Conservatives Rally Around Carbon Tax Opposition

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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on February 18, 2018.

After several years of standing down on the issue of the carbon tax, conservative parties and politicians are no longer willing to sit idly by and allow the Liberals to steer the agenda.

In October 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s announcement that Canadian provinces would be required to adopt carbon pricing was met with wide political agreement.

Both the United States and China had recently agreed to the Paris climate accord, and provincial governments in Canada’s three largest provinces had already committed to some form of carbon pricing.

Alberta, home of Canada’s most abundant oilsands and a traditional bastion of conservative support, had broken with decades of Progressive Conservative leadership, electing an NDP government that presented carbon pricing as a critical part of the oil industry’s social licence to export its products to market. Across the country, Liberal provincial governments held power. Conservatives were at a historically low ebb.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper‘s inability to adequately address climate change had hurt perceptions of Canadian resources; a new approach was needed.

What a difference 16 months make. Alberta is locked in a battle with its provincial counterparts in British Columbia over the Trans Mountain Pipeline. While the federal government has expressed support for the project, the provincial governments are no longer in the same agreeable position.

Albertans, who have long memories of the misguided National Energy Program devised by Pierre Elliott Trudeau‘s government, are increasingly conscious of the oilsands’ vulnerabilities and are strongly resistant to any measures that may diminish its growth.

Enter Jason Kenney.

Breaking from years of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party’s efforts to court a bigger tent of voters, the former Harper cabinet minister has united the province’s right-wing forces under a series of unapologetically conservative stances, including strident opposition to the carbon tax.

As this takes place, action and rhetoric from the Trump administration has added pressure to Canadian oil producers.

While Prime Minister Trudeau and former U.S. president Barack Obama struck similar tones about building social licence for oil extraction, Trump has a drastically different vision for competitiveness, unlocking millions of jobs by slashing regulations.

Suddenly, carbon pricing is facing serious political headwinds as conservatives across Canada spring into action.

While some Conservatives briefly toyed with Michael Chong’s plan for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, Andrew Scheer won the leadership race by promising to scrap carbon pricing. He rejects the premise that taxes can fight climate change and has ardently emphasized their impact on affordability. The recent political climate has only contributed to his resolve.

He has allies. With Trump’s election, the Liberal’s newly created Canadian Energy Regulator and the harsh impact of the oilsands downturn on our national productivity, carbon pricing is beginning to feel like too much too soon for many Canadians.

And in an era where political conversations are increasingly framed around affordability, the added burden of taxes has become problematic.

This explains the recent shift in Ontario politics. Former Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader Patrick Brown shocked pundits and delegates alike when he announced his support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax in March 2016. Many pundits saw this as a critical point in national discussions around carbon pricing.

But his swift removal as leader has provided a window for anti-carbon-pricing advocates to rebound in Ontario. While there may have been no appetite for such a position in 2016, leadership candidates are now willing to fight against carbon taxation in spades.

All three leading leadership candidates for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario have promised to oppose cap and trade, carbon taxation and any form of carbon pricing in no uncertain terms. Call it pandering. Call it impractical. But it represents a growing and formidable opposition from the most likely candidates to take over as premier of Canada’s largest province this June.

To add to that, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe threatened that Trudeau’s government would enforce the carbon tax on his province over his ” dead body.”

What’s clear is that after several years of standing down on the issue of the carbon tax, conservative parties and politicians are no longer willing to sit idly by and allow the Liberals to steer the agenda.

What’s problematic for the federal government is that, in many provinces, those same vocal opponents look to be set on a path to power.

Just as the political tides have turned on this issue before, it seems they have once again – at least amongst the conservative base.

The result? Prime Minister Trudeau has a fight on his hands.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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