Globe Editorial: On climate change, are the Conservatives about to make the same mistakes again?

After the federal Conservatives lost the 2019 election, in part because of a weak climate plan, some party members began to ponder policy changes that could help future victories.

Strategist Ken Boessenkool, who had worked closely with Stephen Harper, was the most public advocate for change. In a series of poll-based articles, he argued the party needed a ‘credible’ climate plan, including a consumption carbon tax accompanied by an income tax cut individuals, to win enough votes in suburban Toronto to regain power.

Under Erin O’Toole, the Tories changed course in the 2021 election and offered a last-ditch program under which the government would collect carbon taxes but return them to spenders through free savings accounts. personal tax, instead of a tax refund. time – the Liberals’ current plan. The Conservatives still have not made any gains in suburban Toronto.

Mr O’Toole is now a thing of the past, and the Tories led by interim leader Candice Bergen are once again officially opposed to any form of carbon tax. The leader, Pierre Poilievre, is fiercely opposed to this idea.

But Mr. Boessenkool is making another effort. And this time he joins Lisa Raitt, the former Harper cabinet minister and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and Jim Dinning, Ralph Klein’s right-hand man in the 1990s. They launched the Conservatives for Clean Growth. Their aim is to help the party’s leadership candidates “develop a credible climate, energy and economic plan”.

The details remain vague – and in particular do not mention a carbon tax on consumption. Their main pitch is “Canada’s unprecedented economic and technological opportunities as the world moves toward net zero.” The group cites a carbon tax on industry, as well as regulations, but also suggests producing and exporting more natural gas – “cleaner energy” – is part of its plan.

The general direction is good. Canada needs a Conservative Party that sits at the top table of the climate debate. A strong majority of Canadians in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections backed parties that supported climate action, including an economy-wide carbon tax. But that doesn’t mean the discussion is over. The details of climate policy are voluminous. It will be important to do them correctly.

The Liberals, for example, plan to cap and then reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry. But what will the rules be? The frame is important. If the Conservatives return to the desert of climate policy, and mostly just dismiss the Liberal carbon tax, their absence from the debate will be bad for Canada.

And there is plenty of room for debate. The Liberals, in their first and second terms, have put in place, on the whole, reasonable policies. But since the last election, they seem tottering and slow to come up with new plans.

Canada’s task is enormous. Ottawa promises to reduce emissions to at least 443 megatonnes per year within eight years; the last official count of national emissions was 730 MT. The gap is equivalent to zero emissions from the six provinces east of Manitoba. This is a situation where everyone is on deck. An Official Opposition that would not rule out basic tools like a carbon tax and instead focus on the best way forward would be welcome.

Instead, the Tories appear to be stepping back in time, to 2019, when Andrew Scheer’s climate proposals were lacking and the party’s opposition to the carbon tax was a religion. Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled that Ottawa has the power to impose a carbon tax on consumers and industry, and top provincial Conservative leaders, such as Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, have silenced their opposition. once noisy.

An important point bears repeating: the carbon tax began life as a conservative idea. It is a market mechanism. But because it is a “tax,” too many conservatives instinctively oppose it and, by excluding it from climate policy, force themselves to argue for onerous government regulation, against conservatism.

What is clear is that it will not be easy to get the federal Conservatives to change course. Mr. O’Toole tried, and his attempt was one of the reasons his deputies threw him out.

Pushing realistic policies like a carbon tax could be difficult for anyone hoping to become the next Conservative leader. But as recent history has demonstrated, winning the next general election will be even more difficult if the party is not seen as serious about tackling climate change.

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Teresa H. Sadler