Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are playing out a global debate about what to do to combat climate change, and the outcome of this fall’s election will either energize or deter advocates for carbon taxes. Here’s a look at what lies ahead.
For those who believe carbon pricing is urgently needed to fight climate change, Canada will be one of the world’s most important battlegrounds in 2019.
It’s not just the strategy to reduce Canada’s 1.6-per-cent share of global emissions at stake in this year’s federal election, as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals defend their decision to impose a carbon tax on provinces – as of now Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick – that don’t meet new federal carbon-pricing requirements. (A levy on large industrial polluters took effect Jan. 1, and one on fossil fuels will begin in April.)
More than that, the campaign will serve as a case study about carbon taxation’s political viability, sure to be noticed by politicians elsewhere considering similar measures.
Even if his shine may be wearing off at home, Mr. Trudeau is still seen by liberals through much of the world as a political star. If Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives drive him from office after one term, with carbon-tax opposition playing a major role, he could join the likes of France’s Emmanuel Macron as a cautionary tale about even the most skilled politicians not being able to sell this sort of policy.
Conversely, if the Liberals win another majority government, it will allow carbon-pricing advocates elsewhere to push back against arguments that it’s politically toxic. And some of them, not least U.S. Democrats who will be participating in primaries shortly after Canada’s election, will closely study Mr. Trudeau’s implementation and communication, with an eye to what they can borrow.
Heading into the year, it’s possible to get a sense of some of the open questions that will yet determine how this story plays out here – many of them up to the competing parties to answer, in the months ahead.
HOW MUCH WILL THE PARTIES ACTUALLY CAMPAIGN ON THIS ISSUE?
At this point, both leading federal parties seem to think the carbon-pricing debate is a winner for them.
There is a view in Mr. Trudeau’s camp that many Canadians will respect him for taking a principled risk, and disqualify Mr. Scheer for his comparative unwillingness to take seriously an existential environmental challenge; the Liberals particularly hope it will help mobilize younger voters, key to their 2015 electoral success. The Conservatives believe they’ll be able to cast it as nothing more than a tax grab; they say their research shows their target voters prioritize economic and affordability concerns over the environment.
It’s possible both parties will maintain that confidence. It’s equally possible one of them will decide it’s a political loser, and try to change the channel.
Especially in provinces (Quebec and British Columbia, among others) where Ottawa won’t collect the tax due to systems already in place, it could also easily become just one piece of a broader cost-of-living debate. Carbon pricing may be the biggest policy rift between the parties, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be top of mind come October.
CAN THE LIBERALS DRAW ENOUGH ATTENTION TO THEIR REBATES?
Key to the Liberals’ hopes for avoiding the same fate as when Stéphane Dion campaigned on a carbon tax back in 2008 is their assurance that it won’t take money out of Canadians’ pockets. Almost all revenues, they promise, will be returned to families and individuals in the provinces they were collected – and because those revenues also come from businesses, most people will see a net gain.
It’s a model that strikes some carbon-pricing advocates as so foolproof, it’s already being cited internationally as a way to avoid backlash. But a potential catch is how the money will be returned. While voters could think about the new tax every time they pay for fuel – especially in Ontario, where Doug Ford’s government has mused about serving reminder through stickers on gas pumps – the rebates will be distributed through annual tax returns. So the returned revenue could go all but unnoticed among other calculations.
That’s going to place a premium on communication around tax season. Voters in provinces where Ottawa will be collecting and returning money can expect lots of advertising drawing attention to the rebate.
WILL THE CONSERVATIVES’ PLAN GIVE THEM COVER?
To date, the Liberals have been able to accuse the Conservatives of having no policy to reduce emissions. It’s unlikely the governing party’s rhetoric will change much after the Tories release a plan closer to the election.
While Mr. Scheer has said his approach will be “comprehensive,” he has made clear it won’t include carbon pricing. It may be in the same vein as Mr. Ford’s, which includes scaled-back emissions-reductions targets, and fairly modest commitments to industrial regulation and clean-technology funding.
How it lands will test the way Canadians currently see climate-change policy. If many target voters expect parties to be ambitious with their policies, the Conservatives will likely have a problem. If most people just want to know they’re not climate-change deniers, any plan at all could suffice.