The next time someone tells you the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives stands for nothing, you might remind them that Patrick Brown has taken a big risk on a big new tax, alienating a key faction within his party.
That’s hardly a risk-free approach.
The PCs have always been a big-tent party consisting of fiscal and social conservatives, libertarians, and red Tories. Brown, at one time or another during his two-plus years as leader, has angered most of those factions.
Social conservatives no longer trust him because he supported the government’s sex-education curriculum update after initially opposing it. Red Tories mistrust his moderate musings, fearing he showed his true colours as a hard-right backbencher in Stephen Harper’s government. And conservatives of all stripes have been appalled at the shenanigans that have been a feature of too many PC nomination races across the province.
But the ultimate disaffection with Brown’s leadership centres on the leader’s attempt to demonstrate his environmental bona fides.
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Brown says he became a conservative because he liked the approach Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government took to combating acid rain, which had been a scourge to tourism business operators in Brown’s central Ontario home region.
He has come out for a carbon tax, running afoul of his party’s economic conservatives, who are virulently opposed to raising taxes or creating new ones. In fact, when Brown previously announced at a party convention that he was backing a new carbon tax, one delegate shouted out, “Noooooo!” — no doubt speaking for many on his side of the aisle.
It’s true that, thanks to the federal government’s decision to put a national price on carbon, Ontarians will have a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax whether they like it or not. But simply having their leader speak favourably about any kind of tax is enough to sap the enthusiasm of many conservative voters at election time.
Who knows whether Brown can repatriate those party members he’s lost because of crooked nomination meetings or being too progressive on LGBTQ issues. But there may be one way to bring economic conservatives who hate the carbon tax back into the fold.
As odd as it may sound, what if Brown were to run on a 2018 version of Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift”?
Hear me out.
Dion led the federal Liberals to a thumping in the 2008 election, running on what he called a “Green Shift,” which would create a new tax on carbon but lower other taxes at the same time. As a result, Dion claimed, the measure would be “revenue neutral,” and Canadians wouldn’t see their overall tax bill go up.
Unfortunately for the Liberals, Dion’s own problems (namely his lack of charisma, his poor English-speaking skills, and his having been successfully targeted by the Conservatives’ attack ads) meant that the Green Shift never really got a fair hearing.
But what if Brown gave a speech like this to wavering economic conservatives in the Ontario PC Party:
“I know you don’t like the carbon tax. But climate change is real, and we have to do something to deter polluters and reward those who want to live a greener lifestyle. So, here’s my offer to you economic conservatives: I ask you to accept my bringing in a carbon tax. In return, I’m going to give you tax cuts like you’ve never seen before.
“Income taxes? Let’s cut ’em in half. Mike Harris won your praise by offering a 30 per cent income tax cut. Well, I’ll do much better than that. Let’s cut income taxes by 50 per cent over the term of our next government. That’s 12.5 per cent a year over four years. With income tax revenue at $35 billion a year, that’s a $4.4 billion annual tax cut. We can easily shift that tax burden to polluters through a carbon tax. It’ll be good for the environment and good for the economy.
“And while we’re at it, let’s cut the corporate income tax rate by a point and a half, to 10 per cent. The Liberals promised to do it when the budget was balanced. They claim they balanced the budget last spring, yet they left that tax rate untouched, at 11.5 per cent. Now they’re raising the minimum wage 32 per cent. Well, I’ll implement that tax cut, save businesses $200 million, and immeasurably improve the economic climate in the province at the same time.
“Under my leadership, taxing carbon will mean Ontarians pay less tax than they have in years. Give me a carbon tax and I’ll show you what a true, tax-cutting conservative I can be.”
To be clear, I have no idea whether Brown will ever make that speech. But as a conservative who has demonstrated some interest in the environment, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Conservatives, as their name suggests, should want to conserve, and that starts with the environment.
Brown looks like he’s alienated too many of the factions inside his big blue Tory tent. The strategy outlined above might very well bring one of those factions back home.