'It's almost pointless to go there': Conservatives unmoved to support a carbon tax
Preston Manning says conservatives need to up their environmental game, but avoid carbon pricing
For many years, Preston Manning has spoken about the problem conservative politicians have with their environmental policies and how those flaws have become a political and economic liability.
The last federal election seemed to follow a similar script, as the Conservatives were singled out for proposing the least ambitious plan to tackle climate change of the major political parties.
Following the election result, Manning is preaching a similar refrain: Conservatives have to stop retreating from environmental issues.
"One national party, the Conservative Party of Canada, opposed a carbon tax, did not address the climate change issue directly or substantively, and paid a price at the polls, particularly among urban voters in bigger centres and among younger people," Manning, the former leader of the Reform Party, said during a speech in Calgary this week.
Need for environmental policies
"There is an urgent need for the oil and gas sector and its political supporters to develop a pro-active and substantive response to the climate change issue."
On election day, roughly two-thirds of Canadians voted for political parties that promote a broad-based carbon tax, in one form or another. The Conservatives pledged an unspecified cap on heavy emitters, plus a levy that would go toward new technology.
This week, a report by the Ecofiscal Commission was definitive in its finding that a price on carbon is a cost-effective tool for fighting climate change. The group is led by Chris Ragan from McGill University, and counts former Suncor CEO Steve Williams and past Alberta finance minister Jim Dinning among its advisory board.
Manning himself was also part of that advisory group with the Ecofiscal Commission, but has now left that role.
In recent days, the former executive director of the International Energy Agency, Maria van der Hoeven, also expressed her support for carbon pricing policies during an event in Calgary.
"I think they are necessary," she said. "It's not just a carbon tax as one solution that fits for all but to pay – to put a price on carbon – I think that's absolutely necessary."
Carbon tax 'poisoned'
Still, Manning's ambitions for conservatives to be more aggressive on the climate change file stops short of supporting a broad-based carbon tax.
In an interview, Manning said "it's almost pointless to go there" because of how similar policies have been handled in recent years by the federal Liberals, the Ontario Liberals and the Alberta NDP.
"I think the carbon tax well has been so poisoned by the bungling of its implementation," he said.
In his estimation, too many people have become cynical, especially when carbon pricing policies are pledged to be revenue neutral, but no one believes that is happening.
"I think there is a role for conservatives and others to try and get balance on that issue," he said.
By balance, Manning said people should neither deny there is a climate change problem nor "should they believe the world will end tomorrow."
He also said there is a need to evaluate the economic impact of environmental policies.
Ecofiscal Commission report
While the Ecofiscal Commission report highlighted the effectiveness of carbon pricing, the findings may also embolden conservatives in their opposition to such a policy.
That's because the report highlights how a national carbon tax would have to rise significantly for Canada to meet its climate targets.
The federal Liberals have pledged to raise the carbon tax to $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in 2022. However, according to the report, the tax needs to rise to $210 per tonne to meet the country's commitments under the UN Paris Agreement.
"The fact that it would have to go to $210 would probably cause [conservatives] to be even more convinced that it is not the way to go," said Monte Solberg, a former Conservative MP.
"There's probably much better solutions."
In Alberta, the UCP government is charging a carbon tax on heavy polluters in the province and putting the money towards innovation, reducing the budget deficit, and funding its so-called "energy war room."
Solberg said that type of carbon levy to support new technologies makes sense.
"There are all kinds of innovators, companies and individuals who are innovating simply because they believe there is consumer demand for technology that either uses less carbon, less carbon-intense, or no carbon," he said.
The federal Liberal Party has an ongoing fund to support innovation and create jobs in clean technology.
The federal Conservative Party did not respond to the Ecofiscal Commission report, but instead reiterated its stance opposing the federal carbon tax and concern over how high it could go.
As part of a statement, opposition whip Mark Strahl said "Canadians want real action on climate change, not punishment every time they drive their kids to school or heat their home."
The federal election result may encourage the federal Conservatives to toughen their climate change policies, but, at least for now, the anti-carbon tax position of many supporters seems unlikely to change, no matter the latest research on the issue.
Manning is in that anti-carbon tax camp, although it won't stop him from urging all conservatives to pay more attention to environmental policy.
As he's said in the past, the name "conservative" is rooted in "conservation." While conservatives consider themselves fiscally responsible, he would like that same value applied to environmental conservation, too.
Just not a carbon tax.