Opinion-Policy Nexus

It is far too soon to know whether climate change and carbon pricing will be the defining issue in next October’s federal election.

With Donald Trump, the erratic child president calling the shots from Twitter Control in his bedroom, new issues are bound to be created and old ones re-invented. Any one – new trade demands, tariff barriers, border security, nuclear confrontation with North Korea, a Middle East crisis with Saudi Arabia, and so on – could take centre stage in the Canadian election, as could an unexpected purely domestic issue.

At the moment, however, the carbon tax – a term for which the Liberals are desperately seeking a euphemism – is the emerging battleground.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is gambling that voters will accept-short term pain, in the form of a 4.42-cent increase in the price of a litre of gasoline (offset by income tax rebates for families that reduce their carbon footprint), is an acceptable price to pay for the long-term gain of reduced pollution, less climate change and a healthier planet.

It sounds like a good deal, but will voters buy it?

South of here, Trump and his Republican sheep are having none of it.  The president is out on the midterm hustings, denouncing carbon taxes as a blatant attempt to steal money from the wallets and food from the tables of working Americans. It’s America First – more jobs and lower taxes, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.

The Trump anti-tax message, if not his full-bore rhetoric, has spilled across the border into the Conservative election campaign being led by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Ottawa surrogate, Andrew Scheer.

Neither Ford nor Scheer seems to have a clue what he would do if he were facing the climate issue as Trudeau is. Opposition is all they offer. And if history is a guide, it may be enough.

There is a sense of déjà vu about this nascent election – and a whiff of irony.

Think back to December 1979. Joe Clark was prime minister with a minority Progressive Conservative government, having defeated Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in the election the previous spring.

Finance Minister John Crosbie was facing a dual challenge: a large inherited deficit of $11.2 billion, and a need for more revenue to pay for Tory election promises to lower taxes on the middle class and to institute American-style income-tax deductions for mortgage interest payments and municipal property taxes.

In Crosbie’s first (and only) budget that December, the Clark government gambled that Canadians would accept short-term pain – an excise tax increase on gasoline of 30 cents per imperial gallon (about 6.5 cents per litre) – in return for the long-term gains in the budget.

They were wrong. The Conservatives were defeated on a budget vote in the Commons, then lost the ensuing election as a reinvigorated Trudeau roused voters against the Tory “tax grab.”

A sour John Crosbie put it this way in “No Holds Barred,” his 1997 memoir: “The public wants to be gulled, lulled, and fooled by its politicians. It doesn’t want to be asked to approve of tough measures …The public prefers to look down on politicians as untrustworthy, sneaky devious, and selfish, and doesn’t accept attempts to be honest during election campaigns.”

(Full disclosure: I was Crosbie’s ghost-writer on the memoir.)

The irony is that this time, the parties’s roles in the short-term pain/long-term gain equation are reversed. The Trudeau Liberals must argue for the long-term gain while the Ford/Scheer Conservatives try to exploit the short-term pain.

Pierre Trudeau would probably be amused. His son less so.

Justin has to hope that Canadian voters are more sophisticated and better informed than they were 40 years ago, that they understand the present risk and future menace of global warming. He has to trust they will agree that, while a carbon tax (or whatever it is called) is a small step, it is a necessary step in the right direction.

This could be another historic political gamble.


Monday, October 29, 2018 - 09:07