Analysis

How the Liberals hope to escape the 'Green Shift' curse in 2019

The Trudeau government is moving ahead with its plan to put a price on carbon emissions. In the process, it's directly taking on federal Conservatives and the four premiers who oppose carbon pricing by promising to give the money back to taxpayers in those provinces.

Stéphane Dion's experience taught them that climate plans sell better when they're built around rebates

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion at the NATO summit in Warsaw, Friday July 8, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Trudeau government is moving ahead with its plan to put a price on carbon emissions. In the process, it's directly taking on federal Conservatives and the four premiers who oppose carbon pricing by promising to give the money back to taxpayers in those provinces.

"Starting next year, it will no longer be free to pollute anywhere in Canada," the prime minister said today. "And we are going to help Canadians adjust to this new reality."

That help will take the form of a direct rebate to residents of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick in their tax returns next spring.

The amounts will differ in each province, but the underlying message remains the same. The government says most families will get back slightly more starting next year than what Trudeau says this new "price on pollution" will cost them in higher prices for fuel and other necessities.

The Liberals say average households will come out ahead in their plan to levy a carbon tax and provide direct rebates to consumers in six provinces and territories that don't have a carbon-pricing plan. Conservatives say it will make everything more expensive, while the NDP and Greens say it won't get Canada to its emissions targets. (CBC News)

Trudeau's price on pollution is, of course, a straight up "carbon tax" to his Conservative opponents, who dismiss the rebates as nothing more than a vote-buying scheme in advance of the next fall's election.

"Justin Trudeau unveiled his election gimmick to try to trick Canadians into paying higher taxes on basic necessities," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Tuesday.

"It's just another Trudeau Liberal tax grab. It's a job-killing, family-hurting tax," echoed Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who scrapped the previous provincial government's cap-and-trade system immediately after taking office.

The bottom line: money in pockets

Call it a price on pollution or call it a tax on everything — either way, politicians on both sides of the debate know that the best way to earn people's votes is by leaving more money in their pockets.

In other words, this is an argument only one side can win.

Trudeau acknowledged as much in making his highly-anticipated announcement at a college in Premier Ford's own Toronto-area riding.

"Let me be very clear. The government of Canada will return all of the money collected through pricing pollution back to Canadians," he said. "Every nickel will be invested in Canadians in the province where it was raised."

The Liberals learned the hard way back in 2008 that running a campaign around a promise to introduce a new tax is a recipe for electoral failure.

Stéphane Dion was pummeled in that campaign for his inability to explain that his so-called Green Shift would be revenue-neutral. The Conservatives won that election and Dion was soon gone as Liberal leader.

But that was then. A few things have changed since.

For starters, Trudeau is a better communicator than Dion. And climate change is a problem Canadians understand better today than they did ten years back. They've witnessed the devastating aftermath of the severe storms, droughts and forest fires that scientists attribute, at least in part, to a warming planet.

The Conservatives also face a different challenge this time around. Former leader Stephen Harper did introduce his own climate plan but no strategy to meet the stated goal of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Liberals now have a strategy — based on those same emission targets set by the Conservatives.

Could Conservative voters be convinced?

While polls don't show climate change as the number one issue for voters, it does rank in their top five. CBC polling analyst Éric Grenier said the numbers also suggest that even some Conservative voters could be persuaded to vote Liberal if the carbon pricing system is truly revenue-neutral.

"So if Liberals can sell that it won't hurt your pocketbook, it can appeal even to fence-sitting Conservatives," Grenier said.

Liberals and Conservatives spent most of today arguing about how much the government's climate plan will cost taxpayers. New Democrats and the Green Party spent their time arguing that the Liberals' plan (and the Conservatives lack of one) will leave Canada far short of meeting the emissions reduction targets agreed to three years ago at the UN climate change conference in Paris.

PM Justin Trudeau says he is not buying votes for next year's federal election by giving rebates to families in advance of the carbon price implementation in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. 2:09

"This is a good decision. But it's half of what needs to be done if we are going to respond to science and meet the Paris target of holding the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius," Green leader Elizabeth May told reporters.

The Conservatives have been promising to release a climate plan of their own for months now. Scheer insisted again today that it's coming and it won't include a tax.

May said the science is clear: pricing carbon is the most effective way to curb emissions.

But questions of 'effectiveness' are only going to make up part of this debate. Many voters will be asking themselves what the plan will cost them, personally.

Hence, the rebates. The Liberals are counting on delivering them just as the new price on carbon emissions kicks in — a suitable incentive (they hope) for voters in the four affected provinces to buy into the plan.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.