It is almost churlish, on the day Erin O’Toole delivered the first-ever (mostly) credible Conservative climate plan, to dwell on the part that is just plain dumb.
But it was the Conservatives who built the consumer carbon price adopted by the Liberals into a political flashpoint, calling it the tax on everything.
So it is hard to ignore that the design of the new Conservative version builds in something that Mr. O’Toole’s own policy gurus likened to a rewards program – and that it rewards those who drive bigger cars and burn more fuel. It was too easy for the Liberals to ridicule it as “the more you burn the more you earn.”
It’s a funny thing. Mr. O’Toole has just moved to stanch a political weakness. And now, importantly, he has a climate plan that Canadians, and swing voters, can consider serious. But in cooking it up, he baked in some political flaws.
The most visible is the carbon savings accounts. The new Conservative Leader kept promising to get rid of “Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax,” but instead he just made it smaller, and dumber.
The Conservatives intend to freeze the consumer carbon price at $50 a tonne of emissions, instead of having it rise to $170 a tonne, as under the current federal government plans.
Instead of the current rebates paid to individuals at tax time, the Conservative plan would create carbon savings accounts that get credits when you pay a carbon tax. An O’Toole adviser likened in to a rewards program.
Of course, the problem is that rewards programs encourage you to consume more, in this case more gas and more carbon, while the point of carbon pricing is to do the opposite. So if you cut your fuel consumption, you will get less back.
Politically, there’s another problem: Nearly all households will get less. Mr. O’Toole’s plan will cost individuals more because he will divert some of the rebates from individuals to business.
That’s actually good for the economy, but this is the party that promised to liberate consumers from the burden of the big-government Liberal scheme, and instead Mr. O’Toole is proposing to ding them a little more. That’s not good politics.
This plan has a big-government flavour. It includes the administrative nightmare of carbon savings accounts and the bureaucracy to figure out the policy. “You will need a much larger public service working on climate policy,” said environmental economist Dave Sawyer.
The planned regulations to increase the use of zero-emissions vehicles and renewable natural gas will significantly increase the price of cars and natural-gas heating for ordinary Canadians, Mr. Sawyer said.
In other words, a lot of those ordinary consumers – and swing voters – will pay more.
If you judged it by the Conservative rhetoric of the past decade, including Mr. O’Toole’s rhetoric in two party leadership campaigns, you’d say it’s a plan with heavy regulation, lots of bureaucracy, the same old Liberal policy for carbon pricing for industry and the oil patch, and a lingering dollop of Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax.
And yet it’s got one big, important thing going for it: It is a serious emissions-reduction plan. A credible consulting firm, Navius Research, judged that it would deliver comparable emissions reductions to the Liberal plan.
Over all, it is less cost-effective than the Liberal plan, Navius found, but it ends up being better for the economy because some of the rebates are shifted to business, causing less of a drag on competitiveness.
So for the first time, the Conservatives will head into an election with a reasonable argument that they have a credible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And Mr. O’Toole might figure that swing voters won’t care about the details of his plan as much as they want him to have a real one. Now he does.
It is his own party’s supporters that are most likely to be annoyed by the details. This was, for Mr. O’Toole, the first big, bold step to stamp his direction on the party.
Yet some of those political flaws built into the plan might just come back to hurt him. It’s not great for a Conservative to have to defend a climate plan that costs individuals a little more – especially when it comes with a rewards plan for burning fossil fuels.
The Globe and Mail, April 15, 2021