"Patrick Brown is a different kind of Progressive Conservative. A pragmatic Progressive Conservative." So says the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party's newly released pre-election platform. And it's not lying. No, Mr. Brown's 78-page, 147-promise document, the so-called People's Guarantee, is pragmatism squared and on steroids – equally comfortable borrowing good ideas from across the political spectrum and bad policies from the other side of the aisle.
As a result, the new PC platform contains several excellent proposals. But, for pragmatic electoral reasons, it also promises that a PC government will in some areas be more Liberal than the Liberals.
The best of the new PC pragmatism? Mr. Brown's pledge to scrap the Kathleen Wynne government's cap-and-trade system and replace it with a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Many other conservatives, in Canada and the United States, simply want to ignore the whole climate issue. They'd be happy to kill cap-and-trade and replace it with nothing. Mr. Brown has a much better plan. He's going to use the fight against global warming to lower your income taxes. And yes, that's an excellent idea – both economically and ecologically.
Instead of cap-and-trade, a complex and opaque system imposing hidden costs on businesses in the province and leaving all of the money collected in the hands of Queen's Park, the PCs would use a tax on carbon to fund reductions in other taxes.
The idea is borrowed from British Columbia, whose former Liberal government introduced it in 2008. A revenue-neutral carbon tax is also beloved by economists, since it involves raising taxes on something our society wants less of – pollution – and using the money to lower taxes on the productive economic activities we want more of, such as paid work.
Replacing cap-and-trade with a carbon tax is also what makes Mr. Brown's fiscal projections hold together. The $2.4-billion a year in carbon taxes that the PCs expect to be collecting by 2021 will pay for most, but not all, of their promised income-tax cuts.
Mr. Brown will cut the tax rate on the lowest income bracket, covering personal income of less than $42,960, from 5.05 per cent to about 4.5 per cent. The next bracket, for earnings up to $85,923, will have its rate cut from 9.15 per cent to 7.1 per cent.
It feels like an idea borrowed from the federal Liberals, one of whose signature promises in 2015 was a middle-class tax cut. Then again, the Liberals were themselves pragmatically borrowing from their own political rivals, the Conservatives.
And the Ontario PCs are partly going to pay for this tax cut with a dash of deficit spending – which also sounds like a plan borrowed from the federal Liberals, though Mr. Brown is promising just one small, $2.8-billion deficit, for just one year. The Wynne Liberals are expected to deliver the province's first balanced budget in a decade when they bring in a pre-election budget next spring; the Progressive Conservatives will be running against them on a platform that promises to put the budget back into deficit for another year.
Economically speaking, a one-time, $2.8-billion deficit is immaterial. It's an oversized rounding error on a budget of more than $150-billion. It won't stop the province's debt-to-GDP ratio, the only measure that matters, from declining. But the optics of a PC party that is in less of a deficit-reduction hurry than the Liberals is surprising, and very different from the plans of the previous PC leader, Tim Hudak.
However, Mr. Hudak went down to an ignominious and unexpected defeat in 2014. He promised painful change; his signature pledge involved cutting 100,000 civil servants. In a province that is already one of the lowest per-capita spenders in Confederation, that scared many voters. And so, whereas two decades ago Mike Harris won election and re-election on a platform known as the Common Sense Revolution, Mr. Brown thinks that what Ontario voters want these days is more of a non-revolution. If they want change, they do not want it with a capital C.
As a result, the People's Guarantee guarantees that going from a Liberal to a Progressive Conservative government will bring some change, but not too much.
For example, the Liberals are bringing in free drug prescriptions for anyone under the age of 25 starting in January, a 30 per cent tuition rebate for most students, and a $15 minimum wage by January, 2019. The PCs aren't touching the first two, and will only slow implementation of the last.
Or take hydro. The Liberals have been given a decade and a half to screw up the electricity system, and they've made the most of the opportunity. To control spiralling prices, they recently came up with a politically astute solution: ordering up a 25 per cent cut in hydro rates, paid for by taxpayers. Your hydro bill is being partly paid for by your taxes and, yes, it's quite popular.
Mr. Brown's response? A government led by him will employ similar sleights of hand to lower electricity bills by another 12 per cent.
Sweet pragmatism. It just might get him elected premier.