Erin O'Toole says Conservatives' rejection of climate change resolution was 'a distraction'

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole told CBC News a recent vote by party delegates to reject adding "climate change is real" to the policy book was a disappointment that distracted from the party's larger plan to levy a price on carbon.

CPC leader dismisses resolution as 'the obsession of many people on Twitter'

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole told CBC News a recent vote by party delegates to reject adding "climate change is real" to the policy book was a disappointment that distracted from the party's larger plan to levy a price on carbon.

In a wide-ranging interview with CBC's Front Burner, O'Toole said he believes the members assembled for the party's March policy convention weren't rejecting the actual science of climate change but rather a resolution that was "hard to understand."

The motion also asked delegates to recognize that "Canadian businesses classified as highly polluting need to take more responsibility" and "reduce their GHG emissions," and that the Conservative party should support "innovation in green technologies." It was rejected by a margin of 54 per cent to 46.

"It was not the outcome I would have liked coming out of the convention floor, for sure," O'Toole said.

O'Toole said media stories about the resolution's demise derailed what was otherwise a well-run convention that exposed few cleavages in the party ranks. (Anti-abortion resolutions from the party's social conservative wing didn't secure enough votes to even make it to the convention floor.)

'I'm the leader'

O'Toole said his "well-received" speech from the night before — in which he detailed a five-point plan for a post-COVID-19 Canada — was overshadowed by an onslaught of negative commentary on social media about a climate resolution that was essentially meaningless.

The party's policy book already mentions the environment, O'Toole said, and the "climate change is real" rejection won't stop him from putting a green-friendly face on the party ahead of the next election campaign.

"That resolution was a distraction," O'Toole said. "It was the obsession of many people on Twitter in the days after our convention but, as I said in my first press conference after, I'm the leader and I was preparing a solid, serious ... plan to meet our emissions targets.

"I was already working on our climate change plan. I wasn't that concerned about a resolution passing or not passing because I was actually already several months into detailed work, reaching out to stakeholders.

"These little stories coming out of the convention don't really matter if we put a platform in front of Canadians that's thoughtful, that's comprehensive."

Delegates vote on party constitution items at a Conservative Party of Canada national policy convention. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A month after the resolution failed, O'Toole presented the Conservative answer to Liberal claims that the party lacks a credible plan to address climate change.

O'Toole's predecessor, Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, was dogged by accusations that the Tories were climate laggards with no plan to address rising greenhouse gas emissions.

O'Toole's climate platform calls for a reworked version of the existing carbon pricing regime. Instead of sending tax money to Ottawa, the Conservative plan would see the levies paid on fuels like gas and home heating banked in personal "low carbon savings accounts."

Individuals would be allowed to use the money in these accounts only for "green" purchases — such as more efficient furnaces, bicycles, bus passes and other goods and services that lower emissions. The program would apply only in provinces that don't already have a price on carbon.

The current Liberal plan rebates 90 per cent of the money collected by carbon pricing back to Canadians at tax time. In the last federal budget, the government announced that those "climate action incentive" payments will soon be rebated four times a year in the form of a cheque or direct deposit.

An 'outrageous' betrayal

The Conservatives have long opposed the Liberal carbon tax — in government, the party's MPs frequently blasted Liberal and NDP plans for a "job-killing carbon tax." O'Toole said that, under his leadership, the party is going in a different direction.

"We recognize that the most efficient way to reduce our emissions is to use pricing mechanisms," O'Toole said at the April launch event for his environmental policies. O'Toole, however, has pledged to keep the price at $50 per tonne of emissions rather than increase it to $170 a tonne by 2030, as the Liberals intend.

The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation has called O'Toole's plan an "outrageous" betrayal of his promise to "repeal the Trudeau carbon tax." 

"O'Toole is now planning to hammer Canadians with higher fuel bills through his very own carbon tax," Franco Terrazzano, the group's director, said in a statement.

"When he was running for leader, O'Toole pledged to taxpayers that he would fight carbon taxes. If he goes through with this scheme, he will be breaking his promise to Canadians."

Clean Prosperity calls the plan 'credible'

The carbon pricing proposal was a point of contention in the leadership race. O'Toole's main opponent, Peter MacKay, needled him by calling him "Erin Trudeau."

But some environmental groups, including Clean Prosperity Canada, have championed O'Toole's efforts, calling the plan "a credible path to meeting Canada's 2030 Paris targets."

In his interview with Front Burner, O'Toole said he's proud of the party's history as a champion for environmental action, pointing to the Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty signed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney in the early 1990s.

He said the emissions reduction targets agreed to by the Liberal government at the Paris summit in 2015 were actually set by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Three people wearing business attire and medical masks cross a street in front of Parliament.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole walks with his chief of staff Tausha Michaud, right, and campaign manager Fred DeLorey, left, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In his convention speech in March, O'Toole said party members must either embrace change or risk losing more elections.

"We have lost two elections in five and a half years. In that time, we have had four leaders," O'Toole said.

"We must present new ideas, not make the same arguments hoping that, maybe this time, more Canadians will come around to our position."

A more labour-friendly Conservative Party

O'Toole is also pursuing a more labour-friendly agenda in an effort to appeal to working class voters in the private sector.

He said the NDP has ceded its position as a party of working people by becoming consumed by the latest causes in vogue with activists on Twitter.

O'Toole has lamented the decline of private sector union membership and has promised not to reinstate past Conservative legislation that was widely seen as anti-labour. He said he understands the value of organized labour because of his father's work experience.

"My dad worked at General Motors. I saw the impact that unions have standing up for their workers and I value that," he said. "I've said I will not bring back bills that we've had in the past."

That's a very different tone than the one he set during the leadership campaign, when told the crowd at a Hamilton, Ont. event that he would be "Jerry Dias' worst nightmare" — a reference to the national president of Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union.

"He's about the fat cat union leaders. He's an extension of (Trudeau's) cabinet," O'Toole said at the time. "I'm fighting for the voters that have been left behind by their movement."

Pressed to state whether he'd back a unionization push at Amazon warehouses, O'Toole said it's up to the workers.

The fast-growing tech giant has been the subject of union drives at its fulfilment centres in the U.S. amid complaints about poor working conditions. U.S. President Joe Biden backed a failed unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

"That is their democratic right. We have a fairly transparent process for a union drive and that is in the workers hands," O'Toole said. "If management wants to avoid a unionization drive, they better listen to the concerns of their workers."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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