Politics·Analysis

To win the next election, the Conservatives need to be taken seriously on climate change

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's new climate change plan amounts to a tricky balancing act. Will it attract enough swing voters to make up for any potential losses from a voter base inclined to oppose carbon taxes?

The Conservatives need swing voters to buy into their plan — because it may not go down well with the base

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole announced his party's plan to fight climate change on Thursday. A lack of a plan seen as credible by voters hurt the party's chances in the last federal election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives' plan to fight climate change, unveiled by leader Erin O'Toole on Thursday, comes with risk.

If Canadians don't think it's credible, the party could fail to woo the swing voters it needs to win the next election — even as it also alienates the base it can't afford to lose.

While the plan includes a number of measures — including a levy on large industrial emitters, investments in technology and a zero-emissions vehicle mandate — most of the focus has been on the plan to replace the Liberal government's current carbon pricing scheme with a levy on fuel purchases that would fund "low carbon savings accounts" that can be used for "green" purchases.

The plan is coming under fire from the other parties already, and from some climate experts and economists. But on the face of it, the plan appears to be more robust than what Andrew Scheer proposed ahead of the 2019 federal election.

If Canadians agree, that would be good news for the Conservatives.

The lack of an environmental policy viewed as credible hobbled the Conservatives in the last election. It contributed to the party's failure to make significant gains in Quebec and Ontario, particularly in the swath of suburban ridings in the Greater Toronto Area.

Caught between the GTA and the base

Former deputy leader Lisa Raitt, who was defeated in her GTA riding of Milton, has since said that she lost because of her party's opposition to the carbon tax.

Multiple polls have suggested that Canadians are worried about climate change and want to see measures put in place by their governments to fight it.

Conservative voters, however, have consistently shown less concern about climate change. The party they support has reflected this attitude in its electoral platforms.

But there are many swing voters that could be more open to voting for the Conservatives if the party had more credibility on the environment.

According to a poll conducted in March by Abacus Data, about 46 per cent of Canadians said they would consider voting for the Conservative Party. Half of those people already said they intended to vote Conservative, so the party needs to appeal to the other half.

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus, found that those who were considering voting Conservative but were not already backing the party were more concerned about climate change than those who said they were already voting Conservative. While 55 per cent of potential Conservatives said climate change "is a crisis that requires immediate action," just 34 per cent of current Conservatives said the same thing.

A poll by Mainstreet Research suggested there might be no upside for O'Toole to promising not to force a carbon tax on provinces that don't want one: 34 per cent of respondents said this stance by O'Toole would make them more likely to vote Conservative, while the same number said it would make them less likely to support the party.

But the voters who were attracted to this position were largely in the Conservative camp already and living in places like Alberta and the Prairies — areas of the country where the Conservatives already have high support. In Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, where the party needs to make gains, more respondents said getting rid of the carbon tax would make them less likely to vote Conservative.

Climate change fight key to GTA

In Ontario, those Conservative gains will need to come in the GTA if the party is to have any hope of winning the next election. The region has more seats than most provinces and was key to Stephen Harper's success in securing a majority government for the Conservatives in 2011.

It was also a big part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's two electoral victories in 2015 and 2019.

The Liberals are still ahead in the region by 15 percentage points, according to a poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute earlier this year.

Ahead of the 2019 federal election campaign, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer presented an environmental plan that was blamed for losing them seats, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

A Léger poll commissioned by Clean Prosperity, an organization supportive of "market-based" solutions to climate change, found that 77 per cent of voters in the GTA who would consider voting Conservative but were not already backing the party were somewhat or very worried about climate change. Just 53 per cent of current Conservative voters in the region told the pollster the same thing.

While the environment might not be a decisive ballot box issue for many voters, it can be a minimum requirement for considering a party. In the Léger poll, 63 per cent of potential Conservative GTA voters said they strongly or somewhat agreed that they could not vote for a party that didn't have a strong plan to fight climate change. Just 37 per cent of current Conservative GTA voters said the same thing.

O'Toole can't forget the base

But while the Conservatives shift gears to go after this pool of potential voters, they do risk losing those already on their side.

Many of those current Conservatives do not think climate change is a problem. Abacus found that 18 per cent of Conservative voters believe climate change is a hoax.

And anything that sounds like a carbon tax could hurt the Conservatives in Western Canada in particular; most delegates from the region voted against a policy proposal recognizing climate change as real at last month's party convention.

Clean Prosperity commissioned another poll by Léger earlier this year, surveying voters in Conservative-held ridings in Western Canada. It found that 30 per cent of current Conservative voters in these ridings would be less likely to support the party if it proposed a plan to charge for carbon pollution.

While nearly all of the seats won by the Conservatives in Western Canada were secured by gargantuan margins, the party still can't take those seats for granted — particularly since the party relies disproportionately on them for its fundraising.

The poll did suggest a way out for O'Toole. Support for a carbon pricing plan increased when respondents knew all of it was going to be rebated to individuals. And a third of those opposed to a price on pollution said they felt that way because they saw it as a "tax grab".

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole in front of a video backdrop at a press conference on Thursday, where he announced his party's climate change plan. Journalists pressed O'Toole on whether his plan constituted a tax — O'Toole insisted it did not. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

At Thursday's press conference, O'Toole repeatedly insisted his plan does not constitute a "tax". But he can't count on Canadians taking a politician at his word. The Liberals, for example, have failed to prevent their own policy from being widely branded as a "carbon tax" — even though the Supreme Court ruled it was not a tax but rather a "regulatory charge".

The calculation for the Conservatives is that the risk their environmental plan poses to the stability of their voter base is outweighed by its potential appeal to swing voters.

But it will only appeal to swing voters if they think it's credible. Scheer demonstrated that simply having a plan isn't enough, no matter how many words it has. If O'Toole's plan is seen as credible, then it could do what the Conservatives hope it can do: win them seats in the places that decide elections.

If not, the party could find itself without those seats — and facing a disgruntled base as well. That might be worse than proposing nothing at all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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