Erin O'Toole's climate policy contradictions could end up taking his party backward

On the campaign trail, Erin O'Toole created his own contradictions. He shouldn't be surprised if the discrepancies between who he was during the Conservative leadership campaign and who he wanted to be during the general election have caught up with him now.

If Conservatives punish him for losing the election, they might abandon his pivot on climate as well

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole announces his party's climate change policy during an event in Ottawa, Thursday April 15, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On the campaign trail, Erin O'Toole created his own contradictions. He shouldn't be surprised if the discrepancies between who he was during the Conservative leadership campaign and who he wanted to be during the general election have caught up with him now.

But Conservatives — and the wider political debate in Canada — will be worse off if unhappiness with O'Toole results in the party going backwards on climate change policy.

The 2021 election might otherwise be remembered as a turning point in the Conservative Party's approach to climate change. The party may have lacked ambition; O'Toole would only commit to a 30 per cent reduction in national emissions by 2030. And the party's sincerity was open to question after delegates to the Conservative convention in March rejected a motion that would have acknowledged that "climate change is real."

But the Conservative Party's 2021 platform still marked the first time the party delivered a credible plan to achieve any of Canada's international targets. It was also the first time in a decade that the Conservative Party acknowledged that putting a price on carbon is smart policy.

"We recognize that the most efficient way to reduce our emissions is to use pricing mechanisms," the Conservative platform stated.

The journey from 'True Blue' to carbon pricing 

The vast majority of economists and climate policy experts would agree — even if many of them would add that complementary policies can be added to target specific sources of emissions.

But the language of the 2021 platform ran counter to what Canadian Conservatives had been saying for years — when they were loudly opposing Liberal and NDP proposals to price carbon.

Worse, it contradicted what O'Toole said when he was running for the party leadership as a "true blue" Conservative in 2020.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole fist-bumps former leader Andrew Scheer after O'Toole's win at the 2020 leadership election in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

"A carbon tax is not an environmental plan, it is a tax plan," O'Toole said at the time. He vowed to scrap "Trudeau's carbon tax." He proudly signed a public pledge — sponsored by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, an anti-tax advocacy group — that stated he would "immediately repeal the Trudeau carbon tax ... and reject any future national carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme."

Such disavowals probably explain why O'Toole's climate proposal ended up being needlessly convoluted: a private consortium of companies would be enlisted to track consumer fuel purchases and credit personal savings accounts that could be then used for government-designated "green" purchases, like zero-emission vehicles or bicycles.

Winning the election might have settled the argument

Whatever the shortcomings of that approach, it certainly amounted to a government-mandated fee on carbon emissions. And Conservatives who listened to O'Toole during his leadership run could be forgiven for failing to see the difference between that and a carbon tax.

So now, in the wake of this fall's election, anonymous Conservatives are telling reporters about the anger caused by that flip-flop (among others).

O'Toole's real problem is that he didn't win. If the Conservatives had come away from last week's election with the most seats (or even more seats than they had before the vote), he could point to those gains and make the case to his party that his sudden shift was worth it. And Conservative supporters probably would be happy to forget about their feelings of betrayal.

In 2019, the Conservatives won 121 seats. In 2021, the Conservatives won 119 seats. Under Andrew Scheer in 2019, the Conservatives won 36 seats in Ontario and 10 seats in Quebec. Under O'Toole's leadership, the Conservatives won 37 seats in Ontario and 10 seats in Quebec.

But that status quo result doesn't mean O'Toole was mistaken when he decided his party needed to move on after a decade of opposing meaningful climate action.

Did the climate plan lift Conservatives in the East?

It's difficult to tease out simple cause-and-effect conclusions from election results. Voters can be motivated by any number of factors, from policy differences to idiosyncratic judgments of the leaders.

But the Conservative Party did manage to make small improvements in its popular vote in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. And if you were speculating about the reasons why the party did better this time in the eastern half of the country, a more credible climate plan would be as plausible an explanation as any.

WATCH: Trudeau, O'Toole debate climate policy

Trudeau, O'Toole debate climate change

3 months ago
During the English leaders' debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole respond to the question about how one in four Canadians do not believe climate change is caused by human activity. 2:11

New polling supports that thesis. In a survey conducted by Leger and commissioned by Clean Prosperity — an organization that supports carbon pricing — 21 per cent of respondents said O'Toole's carbon-pricing policy made them more likely to vote Conservative, compared to 12 per cent who said it made that less likely.

Forty-one per cent of Conservative voters said the party should do more on climate change, compared to ten per cent who said the party should do less.

Climate action depends on political consensus

Conservative opposition to carbon pricing was always destined to come to a messy end. Sooner or later, the party was going to have to get serious about climate change — and the alternatives to pricing carbon are more expensive and disruptive.

But the consequences of this moment are not limited to the Conservative Party's internal unity or future electoral hopes. The durability of public policy depends on political consensus.

"Getting to net zero is a 30-year journey and the Conservatives are going to be leading the country for parts of that journey. So it's really important that the Conservative Party have a positive climate agenda," Stewart Elgie, founder of Smart Prosperity, said in an interview last week.

"If they have different views about how to reach the targets, that's a healthy thing in democracy — as long as they agree on the destination and are serious about getting there. It's really important that Conservatives see that having a credible climate platform isn't just good policy, it's good politics for them as well."

If it's possible to have a credible climate plan without putting a price on carbon, pricing opponents are welcome to offer one. But it's also probably fair to assume that opposition to a carbon tax has something to do with a general reluctance to take meaningful action against climate change.

O'Toole's path to a more credible climate plan may have been imperfect. Ideally, he would have levelled with Conservatives about what he thought was necessary and right. Conservatives might be within their rights to hold that against him.

But whatever they decide to do about their leader, the next question for Conservatives is whether they think they would really be any further ahead right now with anything less than the climate plan they took into the campaign.


Leger polled 2,337 respondents across Canada, using an online panel, between September 21 and 23. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of ± 2.1%, 19 times out of 20.


  • A previous version of this story said eight per cent of respondents to a recent survey said O'Toole's carbon-pricing policy made them less likely to vote Conservative. In fact, it's 12 per cent.
    Sep 29, 2021 8:29 AM ET


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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