The Tories have a $4 billion carbon-tax problem. How they solve it will tell us a lot

OPINION: The PCs are suddenly waffling on their commitment to a carbon tax. But doing away with it could create a whole new set of problems, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on February 6, 2018
Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, Caroline Mulroney
Progressive Conservative leadership hopefuls Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, and Caroline Mulroney. (Chris Young/Frank Gunn/Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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​Pity the poor carbon tax: so close to good policy, so far from Tories’ hearts.

When Patrick Brown announced, as a freshman Progressive Conservative leader, that he supported a tax on climate-changing carbon emissions that would see proceeds rebated back to taxpayers, even some of his supporters booed him. Most Canadian conservatives long ago decided that anything smacking of environmental do-goodism is suspect, if not a first step toward Soviet-style Communism. (No, seriously: Premier Kathleen Wynne has had to rebut this charge at her touring town halls.)

But Brown was the leader, and as long as he and the party were leading in the polls, objections came from folks like Jim Karahalios, a longtime Tory who played the role of dissident under the now-former PC leader. Now that Brown is gone, a key part of the party’s platform is suddenly up for grabs: so far, none of the three declared candidates has mounted anything like an actual defence of the carbon tax on its merits.

Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney have told reporters they want to consult the party membership about it, while Doug Ford has ruled it out entirely, telling reporters he’s “100 per cent” against it. Mulroney, for her part, told supporters at her formal campaign launch, “As a conservative, I don’t like taxes,” but she correctly noted that the choice is between a federally imposed carbon price or a provincial one — not zero carbon taxes at all. (Manitoba’s government looked into a legal challenge to the federal carbon tax, and ruled it out.)

Which is fair enough for a conservative. The PC platform projects that, over the four-year term of the next government (if the Tories have a majority of seats at Queen’s Park), the federally imposed carbon tax would bring in $4 billion more in cumulative new revenue than the Liberal cap-and-trade system. For a Tory, it’s absolutely fair to say this is a mixed bag: that’s $4 billion more in taxes the government would be collecting above and beyond the Liberal plan, and conservatives aren’t exactly fans of big new taxes. The economic costs of the Tory plan are also potentially much larger — but then, so are the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the plan, as laid out both in the platform and in a policy resolution endorsed by a vote of the party membership, is to give that money back in the form of income tax cuts and a variety of tax credits for child care and other priorities. Money in, money right back out again. Indeed, initially at least, more money out than in: the plan is explicitly to run a deficit at first.

But the plan was also to have a party led by Patrick Brown (his face was on the cover of the platform!), so here we are.


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It’s fair to say that Brown’s goal with the carbon tax wasn’t just to introduce sound environmental policy. Rather, after a series of elections the Tories were seen to have lost for being too conservative, too eager to upend the province’s status quo, Brown was trying to signal policy moderation and at least some measure of centrist respectability. His public flip-flop on the updated health and sex-ed curriculum served the same purpose: telling voters that he wasn’t from the right-wing fringe.

The question for the Tories now is whether Brown-ism is worth preserving without Brown. Should the party continue to tack to the centre and signal that it’s basically promising competence, not revolution? Or should it listen to the voices insisting that it’s still 1995, that the province is crying out for a bracing dose of 200-proof conservatism?

Maybe Elliott and Mulroney don’t need to engage in the same kind of respectability politics. Brown was an unknown quantity leading a party that was skeptical of him even when he was leading in the polls. But voters will still be weighing the Tories against incumbents whose climate record is relatively clear, so there are risks to simply abandoning the carbon-tax part of the platform.

In November, Abacus Data found that half of Canadian voters would consider voting only for a party that had a serious plan to deal with climate change — and blowing up your party’s platform to appease a restive base doesn’t exactly signal “serious.”

Then there’s the awkward fact that the real-world alternative to the Liberal carbon tax imposed by Ottawa is … a Liberal cap-and-trade program implemented by Kathleen Wynne — one the PC platform calls a “slush fund” for giving the government wide latitude in dropping millions of dollars on whatever the priority of the moment happens to be. Electric cars? Sure. School renovations? Done. Transit projects that were already supposed to have been funded? Absolutely.

Tories may not like taxes, but Brown and his advisors didn’t end up with the platform they did by accident. It says what it says because they felt all the alternatives were worse. The Tory choice now is pretty clear: stay the course at least until June 8 and hope the voters put a PC MPP in the Premier’s Office, or punch a $4 billion hole in the platform to gratify the party’s id.

I don’t know what the Tories will demand. But they might want to keep in mind that a few weeks after Ontario’s next election, we’ll be marking the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Conference on the Changing Atmosphere and Implications for Global Security. The conference’s joint statement, issued on June 30 of that year, began with what may still be the clearest summary of the dangers of climate change:

“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

That conference was held in Toronto, and was a high enough priority for the federal government of the day that the prime minister himself delivered the opening remarks. The Tory leadership candidates could ask that former PM for his advice on serious climate policy — I assume Caroline Mulroney has her dad on speed dial.

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