How Patrick Brown's exit jeopardizes national consensus on climate change

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 4, 2018
Though from different parties, Justin Trudeau and Patrick Brown are on the same side of the carbon pricing debate. (Justin Tang/Chris Young/CP)

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Thirty-five years ago, the Liberal prime minister’s last name was Trudeau, same as today. But the premier of Ontario was a Progressive Conservative named Davis.

You couldn’t find two more different first ministers than Pierre and Bill. One was a dashing, dynamic, fluently bilingual intellectual from Québec, who thumbed his nose at western farmers and oil barons. The other delighted in being bland and boring, came from the sleepy suburbs north of Toronto, couldn’t speak a lick of French, and tried to get along with everyone.

But they both loved Canada and despite their many differences, recognized a key moment in the country’s history when it arrived. Trudeau wanted to repatriate Canada’s constitution from Great Britain, with an accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And despite the fact that the Ontario Tory core couldn’t stand Trudeau, Davis expended plenty of his own political capital and was the first premier to sign on to the PM’s nation-building project.

In the end, the two succeeded and Canada has been the better for it.

I was thinking about that unique relationship recently because we had been on the cusp of what might have been this generation’s “Pierre and Bill Show” for several months. However, this time, it isn’t going to happen. And it will require the skill of future historians to determine what the consequences of this missed moment in history will be.

After Pierre Trudeau’s son became prime minister in 2015, he put in place a requirement that provinces have a plan to reduce carbon emissions linked to climate change. The feds weren’t particular about what the plan was, as long as each province had something in place. The Ontario government had already implemented a cap and trade plan and later joined a common market with Quebec and California, so we were covered. But Trudeau warned that the failure of other provinces to implement their own plans would invite his government to impose a plan, which he assured the provinces they probably wouldn’t like. In other words: you do it and control it or we’ll do it and you’ll have no control.

Darned near every province signed on, rather than having something imposed. Even the then-Ontario opposition leader Patrick Brown said, while he’d scrap the Liberals’ cap and trade plan, he would bring in his own significant carbon tax, which would raise billions to pay for other tax cuts, subsidize childcare expenses, lower electricity prices, and raise money to invest in mental health care.

Well, you know the rest of the story. Brown’s sudden exit in January wasn’t just noteworthy because it resulted in a change of leadership at the top of the PC Party. In fact, we may look back many months or years from now and regard Brown’s departure as the beginning of the end of a national effort to put a price on carbon.

All four candidates vying to replace Brown opposed his carbon tax. The eventual winner, Doug Ford, vowed both to axe Brown’s carbon tax plan (which he’s already done) and kill the current cap and trade plan too, should he be successful on election day. In addition, he hasn’t rejected the option of fighting the federal government in court over whether it can impose a carbon tax on provinces that refuse to act.

We could now see a domino effect across the country.

Saskatchewan’s new conservative premier, Scott Moe, refuses to implement carbon pricing. Manitoba’s PC premier, Brian Pallister, has also been a reluctant follower, although his government will start collecting carbon taxes on Sept. 1. If Alberta’s NDP, which instituted a carbon tax in 2017, is unable to achieve re-election in Alberta, that would probably put another conservative opponent to the federal plan, Jason Kenney, into the premier’s office. That’s a lot of opposition to what’s supposed to be a national plan.

Of course, there was no guarantee that Brown would win the next Ontario election, even though his PC Party had led in the polls for three straight years. But if Brown were still leader, all three major parties would be entering the Ontario election with a plan to fight climate change, meaning tacit support for a national climate strategy no matter what. 

It should also be noted that Brown had a long way to go before reaching the stature of Davis, the second-longest serving premier in Ontario history. But had he won, Brown was in a position, as Davis was with Pierre Trudeau on the Constitution, to help this generation’s Trudeau forge across party lines a potentially enduring, national consensus on an issue of historic importance.

Now, we’ll never know.  

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