Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ontario politician caught thinking about a carbon tax

The brilliant American political columnist Michael Kinsley offered a precious tip to young reporters and alert citizens: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.”
Last week, Dave Levac parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Energy blurted out “there is a possibility that a carbon tax is on the table to evaluate.” Within hours, he discovered that he’d “misspoke.” The same day, Premier McGuinty insisted the story was a “distraction.”
A “distraction” is as flat a denial as you can get in today’s hyper-programmed politics and by the weekend the press were gently summing up the incident saying that the Premier’s smooth campaign had been “tripped up” when one of his “own candidates wrongly suggested the Liberals were considering a carbon tax.”
And so, according to Premier McGuinty, there is no point talking about a carbon tax to fight climate change and stimulate energy conservation and innovation—an idea that for years has been carefully developed by dozens of government officials in Ontario, Ottawa and Washington.
The best we can hope for, for now, is that all three Ontario party leaders not further restrict future policy development by competing to disparage a powerful idea.
Dalton McGuinty is easily convinced of his own sincerity and there’s no reason to question his present opposition. He was against the Harmonized Sales Tax (GST) for years before Stephen Harper made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. And, unfortunately, there’s little likelihood that Harper will reverse his own opposition to a carbon tax. (Unlike Dalton McGuinty, he has never pretended to be a leader on clean energy or climate change.)
Nevertheless, Dave Levac’s gaffe offers a small glimpse at a great story.
The diligent young PA probably was briefed on the concept of carbon tax as an effective alternative to cap-and-trade schemes and the maze of subsidies now being undertaken in Ontario to get us off fossil fuels. It is also conceivable that he left the briefing impressed with the idea.
The idea is only dead for now for political reasons—for reasons that may not stand up over time or reflect well on Ontario’s current crop of political leaders.
The carbon tax’s virtues are political vices: it is a tax you can see and governments can’t hide; it’s transparent but leaves little room for side-deals and lobbying; it treats consumers as polluters as well the firms that sell them dirty goods; it doesn’t need a big bureaucracy, but it doesn’t give Premier’s ribbons to cut at factory openings and job targets to tick off.
It got off to a bad start in Canada. Its early adopters—Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff—weren’t persuasive on economics generally, let alone taxes and economic incentives. Nevertheless, in Canada as in the US, the more the alternatives (business subsidies and regulations systems) are discredited, the more important it will be to keep the idea alive.
Of course, a carbon tax isn’t sexy. However, fighting climate change isn’t sexy either—it’s an expensive obligation that deserves to be addressed intelligently.

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