Politics·Analysis

The carbon tax is probably here to stay. Can Conservatives adapt?

If the 2019 federal election accomplished anything, it might be this: the carbon tax is no longer the third rail in federal policy. In fact, the Conservatives' loud rejection of carbon pricing probably didn't do them any favours.

The 2008 election made carbon pricing look like political poison. The 2019 election sent a different message.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks during a news conference in Regina, Tuesday October 22, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

In October 2018, Stephen Harper published Right Here, Right Now, a treatise on the way forward for conservative leaders in uncertain times. The former prime minister's commentary included a swipe at carbon taxes.

"Carbon taxes are widely unpopular and become more so once people actually have to pay them," Harper wrote. "Political parties, including mine, have won elections just by opposing a carbon tax."

A year later, 63.2 per cent of Canadian voters cast a ballot for a party that supports putting a price on carbon. Justin Trudeau's Liberals, having implemented the first federal carbon levy in Canadian history, won 157 seats. The Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Greens combined to win another 59 seats.

For a policy that was supposed to be a real political liability, that is a stunning result. And, in theory, the federal election of 2019 might have effectively ended the debate over whether there should be a price on carbon emissions in Canada.

But the extent of the Conservative Party's intransigence on this issue remains to be seen.

And even if the future of climate policy in this country is significantly clearer than it was three days ago, the path ahead still contains significant political and practical obstacles.

A failed attempt to re-run the 2008 campaign

Eleven years ago, Harper's Conservatives did win 37.7 per cent of the popular vote and a strong plurality in the House of Commons while running a loud campaign against ​​​​​​Stéphane Dion's carbon tax proposal (though at the time, Harper was still quietly committed to pricing carbon through a cap-and-trade system).

That result likely had more to do with Dion's leadership and the weakness of the Liberal Party, but after 2008 the words "carbon tax" seemed to be verboten in federal politics. Even the Trudeau Liberals tended to speak of a "price" on carbon, as opposed to a tax, when they discussed their intentions in 2015.

Stéphane Dion (left) and former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Dion's failure to sell carbon pricing in 2008 may have reflected his weaknesses as a Liberal leader more than Canadians' distaste for the concept. (Canadian Press)

In broad strokes, Andrew Scheer's Conservatives attempted to replicate the 2008 campaign in 2019. They vowed to repeal the federal carbon price and loudly worried about how it would increase the cost of gas. But they won just 34.4 per cent of the vote and only 121 seats.

General concern about climate change is higher now in Canada than it was in 2008 — and the impacts of global climate change have become more tangible. But for Scheer's Conservatives, opposing a price on carbon also became synonymous with not taking serious action to combat climate change.

In 2008, Harper could at least insist that, while he opposed Dion's proposal, he was still committed to somehow taking meaningful action to reduce emissions. That rhetorical fig leaf fell away when Scheer was finally compelled to present his own plan. Analysts quickly showed how the Conservative proposals would lead to higher emissions.

For climate policy, the 2019 election seemed to offer two potentially seismic pivot points — over what a Conservative victory would mean for federal policy overall, and over how a Liberal victory might force the Conservatives to change tack on one of the defining issues of the age.

Could Scheer have won with a better climate plan?

In their own post-election post mortem, Conservatives will have to ask themselves whether a real climate plan could have tilted this election in their favour. Of all the ways Scheer could have tried to both differentiate himself from his predecessor and win votes in Ontario and Quebec, climate policy does seem like the most significant missed opportunity.

After years of condemning a price on carbon as a ruinous policy, the Conservatives had backed themselves into a corner. Their own supporters might have revolted had the party leadership decided to embrace a serious carbon price (remember the rough ride Michael Chong experienced when he ran for the party leadership and proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax).

But the 2019 election now offers Conservatives an excuse to throw up their hands and move on. Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested previously his government might abandon its legal challenge of the federal carbon price after the federal vote. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has already conceded defeat.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford signalled before the election that his government might abandon its legal challenge of the federal carbon tax. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was not so chastened; he declared Tuesday that Trudeau should repeal the federal price in response to the Liberal Party's political repudiation in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Trudeau is unlikely to do so.

But Moe's aggressive response to Monday night's result hints at the remaining challenges for climate policy in Canada. 

The path to a low-carbon future in Canada was always going to go through Alberta and Saskatchewan, the two provinces with the most emissions-intensive economies. But now, neither of those provinces has a Liberal MP. And the intensity of the opposition to Trudeau is reflected in the huge margins of victory for Conservative MPs in those two provinces.

Trudeau tried to ease the transition with a new pipeline, going so far as to spend $4.5 billion in public funds and no small amount of political capital to buy the existing Trans Mountain pipeline. But that doesn't seem to have bought him any goodwill in the West.

The prime minister will have to find other ways to bridge that divide, even while he faces a political and practical imperative to move further to reduce Canada's emissions.

But one point of conflict might fade away if the Conservatives decide to effectively abandon their opposition to carbon pricing.

In the interests of winning a federal election in the foreseeable future, the Conservatives might need to get serious about climate policy.

For the sake of national unity, it wouldn't hurt to put the debate over whether to price carbon behind us.

About the Author

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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