Look back farther still, to Confederation. The partisans of 1864 were every bit as polarized as those who rule today. It took nothing less than a Great Coalition — the total suppression of partisanship in service to something greater — to forge, three years later, a brand new country from the caterwauling colonies of Canada East, Canada West, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Fast-forward to 2019 and a growing swath of Canadians — a majority, in fact — see the threat of climate change in such non-partisan terms. And barely a year ago, it looked as if serious action was imminent, and here to stay, rooted in the widely accepted compromise of a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
It wasn’t the preferred action of Canada’s environmental left, but it was the one that Canada’s right could embrace: a market-driven, small-c conservative approach to decarbonization that had already been working effectively for a decade in British Columbia, where the sky had not fallen. Conservative stalwarts like Alberta’s Preston Manning were onside.
“I know Preston Manning is concerned — a lot of people in the party are concerned — that going to war in such a populist way is going to involve short-term gain at the risk of long-term pain,” said a policy insider with first-hand knowledge of how the conservative debate on climate has shifted.
“It may be the popular thing to do right now — it certainly is popular with the Conservative base, and it might even be popular with ordinary voters. But if the populist strategy wins, you end up hostaging the future because younger voters, women, suburban voters, university-educated voters, they all want the party to look serious on climate.
“There’s probably a 50-50 split on carbon price. But a clear majority is saying, ‘Climate change is real; you’ve got to have a reasonable position on climate. So the danger is Conservatives don’t look like they have any reasonable position on climate change.”
Many climate-conscious conservatives are reluctant to go on the record as they work quietly from within to advocate for a longer-term climate strategy.
But one who is more than happy to vocalize these frustrations publicly is former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who, from the comfort of his afterlife as mayor of Brampton, is clearly disgusted that climate action has evolved into such a political piñata. If Brown is out of the tent because it moved elsewhere, onto more populist ground, he now seems ready to hold a match against it.
“When I was Opposition leader in Ontario we had a caucus retreat on climate change and I took it to a vote — it’s the only time I took a vote in caucus on an issue. All but two supported my position that we should be part of the national climate change accord,” Brown told the Star.
“We had a 20-point lead in the polls and (after the replacement of Brown with Doug Ford and the abandonment of carbon pricing) they ended up winning by six. So in the change of direction, the more hard-right approach almost squandered the lead.
“It’s a shame,” continued Brown. “To be able to get change in Canada, it takes non-partisan consensus, and that’s what we wanted to do on climate change. Look at the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — Pierre Trudeau had Bill Davis in Ontario, a Conservative, to help broker that, and now we look back on 1982 as a shining moment for Canada.
“It took a Conservative premier who was moderate and a Liberal prime minister who was moderate to bring together national consensus. And that’s what we wanted to do on carbon. I can’t help but think we owe it to the next generation of Canadians, and now we have a national setback in our battle on climate change.”
Brown points out that members of Ford’s cabinet — including Environment Minister Rod Phillips, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney and Finance Minister Vic Fedeli — signed up under Brown’s platform on climate, including support for the federal carbon tax.
“Now they are leading the challenge against a carbon tax,” said Brown. “The tune has changed. Sometimes politics is about stunts and photo ops but sometimes it needs to be about what’s right.”
Brown said he believes many Conservatives still believe in carbon pricing. “It’s the same approach that Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan took against acid rain — it’s about letting the markets dictate behaviour. You’d think modern conservatives would adopt those principles,” he said.
Under Brown’s leadership, Ontario’s PCs interacted carefully with their Manitoba counterparts, looking at ways to fall in line with carbon taxation. But in the switch to Doug Ford — and with Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney aligning hard against the policy — Manitoba’s Premier Brian Pallister found himself circumscribed by populist pressure, ultimately turning against Trudeau’s carbon plan.
“It all comes down to leadership,” Brown said. “Ultimately, if Andrew Scheer is unsuccessful in the federal election, and if Doug Ford is defeated in three years … the issue of climate will be taken up by the next party leaders.”
