New Brunswick

Carbon tax debate puts Brian Gallant on defensive

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is acknowledging that a recent carbon-tax commitment by his main election opponent is forcing him to re-explain the complex details of his own policy on climate change.

Gallant says he's been forced to re-explain his own position because of PC promise to fight carbon tax

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant says his party's response to federal requirements for a climate plan will avoid new costs for consumers, while Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs's plan won't. (CBC)

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is acknowledging that a recent carbon-tax commitment by his main election opponent is forcing him to re-explain the complex details of his own policy on climate change.

Gallant was playing defence on the issue at a Fredericton campaign stop Thursday, telling reporters that Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs's climate promises are more likely to lead to higher taxes than the Liberal plan.

"We are the only party with a plan to avoid new costs for consumers," he said.

He vowed to "fight" to ensure the Trudeau government gives that plan the green light.

Gallant says Higgs's refusal to contemplate any kind of carbon tax if he becomes premier would lead Ottawa to impose its own more expensive carbon tax on the province. 

Fudging around and misleading people about tax increases, calling it a tax, is not an adult conversation. - Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick

But he also acknowledged that if his own Liberal Party wins the election and its climate plan fails to meet federal requirements, the same outcome will occur.

"If that's the case, what is the point of this whole circle?" Higgs said later on Thursday. "His stance all of a sudden seems to be 'I don't like the carbon tax either.'"

Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, said she was frustrated with the parties in the election "dancing around the edges about who's got a plan and who doesn't."

"Fudging around and misleading people about tax increases, calling it a tax, is not an adult conversation," she said.

"Mother Nature doesn't hold referendums. She wallops us with floods and ice storms and coastal erosion. So this election is not a referendum on climate change, because that is here and now."

Higher tax on gas 'defies reason'  

Saturday is the deadline for provinces to submit their plans to Ottawa for approval.

New Brunswick's submission, released publicly on Thursday, defends the Liberal decision to not add a new carbon tax to gasoline.

The province is "already one of the highest taxed jurisdictions in Canada" and transportation eats up a higher share of household income in Atlantic Canada than anywhere else, it says.

To add even more taxes to gasoline "defies reason," the document says, because New Brunswick's "rural nature" means many people can't switch to mass transit.

Higgs promises rebates

Earlier this week, Higgs promised to fight the federal climate plan in court. He said if he loses and Ottawa imposes its carbon tax "backstop" on New Brunswick, he'll ensure the money is rebated to consumers, or lower taxes by an equivalent amount.

Higgs says that will make the tax revenue-neutral, what Gallant originally promised. But Gallant pointed out a provincial PC government could not provide a backstop rebate since it'll be up to the federal government how the money is distributed.

Even so, Gallant admitted the PC commitment is compelling him to explain the tangled weeds of his policy and its alternatives.

"We have to talk about the federal backstop because Blaine Higgs and the Conservatives are trying to pretend that their plan is to have the federal backstop imposed on them, and then rebate New Brunswickers," he said.

He pointed out correctly that the backstop, and the rebate, is "the default case if a province doesn't do anything."

Liberals shifting gas tax

Gallant's plan shifts a portion of the existing 15.5-cent-per-litre gas tax into a climate fund and calls it a carbon tax. The amount is 2.3 cents this year and will rise to 11.6 cents by 2022-23.

The shift has been in effect since April and with no net increase at gas pumps, it has been invisible to consumers.

But federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has said her climate plan requires provinces to impose  a new "price signal" on consumers that "makes pollution more expensive."

Ottawa will impose its own higher carbon tax, the so-called "backstop," on provinces that don't do that themselves.

Gallant argues New Brunswickers don't need to pay more because the province's total emissions are already 30 per cent below 2005 levels — the reduction Canada committed to in the Paris climate treaty.

Backstop 'not the right policy' 

Until Thursday, Gallant has refused to discuss the possible impact of the backstop, insisting he could persuade Ottawa to accept his plan.

He now says he's still confident that will happen but is warning the backstop is "not the right policy for New Brunswick consumers."

He also acknowledged the outcome for consumers would be the same — a federal backstop and rebate — whether his plan was rejected or whether Higgs refused to enact a plan.

Gallant's plan also includes a phase-out of coal to generate electricity by 2030, and the adoption of the federal government's emissions cap and levy for large industry.

Higgs has promised that a PC government will "ensure that we continue to meet or exceed our emissions targets," but he hasn't provided clear details yet on how he'd do that.

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