Chairman's Desk

Will voters be persuaded by Erin O’Toole’s daring new climate plan?

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 18, 2021.

This week Erin O’Toole ended months of futile speculation when he announced details of the plan he hopes will take him to 24 Sussex (or at least Rideau Cottage) — also known as the Conservative Party’s climate change plan.

The plan is built around replacing the Liberal carbon tax with a lower levy (a levy, not a tax!) to be paid upon the purchase of gasoline and the like. The money from that levy would go into a personal low-carbon savings account which Canadians could then use to buy certain “green” things.

This differs from the current Liberal plan, which provides direct cash rebates to Canadians.

Let us begin by acknowledging that O’Toole daring to embrace a carbon price at all is worthy of praise. Real political courage is rare, and O’Toole is likely to face significant internal dissent on this proposal.

But, for months, he has promised to bring forward a serious and credible climate change plan. Wednesday’s announcement delivered on that promise.

It follows from the calculation that without it, the party simply would not have been viable in Ontario, and in the 905 specifically.

The problem is that the Conservatives have also spent a significant amount of political capital savaging Trudeau’s carbon tax, only for them to introduce a program that appears, on the surface, to be eerily similar.

But if we look deeper, important distinctions emerge.

Under Trudeau’s climate plan, households in the same province or region get (more or less) the same size cheque, regardless of how little or how big their actual carbon footprint may be.

The Conservative complaint has always been that this unfairly punishes suburbanites or farmers, who necessarily have a bigger carbon footprint because of the need to heat their larger homes or drive greater distances.

Under the Conservative plan, the solution to this problem is that money spent on fossil fuels will instead be given back to the people spending it, through the proposed special savings accounts.

Therein lies the crucial distinction: the Conservative plan is not so much a carbon tax, as a carbon personal mandate (or “pricing mechanism,” to borrow O’Toole’s preferred formulation). The only redistribution at work is taking money that consumers spend increasing their carbon footprint and requiring them to put it towards spending that decreases their carbon footprint.

Viewed this way, the plan is an effective wedge tool. Armed with this policy, O’Toole’s Conservative candidates in the 905 or other similar regions can tell voters that while Trudeau’s Liberals are taxing them because of their lifestyle and sending the money to downtown condo dwellers without cars, their plan puts the money back in their own pockets.

In principle, this is an interesting idea; clever even. But in practice, there are many potential problems. How will the federal government track how much gasoline or other carbon-intensive products people buy? Will the financial services companies even agree to play ball when it comes to implementing this scheme, and how much will it cost to bring them on board? What about people who buy gas and pay with cash? While the proposal describes Canadians using their new personal carbon savings accounts to buy things like bicycles, energy-efficient furnaces or electric vehicles, it’s not really clear how much money would even flow into these accounts at a price point of $20 per tonne.

No matter — doubts and challenges faced the Trudeau Liberals in implementing their own carbon tax. It was only with this month’s Supreme Court ruling that some of those very problems were resolved.

O’Toole’s work is not done. It may well be that when voters ultimately go to the polls, they are unpersuaded by O’Toole’s proposal. Proponents of a price on carbon may be more likely to prefer the Liberal plan; opponents may be upset that O’Toole has embraced the idea at all.

But Wednesday’s announcement will be viewed as a watershed political moment because it marks the first time that a Conservative leader has taken such a serious position on climate change. Going forward, this will hopefully become the baseline for party leaders, even as the party irons out the details of any eventual legislation.

One last point not to miss: Wednesday’s announcement was broadcast live from a new Conservative campaign broadcast centre. With all the bells and whistles of a modern television studio, it was a slick, well-produced and technologically capable display. One that showed the party is more ready than ever to fight a virtual election, whenever it may come.