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‘Criminally irresponsible’ for Tories not to release climate plan, says activist, but Conservative strategists and pollsters say it’s unwise to push out plan as SNC-Lavalin scandal dominates

By Neil Moss and Peter Mazereeuw      

A recent report by Environment and Climate Change Canada found that Canada was warming at twice the rate of the world.

The Liberal government's carbon tax went into effect on April 1, 2019, placing a $20 price tag on every tonne of greenhouse gas emission. Conservative leaders are calling for its removal. The Hill Times file photograph
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It’s “criminally irresponsible” for the Conservatives to attack the Liberals’ carbon tax without offering an alternative plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says an environmental activist, but Conservative strategists and pollsters say there’s no sense in the opposition releasing a key policy platform in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network, said the Conservatives are taking a “disturbingly cynical” approach to climate change.

“I think it’s very unacceptable that they are clearly using this issue that will determine the health and safety of current and future generations in Canada to play partisan politics,” Ms. Abreu said, adding it is “unacceptable” that the Conservatives have not brought forward a climate plan.

In the short-term, it may win the Tories some votes, Ms. Abreu said, but in the long-term it is going to deteriorate a substantial portion of their voting base.

“Having nothing to offer is criminally irresponsible at this point,” she said.

On April 1, the Liberal government’s long-anticipated price on carbon pollution came into effect for four provinces without their own plans: New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The tax starts this year at $20 per tonne and will increase to $50 by 2022.

The Liberals have been keeping a rolling count of the days since Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) said he would release a climate change plan.

Last week, Mr. Scheer said that the Tories climate plan will be released “with plenty of time before the election.”

Pollster Nik Nanos also said the Conservatives need to roll out their own climate change plan, or risk the issue being a “vulnerability” for the party.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the Tory’s climate plan will be released with ‘plenty of time’ before the election. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Liberals have started to criticize the Conservative Party for not making details of any climate change plan public. However, both Mr. Nanos and Conservative pundits said the Conservatives don’t need to rush to do so amid a barrage of news headlines about the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense to roll out a whole bunch of policy when your opponent is stepping on rakes in the middle of a minefield. You kinda stand back and let them do that,” said Yaroslav Baran, a consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former high-level communications adviser for several Conservative Party campaigns.

“They can keep their powder dry until the election,” said Mr. Nanos, the chair of Nanos Research.

Susan Smith, a Liberal strategist and Bluesky Strategy Group principal, said the Conservatives need to announce their climate change plan sooner rather than later.

“It’s hard to repeatedly criticize something when you’re not proposing an alternative,” Ms. Smith said.

Meanwhile, another Conservative strategist criticized the Liberals’ roll out of the Climate Action Incentive, the government’s rebate program that will return cash sucked up by the carbon tax back into the pockets of taxpayers.

Kate Harrison, a former Conservative strategist and vice-president of Summa Strategies, said the rebate has been mishandled as it is being lost in the all-encompassing SNC-Lavalin affair.

The amount Canadians will receive through the rebate will depend on where they live and the number of people in their family. Residents of small and rural communities will get an additional 10 per cent. For example, an individual in Ontario would receive $154 versus $305 for Saskatchewan, while a family of four would receive $307 in Ontario and $609 in Saskatchewan.

Ms. Harrison said the Liberals view the tax as a environmental policy while the Conservatives are framing it as a fiscal plan.

“[The Conservatives and Liberals] are looking at the issue from two very different lenses,” Ms. Harrison said, adding that pocketbook and affordability issues are of more concern for Canadian voters than environmental concerns.

An Environment and Climate Change Canada report that was released on April 2 found that Canada was warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and northern Canada was warming at three times the rate.

Since 1948, Canada has warmed by 1.7 C every year, and in the North the increase is 2.3 C. The global average is 0.8 C since the same year.

“This report makes it very clear that climate change is happening in Canada, and in fact Canadian communities—particularly in the North, particularly Indigenous communities, particularly coastal communities—are experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change of any communities in the world,” Ms. Abreu said.

Last week, the soon-to-be departing Environment Commissioner, Julie Gelfand, said that successive governments have not done enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Liberal strategy of repeatedly highlighting climate change in their public communications is an attempt to “draw a clear contrast” between themselves and the opposition Conservatives, said Mr. Baran.

“It’s a funny issue, it’s an interesting issue, in that both sides feel that they have a winner on their hands, and that they can clobber the other side with it,” he said.

