Nearly half of Ontario supports a price on carbon, even if it raises costs

OPINION: Ontarians tell Forum Research they are willing to pay the price to combat climate change — and the Tories should be paying attention, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on February 28, 2018
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While carbon pricing is unpopular among core PC voters, nearly half of undecideds who are leaning blue say they support it. (iStock.com/shaunl)

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​A new poll from Forum Research shows that crucial Tory-leaning voters — the people the party most needs to reach and to get on board before the June 7 election — are looking for a party that has a credible plan to address climate change.

The poll, conducted on behalf of Canadians for Clean Prosperity (an organization that looks for market-based solutions to environmental problems), finds that while carbon pricing is distinctly unpopular among core Progressive Conservative voters, nearly half of those who are leaning blue (but are not yet decided) for the next election say they support or strongly support a price on carbon, even if that means higher prices for consumers.

“It’s been controversial, between cap-and-trade and the carbon tax,” says Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research. “But the public seems pretty on-board with this stuff, but that’s not what you’ve been hearing.”

Of those same “somewhat likely” Tory voters, 55 per cent say Ontario should be doing more to combat climate change.

The results are surprising, given the state of the Progressive Conservative leadership race. All four remaining candidates — Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, and Tanya Granic Allen — have pledged to dismantle the current cap-and-trade system, built by the provincial Liberals, and to oppose any federal carbon tax that the Trudeau government would seek to replace it with.

The federal budget, unveiled this week, formally set a deadline for the provinces and territories to tell Ottawa whether they’d rather impose their own carbon price or have the feds do it for them (that deadline is March 31, the end of the fiscal year). Ontario, which has already set a price on carbon, is likely to tell Ottawa that it’s got things covered, though the next provincial government could change things. Indeed, the Tories are promising to.

Bozinoff says that’s a mistake: “It’s easy to say you’re in favour of everything if there’s no cost to it. What’s really critical is so many people who are saying, yes, even if it makes things more expensive, I support a price on carbon.”

Mark Cameron, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, says the results of the Forum poll show that while hostility to a carbon price may win a candidate the Tory leadership, it won’t win the PCs a government.

“That core support, that 34 per cent or so that’s opposed to a carbon tax, is roughly what the Tories keep getting in every election. In the last majority government, they won 45 per cent. This is the difference between winning the 29 seats they always get and forming government,” Cameron says.

Forum also polled voters as to whether they’d rather maintain the current cap-and-trade system, implement a provincial carbon tax whose proceeds are returned to voters in the form of tax cuts, or have a federal carbon tax imposed. It found that a provincial carbon tax was more popular than the current system in all regions of Ontario, and with supporters of all parties except the OLP (Liberal voters unsurprisingly, if narrowly, prefer the cap-and-trade system).

“What I found particularly interesting is that solution seemed to appeal across the board, not just Liberals, NDP, and Greens. Even Doug Ford fans thought a revenue-neutral carbon tax was the best option,” says Cameron.

Forum has also updated its numbers for the provincial election generally. As the research firm has shown for more than a year, the PCs are well ahead of the Liberals and the New Democrats. The implosion of former leader Patrick Brown’s political career hasn’t diminished the party’s prospects: 44 per cent of Ontarians say they’ll support the Tories in the next election, while just 20 per cent say they’ll vote Liberal and 23 per cent NDP.

The poll reached 1,005 Ontario voters via landline and cellular phones and was conducted from February 22 through 23. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Bozinoff says the Tory leadership hopefuls should consider how to gracefully make an about-face if they’re chosen, since the desires of the electorate are so different from those of the PC party’s membership. “It’s conservative party activists voting in this race,” he says, “so they may not reflect the province generally.”

He adds that the numbers aren’t just instructive for the Tories — climate-minded voters also present the Liberals with a chance to revive their flagging fortunes: “I don’t know how many of them are going to be single-issue voters, but I’m going to predict this will be a point of distinction during the campaign, because Liberal support for this is huge.”

But Ontarians’ endorsement of carbon pricing could leave the Tories with a mess to clean up once the passions of the PC leadership race have cooled.

“They have to remember they’re speaking to a broader audience. They’re speaking to all Ontarians, and in particular they’re speaking to swing voters,” says Cameron. “It’s going to be hard for them to reverse their position again, in the short term, but whoever wins has to realize those voters want a government that will take action on climate change.”

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