MONTREAL—Is a carbon tax a hill Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is willing to die on? That question had been in the back of many political minds since Ontario – under its new PC government — bailed out of the federal climate change framework last spring.
That resulted in a shift in the provincial balance from mostly behind Trudeau’s carbon-pricing scheme to increasingly against it.
As of Tuesday’s rollout of individual tax rebates to attend the introduction on Jan. 1 of a federal carbon levy in the four provinces — including Ontario — that are declining to meet federally set emissions targets with measures of their own, the answer is in.
Instead, for the second time in a decade, a federal Liberal leader is about to stake the electoral fate of his party on putting a price on carbon pollution. And in this case, action will already have followed words as the carbon tax will have been in effect for months by the time the federal campaign gets officially underway.
For one, the Liberals are about to campaign from the stronger position of incumbent party, with all the tools of government at their disposal.
The rebates paid out to those affected by the federal levy will go some way to blunt Conservative allegations that the bid to put a price on carbon pollution is little more than a tax grab.
Perhaps more importantly, two of the more populous provinces — Quebec and British Columbia — have just spent the past decade experimenting with carbon-pricing models.
Notwithstanding the doomsday scenarios painted by opponents of Trudeau’s carbon tax, neither provincial government feels it has been the worse for it.
In both cases, the policy of putting a price on carbon pollution has survived changes in government — from right to left in B.C.’s case and left to right in Quebec’s more recent one.
If next fall’s federal campaign is lining up to be déjà vu all over again, it is not as much because it could parallel Dion’s disastrous campaign as because many of its features are reminiscent of the 1988 free trade election.
Then as now, the provinces were divided. Those divisions existed not only at the national level but also within regions.
Alberta was staunchly behind Brian Mulroney’s free trade deal while B.C. was home to a vocal anti-FTA coalition.
New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna liked the deal; P.E.I.’s Joe Ghiz did not.
Like Trudeau on carbon pricing today, Mulroney had solid support for his free trade project in his home province. Quebec’s political class was overwhelmingly on side with the Canada/U.S. trade agreement.
The story was completely different in Ontario.
He would not like the comparison but former Liberal premier David Peterson was the Doug Ford of the free-trade federal election.
Like Ford vis-à-vis Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Peterson cut a larger figure as premier of Canada’s most populous province than John Turner as federal leader of the official opposition
And like Scheer, Turner could ill afford to be offside with his Ontario ally.
In 1988, corporate Canada backed free trade to the hilt. On Thursday, Canada’s Business Council similarly came out in support of Trudeau’s carbon-pricing policy.
But as opposed to the free trade battle that found big business and organized labour in opposite camps, the climate change debate finds many corporate and union leaders on the same pro-carbon tax side.
When stacked against the real-life experiences of Quebec and B.C. the Conservative math on the devastating economic impact of Trudeau’s carbon tax does not readily add up. Scheer and his brain trust obviously believe their electoral calculations will.
This week, both sides in the debate have drawn deep and defining lines in the pro-election sand. Voters will have the last word next fall.
Over the decades that followed Mulroney’s 1988 victory, most of those who had fought in the anti-FTA election trenches eventually laid down their arms and joined the pro-free trade camp. That was never more in evidence than over the recent NAFTA renegotiation.
If next fall’s federal election does turn into a plebiscite on whether or not to try to mitigate climate change by taxing carbon pollution, its outcome could finally put the debate to rest.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert