Preston Manning was the first mover. Four years ago, the godfather of modern Canadian conservatism quietly came out in favour of putting a price on carbon. Two years ago, he got louder, and a growing number of Canadian conservative leaders came around to agreeing with him, as a matter of principles, tactics or both.
These conservatives decided to accept global warming as a fact, along with the reality that most of the developed world is in favour of reducing carbon emissions by taxing carbon. They wanted to stop fighting Liberals and New Democrats over whether to do anything about global warming, and shift to debating what to do with the money raised through carbon taxes. These conservatives figured their strategy – revenue-neutral carbon taxes – could please voters wanting action on the environment, while simultaneously satisfying voters wanting smaller government and lower taxes.
And then, on Nov. 8, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump rejected the Paris climate accords, curbs on the U.S. coal industry and carbon taxes.
How are Canadian conservatives going to react? Until Nov. 8, the federal Conservatives and their provincial Progressive Conservative cousins seemed to be executing a slow but steady 180-degree turn on their long-standing views of global warming.
Earlier this year, Premier Brian Pallister of Manitoba and his Progressive Conservative Party won election on a platform that promised to price carbon. Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown similarly came out in favour of carbon taxes; instead of simply scrapping Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's cap-and-trade system, he has said he favours returning the money raised by carbon pricing to taxpayers, through tax cuts. MP Michael Chong, one of the candidates running for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party, is pushing the same idea nationally, but on a much bigger scale, with high and rising taxes on gasoline and other carbon sources being used to fund huge personal and business tax reductions.
New conservative organizations also came into existence to develop these ideas, such as Clean Prosperity, headed by Stephen Harper's former director of policy and research, Mark Cameron. "We envision a Canada where a strong, competitive economy co-exists with a clean, sustainable environment," says its vision statement. "Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will be taxed, and those revenues used to reduce other taxes on households and businesses."
The question is whether this kind of thinking can be a winner at the polls. Mr. Chong staked out a bold pro-carbon tax position, but his competitors for the federal Conservative leadership have not followed. This summer, Maxime Bernier issued a statement opposing any federal role in carbon pricing. Kellie Leitch's platform, which includes more than a few tricks borrowed from Mr. Trump, includes this: "Under no circumstances will Kellie support or introduce a national carbon tax … and if Justin Trudeau introduces one, she will eliminate it." In Alberta, Jason Kenney is the front-runner to lead the Progressive Conservatives and unite the province's right; he says he'll scrap a carbon tax, recently introduced by the NDP.
Conservatives like Mr. Manning, who want to put the environment at the centre of the party's economic thinking and economic analysis at the centre of its environmental thought, have surely got it right. Global warming is real, and the most efficient way to tackle it is to tax its cause: carbon emissions. And all else equal, a Canada with higher taxes on gasoline but lower taxes on personal and business income might be economically better off, even if a Trump-led U.S. ends up moving in the opposite direction.
But electoral politics, as Mr. Trump has just reminded every politician, can be a simple, visceral and tribal game. Conservatives who sound too much like Liberals risk raising the ire of their own core voters. And many an idea that flew in the seminar room turns out to lack the same aerodynamic properties during a campaign.
"Vote for me and I will kill that tax" is a slogan that's easy to remember and hard to misunderstand. "Vote for me, and I will raise some taxes while lowering others, in a revenue-neutral manner that will benefit both the economy and the environment" may be the wisest policy. It won't be an easy sell.