It’s true, as Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the Commons last week, that heating oil is different. It is particularly dirty, he noted, and far more expensive than natural gas. But it is hard for lower-income families with oil furnaces to switch to another type of heating – say a heat pump.
That, Mr. Wilkinson argued, is the reason why the Liberals suddenly froze carbon levies on heating oil for three years: People need time, and money – in the form of free heat pumps for lower-income folks – to adjust. The last part makes sense.
And it could all work out so simply, for both the Liberal government’s mangled carbon policy and its political fallout. All they need is a time machine.
Go back to say, 2018, the year before the Liberals first brought in national carbon pricing, and you can make the policy and the politics work. In addition to telling Canadians that the price of carbon will go up, you give lower-income households a way to avoid the rising cost: completely subsidized heat pumps and enough time to change.
But now it’s 2023, and the Liberals’ fix has turned the logic of carbon taxes upside down, fuelled criticism from all sides, and exposed naked politicking around a signature policy.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are suffering from that kind of thing a lot lately, on housing, or immigration, and so many other things. Time and events are twisting past mistakes into their guts like a knife. When they try to pull out the knife now, it spills a lot of blood.
The Liberal government that didn’t roll out heat-pump subsidies back in 2018 found people in 2023 screaming about heating-oil increases sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and they were blaming carbon levies for adding to their woes.
To top it off, because Atlantic provinces had previously used their own carbon programs full of loopholes, carbon taxes on heating oil only went into effect there in July – all at once. The 24 Liberal MPs in Atlantic Canada faced an outcry.
So Mr. Trudeau pressed the panic button, froze carbon levies on heating oil, and promised free heat pumps – starting in Atlantic Canada.
But carbon levies were already in place. People with oil furnaces in four other provinces had been paying them. Not any more. But people using less-polluting natural gas will keep paying them.
That turns the logic of carbon taxes upside down. People who fought for them such as former environment minister Catherine McKenna, who burned a lot of her own political capital to bring in carbon levies, criticized the Liberal flip-flop
It sure feels like just a few years ago, Mr. Trudeau’s wily political strategists would have been quicker to grasp a storm was coming, and chart a way through it. The small inner circle of veteran Trudeau operatives seems to be showing signs of exhaustion from years of managing potential disaster, and this time, they made it worse. Mr. Trudeau might be wishing for a trip in a time machine to bring a brighter-eyed version of his brain trust back from the past.
To be fair, Team Trudeau did see danger coming in Atlantic Canada. They announced a grant program in September, 2022, offering $5,000 to lower-income households for converting oil furnaces to heat pumps. They must wish they could go back in time to make those grants bigger, now that Mr. Trudeau has said they weren’t enough.
In 2023, there have been a number of instances where Mr. Trudeau and the people around him have apparently failed to notice that they are sitting in hot water until it started to boil.
Two years of angst over a housing crisis turned this past summer into months of palpable political failure to respond, until Liberal poll numbers tanked and Mr. Trudeau kicked into stronger action in September. And his boldest move was a GST break on rental units they had promised in 2015 but did not deliver.
The housing crisis has led to a sudden drop in public support for immigration, but Immigration Minister Marc Miller has only a gradual plan to curb abuses in programs for foreign students and temporary workers that have expanded exponentially over five or six years.
Such problems are the lot of long-serving governments. Urgent action makes people ask why government didn’t act before. There’s no credit for getting through a past crisis.
But Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are feeling the long-term consequences of years of focusing on managing today’s political fires.
And on the evidence from 2023, they aren’t as sharp at it now.