Why Doug Ford should do the unthinkable: introduce a carbon tax

OPINION: Justin Trudeau’s election win means the carbon tax is here to stay. Does Ford really want him to take all the credit for climate policy?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 24, 2021
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (front) and Premier Doug Ford at an event in Gogama on September 11, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)



It’s perhaps the most obvious outcome of the most recent federal election, but it shouldn’t pass without some discussion in Ontario: at least until after the next provincial election in June 2022, the matter of whether there will be a carbon price in Ontario is settled. The federal carbon tax survived Doug Ford’s legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which affirmed the federal power to make minimum national carbon prices only six months ago. However long the current federal Parliament lasts, the carbon tax will last with it. And it may be around even longer, because who knows what the political landscape will look like in the next federal contest?

As far as carbon pricing goes, this leaves Ontario in a worse position than it was in on the day Ford took office in 2018: there was a carbon price back then — a cap-and-trade system in coordination with Quebec and California — with revenues that accrued to the provincial government. Prior to Ford, of course, the Progressive Conservatives had proposed something else: they were going to adopt the federal carbon tax and put the revenues toward a bunch of ideas. But those became largely irrelevant when Patrick Brown was expelled as party leader. So here’s the status quo in September 2021: there’s still a carbon price in Ontario, it’s scheduled to increase substantially in coming years, most of that money will be rebated back to taxpayers, and all the political credit for climate policy will flow to Ottawa instead of Queen’s Park.

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There is another option, though I suspect the Tories won’t take the suggestion well: Ontario could implement its own carbon tax before the next election — one that matches the federal one in term of stringency — and put the revenues toward provincial purposes. It would be the Brown plan, more or less, but that’s because there aren’t that many ways to solve this problem so long as Conservatives keep losing federally.

This would immediately have a few different benefits for the PCs, if they’re willing to swallow a bitter pill. Billions of new dollars would flow into the provincial treasury (without, critically, actually representing a new tax on anyone). The Tories would be able to go to voters next June having put to rest one of the issues the Liberals and NDP are most likely to use as a sign of their unseriousness (as the Liberals did against both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole). And they’d shrink the ability of their opponents to make shiny new promises with that money instead — it would already be cash committed to government spending, after all.

The Tory objections to this idea are obvious and can be summarized only slightly unfairly as “nuh uh, don’t wanna.” But to elaborate: Ford won the PC leadership race and then the 2018 election on a clear promise to end the Liberal cap-and-trade program. Ford’s defenders would see the kind of reversal I’m proposing here as an act of political suicide. It would repulse a large fraction of the Tory base and wouldn’t win the Progressive Conservatives nearly enough votes to offset that harm.

To take these claims in turn: Ford didn’t win the 2018 election because he promised to abolish the carbon tax; he won the 2018 election because he wasn’t Kathleen Wynne, and that was enough for about 40 per cent of the electorate. We know this because his share of the vote was pretty much exactly what Brown had been polling at while telling all and sundry he’d adopt a carbon tax. As for the Tory base, its reaction would depend very much on what the government decided to do with the revenue. Former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister used carbon-tax revenues to cut provincial sales taxes — are you telling me not a single PC voter could get behind that?

The recent election results, and the fact that O’Toole was not rewarded by voters for trying to bring the gospel of carbon pricing to the Conservative party, is something worth taking seriously. But the policy O’Toole actually offered — essentially, a frequent-flyer program for carbon pollution that would see people accrue a savings account based on how much pollution they were responsible for — seemed tailor-made to not actually signal seriousness on climate policy (internal Conservative party politics demanded that he not appear serious). And, in any event, it’s difficult to know how many people stayed home because O’Toole adopted carbon pricing versus how many stayed home or voted for the People’s Party of Canada over vaccine passports and mandates. The 2021 election was honestly pretty weird, and a lot of stuff that was a factor this year won’t be two, three, or four years from now.

The alternative to embracing a carbon tax is pretty simple: the Tories could bet on the government’s handling of the pandemic and a divided opposition to carry them to another election win and figure out other ways to balance the budget. (Even with Friday’s relatively good news, Ontario’s deficit for 2020-21 was $16.4 billion, the second-largest in the province’s history.) But when the premier tried one budget with big spending cuts, he didn’t like the political blowback, and he now seems largely to have accepted ever-growing provincial spending. Voters are — rightly — not very worried about deficits right now, but we can expect that conservative politicians will be again someday. When they are, the carbon tax will be there, waiting for them.

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