The Conservatives will have to put forward their own plan for combatting climate change if they want to maintain credibility with voters, said Mr. Baran.

“They will also need to put an alternative in the window that’s not based on carbon pricing. It’s one thing to focus on the ‘tax grab’ part of it, but they’re still going to need to inoculate themselves against the charge that, ‘well you guys don’t even have a climate policy, do you even believe in climate change?’” he said, adding, “they will do that.”

In opposing a free-market solution to climate change in carbon pricing, the Conservative party has taken a position that seems to run counter to its ideological roots, something Mr. Baran called an “accident of history.” The Conservatives and Liberals fought the 2008 election over then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift” carbon tax plan, and the Conservatives had great success attacking the tax. It would be difficult for the party to reverse itself on the issue, said Mr. Baran, and there is little reason to do so after having so much success campaigning against carbon pricing in the past.

Mr. Nanos said the Liberals’ decision to put climate change, and by extension their carbon tax, in the forefront of their communications to the public could be a mistake.

“I’m not sure how wise it is for a government to think that they can get elected on making a tax popular. That’s usually a path to defeat,” he said.

The fight over climate change and the carbon tax won’t likely determine the election outcome nationally, but could jeopardize Liberal candidates in the B.C. Lower Mainland, where the government’s policies on climate change and the carbon tax will be conflated with its purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, said Mr. Nanos.

“Their strategy has something that will repel everyone, whether you are an environmentalist, or whether you are in favour of pipelines,” he said.

Greg Lyle, pollster and owner of Innovative Research Group, said his polling shows more Canadians support the carbon tax than oppose it.

“Generally there’s more support for the policy than opposition, including in the 905,” Mr. Lyle said, adding when the respondents are told about certain cost increases associated with the tax, the 10 point margin of support for a carbon tax shifts to an even split, with many people torn on the tax.

Mr. Lyle said the most important battlegrounds in the election will be the 905-area around Toronto, followed by some select regions in Quebec and the Lower Mainland. Both Quebec and B.C. have already implemented carbon pricing plans.

In areas where the carbon tax is very unpopular, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, there are few seats for the Tories to pick up, Mr. Lyle said. He added that the pricing plan could make a small difference in Atlantic Canada, with a focus on New Brunswick, where the Liberals swept in 2015, but the Progressive Conservatives won provincially in September.

He said that even though there is a 10 per cent margin of support for the carbon tax, the Liberals could be threatened as the people who oppose the tax have far fewer parties to pick from—just the Conservatives and to a lesser extend the People’s Party. Voters who support the carbon tax can pick between the Liberals, NDP, Greens, or the Bloc Québécois.

The issue, Mr. Lyle added, is one where the Liberals could rally progressive support as they serve as a counterbalance to Conservative premiers, like Ontario’s Doug Ford, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs, who have lambasted the carbon tax.

“Liberals [can] say ‘if you want a strong voice to stand up against these crazy Conservatives, you need to unite behind the Liberals because we’re in a position to stop these folks’,” he said.

Ms. Smith said Doug Ford’s style of governance and policy positions serve as an “excellent contrast” to the style and policies of Mr. Trudeau, adding that it’s always beneficial to a prime minister when the premier in Ontario is from the opposition party.

A recent poll released by Ipsos found that the majority of Ontarians had a negative view of Mr. Ford’s environmental policies.

Before the carbon pricing plan was introduced, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives staged a series of photo-ops at gas stations to highlight their opposition to the tax. One MPP, Natalia Kusendova, even had her picture taken without a car to fill up.

The Conservatives have been criticized, including in opinion pieces in The Globe and Mail, for the gas-station photo ops, and for characterizing the Liberal carbon tax as being more costly for Canadians than it really will be. The tax is expected to raise the price of gasoline by about four cents per litre. The majority of the revenue collected from the tax will be rebated to taxpayers.

Mr. Baran said criticisms about the impact of the tax should go both ways: the Liberals can’t claim that their tax will change behaviour on a grand scale, thus mitigating climate change, while arguing that the tax will only modestly increase prices on goods that produce greenhouse gases.

He said the Conservatives will continue to hammer on the tax’s impact on consumers because “they know that message works,” but said the party must also, eventually, try to sell its own climate change solution.



The Hill Times

Neil Moss

Neil Moss is a reporter at The Hill Times covering federal politics, foreign policy, and defence. 
- nmoss@hilltimes.com

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