National Column: Tories switching their tune on carbon pricing

by Chantal Hébert

Over the time that Stephen Harper was prime minister, Canada’s conservative movement used the notion of carbon pricing as a partisan weapon rather than as a policy tool to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. That may be about to change.

For 10 years, the ruling federal Conservatives rebuffed all appeals, including some friendly ones, to price carbon.

Over the same period, leading members of the energy industry came around to the merits of a predictable carbon tax. The centre-right government of British Columbia introduced a tax on carbon at no electoral cost to itself.

That did not seem to matter. At the first election debate of the last campaign, Harper dismissed all taxes on carbon as a pox on all hard-working Canadians.

By the time he lost power, the Conservative policy on climate change had been reduced to the mantra that to tax carbon was to set out on a job-killing spree.

Taking their cues from the prime minister, provincial Tories mostly campaigned on the same theme.

They consistently cast their opponents’ carbon-pricing policies as raids on the pocketbooks of consumers.

In the end, that logic landed the Conservatives on the opposition benches of the House of Commons and of every provincial legislature – with the sole exception of Saskatchewan. The provincial carbon pricing train simply left the station without them.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that some leading Conservatives are rethinking the party’s stance. They are coming to the conclusion that it is time to wave the white flag and make peace with the concept of carbon pricing.

From east to west, there are ever-wider cracks in the Conservative facade of opposition to a proactive climate change strategy.

On the weekend, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown – who not so long ago was a member of Harper’s federal caucus – served notice on his party that he planned to embrace carbon pricing.

“Climate change is a fact,” the rookie leader of the largest provincial Conservative party in the country told more than 1,700 party delegates. “It is a threat. It is man-made. We have to do something about it, and that something includes putting a price on carbon.”

At the Manning conference two weeks ago, Ontario MP Michael Chong – who is exploring a federal leadership bid – similarly argued that a proactive approach to carbon pricing had to be part and parcel of the post-Harper makeover of the party. If he runs, that will be a major theme of his campaign.

In Alberta, the Wildrose opposition is musing about replacing the NDP’s recently introduced carbon tax with one of its own rather than rolling it back. “I can’t tell you that the Wildrose wouldn’t bring in a carbon tax in the future, party leader Brian Jean stated in an interview earlier this year, but I can tell you this particular carbon tax would be eliminated because it is not a true carbon tax.”

Changing tack on carbon taxes will not necessarily come easily to the Conservative base. At the Ontario convention, the reception for the climate change section of Brown’s speech was tepid. At the Manning
conference, Chong’s comments elicited little more than polite acknowledgments from the audience. The issue could polarize the upcoming campaign for Harper’s succession.

But with so little to show for a decade of aggressive rhetoric, it will be hard for partisans of the status quo to make a convincing case that the party should stick to its guns.

Against that fluid backdrop, what is one to make of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s efforts to fend off the notion of a national floor-price for carbon at last week’s first ministers climate summit in Vancouver?

Do – as most observers assume – his fighting words against a carbon tax matter more than his acceptance of the vaguely worded principle of carbon pricing contained in the meeting’s final communique? Or is it, as some Liberal spin-doctors insist, the reverse?

In Vancouver, Wall revelled in his status as chief contrarian. He was portrayed as the provincial champion of a pan-Canadian Conservative doctrine. But what if he was really just a lone ranger making a last stand for an increasingly untenable position?

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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