.C. carbon tax, given that the B.C. Liberals who had introduced it put paid to the idea that no party could be re-elected after imposing such a measure.
The trouble with B.C.'s carbon tax for a big spender and a visionary, however, is that the revenue from the tax does not wind up in the government's coffers. All of it is recycled to individuals and companies. It is therefore revenue neutral, which is abhorrent to Ontario's provincial government and especially to Mr. Murray, for whom the prospect of billions of dollars of revenue from a cap-and-trade system is irresistible because he and the government can then spread the money across a myriad of complicated, bureaucratic, untested and in some instances truly bizarre programs they are convinced will achieve Ontario's objectives.
As such, the Ontario approach breaks almost every rule of sound administration and will therefore quite likely prove to be a disaster.
It is complicated, not straightforward; opaque, not transparent; top down, not bottom up; bureaucratic, not flexible; reliant on the most costly economic approach, namely regulations and subsidies, but wide open to political manipulation; a feast for lobbyists and interest groups lusting for subsidies; a definition-in-waiting for a boondoggle.