David McLaughlin has been a campaign strategist and chief of staff in Conservative party politics in Ottawa and New Brunswick.
Conservatives in Canada have been much maligned over their environmental policies and positions. Climate change, in particular, has acquired Velcro-like characteristics in fastening itself to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. He cannot detach himself from the charge his government cares little about the issue and does even less.
In politics, charge demands counter-charge and return volleys of conservative criticism have been directed at everyone else, until now.
Two conservatives – former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and Sun News Commentator Ezra Levant – have recently engaged in a personal critique surrounding Mr. Manning's decision to join an advisory board called Canada's Ecofiscal Commission. It supports carbon pricing. Mr. Levant does not and has started a website called ReformManning.ca to draw attention to Mr. Manning's conservative apostasy. Topped with a 'no left turn' traffic symbol, it pulls no punches stating: Tell Preston Manning he's just as wrong to support a carbon tax as Pierre Trudeau was to bring in the National Energy Program (NEP). Few jabs sting as this for Western Canadian conservatives.
Behind this, two kinds of conservatives and two kinds of conservatism are colliding. The official, government one favors economic growth over environmental protection. The emerging one links the two together. Both claim conservative heritage.
Traditionally, conservatives equated the environment with conservation. Animated by the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, it found expression in creating national parks and protecting local flora and fauna.
But this is manifestly insufficient in a world of global supply chains and integrated economies hungry for natural resources. Protecting the environment is now a top-drawer international issue. From climate change to pipelines, it is impossible to contemplate economic development without asking what is being done about environmental impacts.
This has led to a new discipline of environmental economics and active consideration of how market-based policies such as carbon pricing can achieve better economic and environmental outcomes. Father Greed meets Mother Nature, so to speak.
This is a modern take on conventional conservative thinking. Conservatives believe in the freedom and vitality of the market over the guiding hand of the state and its agencies. It is seen as both more effective and individualistic, catering to an important libertarian impulse within conservatism.
What it does do is go up against the current article of Conservative faith on the 'badness' of taxes. A low-tax conservative government and its adherents must, by this definition, stand against any and all taxes. It is a matter of principle.
But purity of principle is not always convenient. The Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada states that its policy will be guided by a list of "principles" including this one: "A belief that the quality of the environment is a vital part of our heritage to be protected by each generation for the next."
Armed with this conviction, a real debate for conservatives – and there should be one – would be about method, the best way to put this principle into practice. Approaching this via market forces would be an obvious first step for conservatives. Instead, a litmus test of 'for or against' a carbon tax or carbon pricing in any form has now become the defining thrust of environmental policy for this Conservative party and government.
Blue on blue friendly fire on the environment or anything else has been mostly absent under the winning discipline and vigorous, no-nuance messaging of Mr. Harper's Conservative Party. Grumbling over distinctly un-conservative policies on deficits and debt, corporate interventionism, or accountability avoidance has been either muted or conveniently channeled towards an array of alternative villains such as the opposition, the media, or corporate Canada.
Legacy comes from longevity. But length in office can easily become long-in-the-tooth. Political comfort zones turn into policy straightjackets hindering new ideas necessary to convince voters you are still relevant.
Mr. Harper's legacy has been more political than policy. Publicly at least, he is more consumed with the politics of the argument than the argument itself. Just as he has intentionally shrunk the size of government, effectively limiting the spending room of future governments, he is effectively ring-fencing his party and successors with words and labels limiting their political room to move as Conservatives.
As this episode of "blue on blue over green" illustrates, it is increasingly hard not to see this part of his legacy as intentional.