For more than a decade, federal Conservatives across the country have taken aim at carbon tax policy with great vitriol, attacking every aspect of what they saw as its hefty financial expense, to its ineptitude at actually combating climate change.
Vilifying any mention of a carbon tax was a common refrain.
Take Michelle Rempel Garner, speaking in the House of Commons in the spring of 2019: “A carbon tax does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it kills jobs and it is bad public policy. It is bourgeois public policy. It is elitist public policy.”
Later that year, burying the tax was a pillar of the Conservative election campaign, as then-leader Andrew Scheer vowed his first order of business, if elected, would be repealing the carbon tax.
(His climate plan had no firm reduction targets, instead focusing on tax credits and imposing strict emissions standards on heavy polluters, with penalties that would fund green research and technology.)
But now — just two years after that election — the Conservatives have pulled a 180-degree turn. Inside the Conservative platform are the words “price on carbon.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s support for a carbon tax.
“I think it’s an evolution for parts of our party — but there’s also many parts of our party that have been pushing forward for environmental solutions of all types,” said Greg McLean, the Conservative candidate running for re-election in the riding of Calgary Centre.
While the climate strategy has been heavily scrutinized and criticized by some, it also means all the major federal parties now support some version of a carbon tax.
Although it’s a milestone of sorts, it doesn’t necessarily mean the issue will be any less politicized in the future. And depending on the outcome of the election, it’s also not a guarantee the policy will remain in future Conservative platforms.
Still, many experts say supporting a carbon tax is a necessity for the party.
“Some members still think fighting a tax is always the right thing to do,” said Ken Boessenkool, with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a former senior policy adviser to Stephen Harper.
“The reality is that the Conservatives federally cannot get elected without a credible climate plan.”
Carbon savings account
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole still plans to scrap the carbon tax currently in place, replacing it with a Conservative version.
Under his plan, Canadians would pay a carbon levy, initially amounting to $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions —half the current federal rate — every time they buy hydrocarbon-based fuels, such as gasoline. The Conservatives would divert the money to personal low carbon savings accounts, which can then be tapped to help Canadians live a greener life, such as by purchasing a bicycle or a new efficient furnace.
O’Toole has also finally admitted what most experts have said for years: The most efficient way to reduce emissions is through putting a price on carbon.
For Boessenkool, the Conservatives had to change direction on this issue, because rallying against a carbon tax was no longer a point of strength, but rather a liability.
“When you have issues that you can get defeated on, you have to address them before the election starts. This is why the carbon policy came out months ago,” said Boessenkool.
Liability in last election
Former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt has admitted the reason she believes she lost her Ontario seat in the last election was because “we opposed a carbon tax.”
She made the remark in March, during a virtual forum on climate change hosted by Clean Prosperity, an organization which advocates for carbon policy to tackle climate change.
Between the elections in 2008 and 2019, Raitt noticed how voter perception was changing on the issue, even while the anti-carbon tax stance became more deeply entrenched in the Conservative Party’s DNA with every passing year.
“It always came back to the fact that we opposed a carbon price meant that we were opposed to the climate — and that was table stakes at each and every single door,” Raitt said about campaigning in 2019. “They could not get their head around our climate plan, and it was fizzling at the doorstep.”
Ultimately, the Conservatives found themselves out of step on climate policy, said Mitchell Davidson, former executive director of policy for Ontario Premier Doug Ford and current executive director with the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy.
“It’s always tough when you take a political party that one of its main stances is lower cost of living, lower taxation — and then stand up for something that increases taxes,” he said. “But we’re at a point now where the crisis is too great.”
If every major federal party continues to support a carbon tax, the issue could become less politicized — and the sticking points would instead be around the best way to implement the policy.
Carbon tax in place — for now
But not everyone is convinced the Conservatives will continue to support a carbon tax if O’Toole is not elected and suffers a fate worse than Scheer’s vote total in 2019.
“I think a lot actually does hinge on the result of this election, in terms of the carbon tax debate. I don’t think it’s over yet,” said Davidson.
Barinder Bhullar, the former director of policy for British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, agrees.
“I don’t think the debate is settled within the Conservative Party, particularly amongst its members,” he said.
“I think the elected MPs of the Conservatives understand it, and do get it, and will move on. But I think there is a faction within that party that still doesn’t believe in carbon taxes and carbon pricing.”
Some Conservatives insist the strategy is not, in fact, a carbon tax.
Several Conservative premiers, including Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, continue to bash carbon tax policy, even as scientific warnings about climate change become increasingly dire and even after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that carbon pricing is constitutional.
In his 2018 book, Right Here, Right Now, former prime minister Harper described carbon taxes as “wildly unpopular” and wrote “political parties, including mine, have won elections just by opposing a carbon tax.”
Now, just a few years and two election cycles later, his own party has changed its tune.