Brendan Boyd - PCs could use win to implement carbon pricing

Retrieved from the Winnipeg Free Press:

Last week’s provincial election brought Manitoba’s first change in the governing party in almost two decades. The province is in for some changes. Throughout the campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister provided an idea of what to expect in some areas: rolling back the provincial sales tax, lowering ambulance fees, spending on targeted infrastructure projects and focusing on literacy in school-aged children.

One area Pallister and the PCs did not discuss in detail was the party’s position on climate change. In fact, climate change only made headlines when a protestor crashed a series of PC events calling the party out for not being clear on the issue.

Under the NDP, Manitoba committed to developing a cap-and-trade system along with Quebec, Ontario and California. The question is will the new government make good on this commitment, adopt a different approach, such as a carbon tax, or abandon carbon pricing altogether? The last of these options would align Manitoba with Saskatchewan and Premier Brad Wall, who was reluctant to support a carbon price when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the premiers last month in Vancouver. However in looking to conservative colleagues for guidance, Pallister may want to turn east, to Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown in Ontario.

After years of opposing any form of carbon pricing, the Ontario PCs, under Brown’s leadership, decided to engage in a more constructive debate about how carbon should be priced. Brown has argued a revenue-neutral tax, where money is returned to taxpayers in the form of cuts to personal and business taxes, is preferable to the government’s plan to use the proceeds of cap and trade to fund green projects and other priorities. The same debate about how revenue from carbon pricing should be used is occurring in Alberta, after the NDP announced its carbon tax in 2015. Including BC and Quebec, the four largest provinces in Canada, and the federal government, now support some form of carbon pricing. The writing is on the wall — the debate in Canada has shifted from whether carbon pricing is necessary, to a discussion of the most efficient and appropriate instrument to reflect the true cost of carbon in the economy.

For right-leaning parties in Canada, supporting a carbon tax is not just good policy, it is good politics. Leading up to the BC provincial election in 2009, Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell placed the opposition NDP in a difficult position by adopting a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The NDP ended up opposing the policy by running a controversial "axe the tax" campaign. Its position placed the party offside with environmental groups and much of the NDP’s traditional voting base. Campbell’s gambit proved successful as the Liberals were elected to a third straight majority government.

If Pallister decided in government to introduce a revenue-neutral carbon tax in Manitoba, he would insulate himself from criticism on the left. The NDP would gain very little traction in opposing the policy, because it failed to put a price on carbon during its 17 years in government. There would likely be pushback from the business community and the PCs’ voting base. However, with a strong mandate and a weakened opposition, the Tories are in the rare and enviable position of being able to think long term on policy issues. This does not mean the party should take their constituents’ support for granted — far from it. But it does mean there is room for the party to stretch its intellectual horizons and broaden its appeal to the provincial electorate, while bringing along its traditional base of support. If the PCs are looking at their recent win as the beginning of a long run in government, as opposed to a message from voters to the NDP, this is the type of policy idea they should be entertaining.

The new government may already have thought of this. While climate change and carbon pricing were not defining issues in the campaign, the PC platform does commit to pursing carbon pricing that fosters emissions reduction and keeps capital in the province. If it is surprising a right-leaning party would support carbon pricing, remember, the most unlikely agents of change are often the most powerful. After all, only Nixon could go to China.

Brendan Boyd is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Calgary, School of Public Policy.