The phrase “carbon tax” is, if not ancient, something that first entered the Canadian lexicon 30 years ago. In the summer of 1989 — just as the Berlin Wall was about to fall and the internet was about to rise – just as Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip introduced “New Orleans Is Sinking” as the first signature song of their Canadian canon — a coalition of 28 environmental groups made front page news calling for a national carbon tax to address global warning.
Today, environmental economists look back on the ensuing decades as more than a collection of false starts, failed ambitions and unmet climate pledges. Real gains were made. And when they unpack the policy details, they see, even in Doug Ford’s Ontario and Jason Kenney’s Alberta, signals of a willingness to act — if not at the retail consumer level, then at least in maintaining regulatory controls on large industrial emitters.
“There was a point, in 2006 and 2007, when Stephen Harper was talking about some pretty aggressive carbon policy. But then along came (Liberal Leader) Stéphane Dion with his green tax shift — including a carbon tax plan in 2011 — and so Harper pivoted against that and it proved electorally very successful,” said Dave Sawyer of EnviroEconomics, an Ottawa-based consultancy.
“In that same election of 2011, the NDP leader, Jack Layton, proposed a cap-and-trade system to harness carbon. Harper went after Layton hard on the ‘job-killing carbon tax’ and it was, electorally, a successful policy. And from there, Conservatives have used it as a pocketbook issue that has served the right really well in Canada.
“My view is that along the way, they changed the values of the Conservative base. The base looks at it and says, ‘This is really bad’ — and that brought us to where we are now,” Sawyer told the Star.
Yet Sawyer emphasizes that for all the grassroots attention the Ford government has aimed at federal carbon taxation, Ontario also dismantled the former Liberal government’s provincial regulations on large industrial emitters — only to then announce it would reimpose regulations that look very much like those of former premier Kathleen Wynne.
“That’s what’s so interesting to me — the contradiction,” Sawyer said. “The Ford government is still rolling out the details, but their biofuels policy alone is likely to have the impact of a couple of cents a litre at the gas pump. So it is just the carbon tax they are against? Is it just Justin Trudeau’s Liberals? Is it all climate action? Something isn’t fully reconciled here and the big industrial emitters — the big 150 companies that just happen to be our export engines — it has left many of them scratching their heads.”
Canadian policy organizations that specialize in carbon pricing issues — non-partisan NGOs such as the Alberta-based Pembina Institute and Toronto’s Canadians for Clean Prosperity — point to the success of British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon tax as a milestone that awakened interest among fiscal conservatives throughout Canada. Of all the climate policy options, revenue neutrality — ensuring every tax dollar is cycled back to families that need it most — holds appeal for a swath of conservatives who agree action is necessary but are wary of heavier market invention.
One source familiar with the building of the Patrick Brown campaign platform told the Star that though much of the Ontario party was nervous about the move to support a carbon tax, everyone understood how strongly such a policy would appeal to centrist swing voters the party hoped to capture.
But at least one conservative insider told the Star many Canadian conservatives remain uneasy about the prospect that once carbon taxes are established as the norm, future governments may eventually strip away the all-important revenue-neutral element, instead spending the cash on expensive environment projects the Canadian right tends to despise.
As criticism of Ontario’s current approach grows, Phillips, the environment minister, last week pushed back, insisting the Ford government has “put forward some very pragmatic solutions” and that Ontario remains on track to meet federal targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, designed to stop global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius.
The confusion and mixed messages extend also to the federal electoral map, where Scheer’s Conservatives and Trudeau’s Liberals now are engaged in all-out Twitter war over who is in the pocket of Big Oil versus who has no interest in the everyday struggles of Canadians trying to fill their tanks.
One hopeful sign: Scheer on Saturday gave himself a deadline, pledging to supporters in Victoriaville, Que., that he would release his party’s climate change plan by the end of June. He gave no details, other than saying it would address the environmental challenges of the 21st century.
It’s difficult to envision how the two plans will measure up. It’s even more difficult to envision, with the debate already polluted by so much hyperpartisan rhetoric, that either party will elevate the issue to something bigger than politics.
But if nothing else, Canadian voters now can expect to see details before they make their own decisions on the approaching quest for power in Ottawa.
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites