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, October 17, 2016

Is Justin Trudeau’s ‘carbon price’ too good to oppose?

Some short speeches are worth taking nearly a year to write. Justin Trudeau’s you price carbon or I will declaration to the provinces may be one of them.

It respects the ancient rules of Liberal incumbency: it honors international commitments, has the sympathy of most go-to policy analysts, won’t touch the middle-class, ever so gently, for years. Best of all, it has a black-hat cast of detractors, right-wing deniers, left-wing dreamers, and even a prim prairie premier leading the charge.

Its weaknesses are also its strength. There will be two years for bureaucratic brainstorming with the three biggest Liberal provincial governments before Trudeau must decide whether to bring down the hammer, starting with a puny nationwide $10-per-ton tax on carbon. And, as a largely incomprehensible war cry, a “carbon price can be defended as one of those good whatevers smart people like and paranoids oppose. Being a euphemism for another consumption tax only makes it that much smarter.

With all this easily grasped by every opposition wordsmith with a security pass on Parliament Hill, why then are New Democrats and Tories (with the exception of that high-minded lone-wolf Michael Chong) not going along? Are they being too partisan too pass that life-or-death, good-citizen-of-the-world, common-sense test that is demanded by swing voters from coast to coast?

Duh. No.

In Canada, you can’t be dumb in public about a global threat as serious as climate change. But, you can, in fact, sound smart parting company with Justin Trudeau’s bold plan, and the qualified support of Andrew Coyne, for that matter, and be likeable by openly not liking Trudeau’s carbon tax plan.

First. Federal New Democrats are not honor-bound to keep up with the Liberals when they bully provinces and appropriate elements of a conservative market mechanism to fight a global problem. Furthermore, in opposition, they’d be crazy to support any tax increase that has to hit workers and families in energy-intensive ridings the hardest.

The left, of course, is free to outbid the Liberals with promises to raise taxes on those two exotic minorities: big business polluters and the rich.  However, they haven’t before and needn’t now help the Liberal Party’s indecently popular leader raise taxes on voting blocks that social democrats have solicited for generations.

Trudeau, on the face of it, has designed and intends to actually implement a carbon mitigation plan well to the right of Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. New Democrats are free to leave him out there.

Second. Conservatives can survive being called hypocrites by Liberals.

Yes, Trudeau’s carbon “price” is less harsh and isn’t the federal government-money grab that was proposed by Stephen Dion. His “Green Shift" was soundly rejected in the 2008 election and Liberals learn from their mistakes. Nevertheless, Trudeau’s less rambunctious carbon tax plan will not be an alternative to inferior regulatory alternatives, but another add-on. His Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna has repeatedly assured lobbyists and provinces that they can keep bulking up subsidy and regulatory interventions.

Trudeau declared with great care that his carbon tax plan is “revenue neutral to the federal government.” Provincial governments will get every cent raised from their business and individuals. Nevertheless, its essential rationale and its inescapable impact on carbon consumers can’t be “neutral.”

The only way to leave energy-intensive users whole would be to provide matching rebates against each consumer’s carbon tax bill. But leaving them whole would contradict the whole point of Trudeau’s tax.

(Ontario Premier Wynne’s pre-election electricity rate rebate to hard-pressed electricity customers offers a real time example of trying anyway.)

It needn’t be supported today by scientifically literate and ambitious New Democrats or Conservatives.

The Trudeau government reply, of course, is that New Democrats are first to insist that Canada honor multilateral agreements and should, therefore, be first to back a carbon “price” plan that is sincerely designed to meet the climate change targets agreed to at the UN conference of all nations in Paris. The Trudeau government would also reply that the Tories have no right to complain because (1) they don’t care about climate change and (2) are not licensed to care about people. Sadly, both parties are too petty (as I am now) to hold hands and help Canada be seen to do its part to save the planet.

At the very least, the opposition—loyal, cynical, or otherwise—shouldn’t offer support, in advance, to the dark and sunny sides of a comprehensive carbon tax without (in concert with the provinces) full disclosure on how it would be applied.

In the meantime, let’s bear down on what the world truly needs: affordable technology alternatives to fossil power and a declaration by the next US president that she’ll propose and champion a substantive carbon tax or an alternative, verifiable form of American sacrifice worth Canadian sacrifice as well.

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