OTTAWA—It might strike you as Orwellian, a sort of 2+2=5 situation. But Catherine McKenna says it’s true. The carbon tax is not a tax after all.
“That is exactly right,” the environment minister told the Star Wednesday.
“A tax is to raise revenue. We’re doing this to reduce pollution. That is a huge difference.”
McKenna’s no-tax nomenclature comes as the Liberal government tries to sell Canadians on a plan to put a “price on pollution” — meaning greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change — over the vociferous dissent of Conservative leaders who slag the plan as an economy-busting “tax on everything.” As always in politics, there is a struggle over how to impress details of a major, potentially vote-changing policy in the minds of the populace. And language, experts say, is a big part of that.
“In politics, words are extremely important. Capturing the right word is kind of like capturing the high ground in a battle,” said Gerry Nichols, a political consultant and communications specialist.
In that light, it could be enlightening to look at how politicians talk about the government’s climate change plan, the central pillar of which — as detailed this week — is a “fuel charge” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for residents of Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Governments there refused to play along with Ottawa’s 2016 stricture for all provinces and territories to come up with a way to price out greenhouse gas emissions according to federal standards, and so they get the fuel charge.
But even though this “price” will increase the cost of gasoline by 4 cents per litre next year and grow to an extra 11 cents per litre in 2022, McKenna said it’s certainly not a tax grab. That’s because all of the revenue raised from the levy — can we call it that? — will go back to residents of these provinces through their annual tax returns. The government says most of them will actually receive more than their expected costs from the fuel charge. (Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s label for this was: “election gimmick.”)
“I try to talk like a real person,” McKenna said. “People understand. Go ask children in the street: Do you think polluting should be free? People will say ‘no,’ because they recognize there’s a cost. There’s a cost in terms of the quality of the air. There’s a longer-term cost in terms of the impacts of climate change. So, it is a price on what you don’t want so you can get less of what you do want, which is less pollution.”
Greg MacEachern, a government relations and communications specialist with Proof Strategies, said this way of explaining the carbon price plan is meant to counter the Conservative message that the policy is just a cash grab. So far in 2018, the phrase “price on pollution” has been recorded in Parliament and its surrounding committee meetings 281 times, according to the OpenParliament database — and three quarters of that has come from Liberal MPs. The phrase was logged only 87 times in all of 2017, and even less in 2016, when the Liberal government announced it would enforce carbon pricing across the country.
“The change in language reflects an awareness that they were not winning the air war, the message war around this,” said MacEachern. “And making it more complicated wasn’t going to help. There’s an old line: once you’re explaining, you’ve lost.”
For many political observers, this discussion harkens back to the 2008 election, when Stéphane Dion led the Liberals to defeat at the hands of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. The big Liberal platform issue? The “Green Shift,” a policy that centred on a carbon price for greenhouse gas emissions. And instead of giving back money through tax rebates like Trudeau plans to do, Dion’s green policy rewarded voters with straight up personal income tax cuts. Harper framed the plan as a tax grab that would “screw everybody” — and then won the election.
“They allowed the Conservatives to define it better than they did,” said Nichols.
This time around, Nichols said the tax rebates for individuals and households where the fuel charge applies seem designed to avoid charges that the Liberal policy is going to hit Canadians in the wallet — a tacit admission, perhaps, that campaigning on new taxes is tough. “They have not taken the position that this is something we have to endure for the sake of the planet,” he said.
Stewart Elgie, a University of Ottawa professor of law and economics and chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute, questioned whether Conservative alarm would catch on like it may have in 2008. He pointed to British Columbia, where there’s been a carbon tax since 2008. It doesn’t appear to have harmed the economy; B.C.’s gross domestic product grew by more than 4 per cent in four of the years between 2010 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada — one of the strongest records in the country.
“Ten years ago Stephen Harper was successful at saying the sky is falling, that a carbon tax will destroy the economy,” Elgie said. But now, he added, “we know the sky won’t fall.”
That may be true. But you wouldn’t know it by how the government talks about its carbon tax.
Sorry — its price on pollution.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga