Politics
Chris Windeyer
Chris Windeyer

Fear of a Carbon Tax: Tory Scare Tactics in Action

Conservatives continue to use carbon pricing as a cartoon bogeyman.

On carbon pricing, the Conservatives have always been subtle as a jackhammer: It’s a tax on everything, it will kill jobs, it’s bad, and so is any politician who dares suggest implementing such a Four-Horsemen policy.

The Tories dropped this talking point on Stephane Dion like a cartoon piano during the 2008 campaign, won another minority government, watched the Liberals bumble themselves into a Michael Ignatieff leadership and, eventually, distant third-party status.

They fell in love with the carbon tax bogeyman so much that the phrase “job-killing carbon tax” began to lose its impact, especially when the economists started picking at it. A search for the phrase on openparliament.ca, reveals 310 utterances of it in Parliament since June 2008, when Dion’s Green Shift policy launched.

(Fun piece of trivia: the first Tory to trot out “job-killing carbon tax” in the House was Dean Del Mastro on June 16, 2008. He’s in jail now.)

Fast-forward to Tuesday, when the three Northern Conservative candidates, Floyd Roland, Leona Aglukkaq and Ryan Leef, issued a statement denouncing supposed Liberal and NDP plans to implement a nationwide carbon pricing scheme.

“The cost of living in each Territory is much higher than the South,” the candidates say. “From the food on our tables to the cars that we drive, almost everything is shipped up to the North.” Nothing much to quibble with here: everyone in the North experiences this on a daily basis. Although it might be more honest to go further and admit for much of the North — the High Arctic for instance — sheer distance means it will always be so, no matter what government does.

The Tories go on to warn: “Any form of a carbon tax would impact every single person living in the North, making the North even more costly to live and work.”

Again, there’s something to this. As I wrote back in April, large swathes of the North are woefully unprepared for a post-carbon economy. There are literally no alternatives to fossil-fuelled existence that are readily available. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but to be glib, it’s the federal government’s fault, going back a long, long way.

A familiar narrative

Sadly, the whole Tory statement goes off the rails in that depressingly familiar way, wherein there are only two possible futures: a joyless, gray future in which the Liberals or NDP (or worse, both!) have taken all of your money, or the sweater-comfortable future where Father Harper continues to shower the fortunate masses with boutique tax credits.

So yeah, they don’t really do subtle.

And again, to be fair, the NDP is being frustratingly vague with its carbon pricing plans. The Liberals at least have the guts to put the words “carbon pricing” on their website, but they pledge to leave that policy option to the provinces.

But the opposition parties are operating in a box of the Conservatives’ making (proving that, whatever else they may be, the Tories are really good at politics). Because despite the fact that, among others, environmentalists, most economists, oil companies, and the World Bank all support the principle of carbon pricing, the concept and its various permutations (carbon taxes, cap-and-trade) remains in this country the political equivalent of a live hand grenade.

Which is really a shame. There are, believe it or not, possible worlds where Canada uses carbon pricing as a tool to reduce emissions, while at the same time, making particular allowances for the realities of the North.

We already get special tax credits that could be expanded, or, we could use the territories as a giant pilot project to test a guaranteed income, which could also help with our massive food security problem. We still have a major infrastructure shortage North of 60. What’s stopping a government from diverting a share of any carbon tax revenue toward that festering issue? And an article published today in the journal Nature argues investments in renewables–which the North badly needs mostly to improve reliability and reduce energy costs–would take the sting out of a carbon tax.

The answer, it would seem, is naked politics. We still have (God help us) six weeks of campaigning left. That would seem to leave plenty of time for the parties to offer up some specific visions for the territories, beyond just clubbing each other with blunt talking points.

But with just three seats, as close as this election is, I wouldn’t hold your breath.