Once upon a time, less than three years ago, a group of small-c conservative premiers graced the cover of a national magazine under the headline, “The Resistance.” They had vowed to fight the federal carbon tax tooth and nail, and to take Justin Trudeau to the highest court in the land.
That just backfired.
The Supreme Court of Canada didn’t simply decide that the Liberal carbon-tax law is constitutional. In its opinion issued Thursday, the court also declared that climate change is a threat to humanity, and carbon pricing so effective in addressing it, that for the sake of good government Ottawa has to be able to play a role in setting minimum national standards for carbon taxes.
That was the last stage in the legal battle. But it was a stage that underlined that the political carbon-tax resistance is crumbling. It is about to face its last stand.
The Supreme Court’s lengthy opinion included some dense legalisms, but the politicians clearly knew which of them came out of it as winners, or losers.
The Liberal Environment Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, held a long press conference in Vancouver with several invited guests. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole held a press conference in Ottawa that lasted all of nine minutes, before he headed to Question Period, where he raised the issue a total of zero times.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe, vociferously opposed to carbon taxes, more or less said it was a dark day but now his province will design its own carbon taxes.
In Ontario, Doug Ford, who back in 2018 used every opportunity to blast the carbon tax, sent out an environment minister who hadn’t held a press scrum in a year. Jeff Yurek told reporters Ontario will work with the federal government on the next steps, adding he didn’t want to get mixed up in political fighting between federal Liberals and Conservatives over carbon taxes.
So not exactly The Resistance Forever.
There are still some fighting words. Mr. Moe called the carbon tax “just wrong.” But among the preems, it was really only Alberta Premier Jason Kenney who talked about it being a ballot box battle in the next federal election.
“This comes back to being a political issue, a democratic issue, which will be on the ballot in the next federal election,” he said. “And I fully expect that the vast majority of Albertans, at least, who opposed this punitive carbon tax, will vote to repeal it. So ultimately, this will be up to Canadian voters.”
That leaves Mr. Kenney’s hopes in the hands of Mr. O’Toole, who has promised to scrap the carbon tax but doesn’t want the election campaign to turn on carbon taxes. Or climate change.
There are still many folks who hate the carbon tax, but they are heavily concentrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan and in Mr. O’Toole’s party. To win, the Conservatives need to gain seats in Ontario and Quebec, and it seems the resistance isn’t so angry there now. Maybe that’s why Mr. Ford isn’t making a fuss about it.
So Mr. O’Toole’s job, in political terms, is to make the last stand against carbon taxes without making too big a deal of it.
Mr. O’Toole has promised to scrap the Liberals’ carbon tax, although he has endorsed the idea of some form of industrial carbon pricing, but also to issue a climate plan without one. That can be done – heck, he could ban coal plants and gasoline engines cars – but no effective method will be without costs, or universally popular.
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision underlines a remarkable political culture shift accelerated by Mr. Trudeau’s policies. Stephen Harper won the 2008 election fighting carbon taxes. Now they are in place, and even scheduled to rise to $170 a tonne, and apparently less contested. The Liberals argue, as Mr. Wilkinson did Thursday, that opposing carbon taxes, as Conservatives do, is denying climate change.
The court’s opinion will lead to more acquiescence like Mr. Moe’s. Alberta already has an output-based industrial carbon-pricing system. Ontario might choose to replace Ottawa’s carbon tax with its own.
That means the last stand against carbon taxes will fall to Mr. O’Toole in the next federal election, with less anger, and a still-unseen climate plan that he hopes will not be the ballot question. The resistance ain’t what it used to be.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.