Carbon tax ruling could help clear jurisdictional and political air

Justin Trudeau didn’t introduce us to the idea of a tax on pollution – we can thank Gordon Campbell, our former premier, for that  – but as of Thursday he was its prime political beneficiary.

The Conservative Party’s Erin O’Toole? Not so much, not yet anyway.

The Supreme Court of Canada split-decision ruling that a national carbon tax is constitutional clears the way for a program, controversial in a few key provinces, to bring to Canada what B.C. has had since 2008.

See, not all of our coastal ideas for the country are deemed wacky in the long run.

The B.C. carbon tax has been a signature if controversial accomplishment in extracting a penalty for punishing the environment. Its companion tax shift has shielded lower-income British Columbians (those with family net incomes of less than about $63,000) through rebated support as a tax credit, although its initial principle of revenue neutrality is no longer one of its bold claims.

The tax hasn’t stopped growth in greenhouse gas emissions – regrettably but realistically, our prosperity is still pinned to that for some time longer – but it has mustered a fee that muddles through the mess of assessing responsibility for accelerating climate change.

Is it the only way to do so? No.

Is it the most pragmatic idea the planet has in the circumstances? Seems so, although the Supreme Court indicated the provinces can still pursue their own programs if they meet the minimum federal standard.

For O’Toole and his Conservatives, bizarrely, this a place they dare not go. If any party might want a free-market solution, it should be his. Campbell’s BC Liberals were, after all, quite the free-market clan, far more so than Trudeau’s federal Liberals, particularly of late.

Yet the Conservative leader could not even persuade his party at its convention this month to acknowledge the reality of climate change, much less that the Conservatives would do something about it. (His predecessor, Andrew Scheer, took the opposite route: agreeing there is climate change, but having no real plan to do much about it.)

O’Toole seems ready to stand up to the rank-and-file and haul them into this century. He won’t be the first leader to ignore the grassroots, either, but he has to be cautious in revealing his own plan within weeks or months, before a likely election this spring or fall.

A long-due federal budget April 19 might well be the springboard for yet another pandemic election, unless the vaccination initiatives further falter, because Liberal organizers in the country have been on the same standby that B.C. NDPers were in the months preceding last fall’s provincial election.

O’Toole’s plan would have had more salience and would have more easily positioned him as a saviour if the high court had given low marks to a national carbon tax, introduced as legislation in 2018 over the objections of several provinces. But when the majority of the justices say through Richard Wagner that “the undisputed existence of a threat to the future of humanity cannot be ignored,” the court is not being mealy-mouthed.

Trudeau deferred the arrival of grey hair with the ruling; a loss in the court would have been a nightmare. O’Toole’s hair is already silver and in short supply; the justices have made his road far harder in fashioning a plan with the dissenting provinces in tow that threads the needle. His initial pose following the ruling – that in power, his party would repeal the tax – hints of the tone of the battle ahead.

Regardless, Trudeau now has additional ammunition for a campaign to a country that has been softened with support programs and is increasingly convinced that the pandemic is an inflection point to resolve inequity and accelerate the long-term environmental commitment. The mood of spending may eventually turn into a different mood of bill-paying, but not by the fall.

O’Toole risks looking like yesterday’s man atop last century’s party if he doesn’t propose a simple and remarkable scheme – to date, even the sympathetic experts near and far don’t see one simpler than the carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program.

The electoral politics are, of course, a bit of a sideshow to the court’s historic judgment on the capacity of a federal government to set minimum standards for a national program. In many respects it clears the air, no pun intended.

Worries that it would let loose a series of incursions into provincial jurisdiction proved ill-founded. The court’s national concern doctrine definition spells out that a federal minimum standard applies only in cases where one province’s lack of co-operation prevents others from successfully addressing a national concern. Those “extraprovincial consequences” are the no-fly zone for any province – like Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, which argued in the court against the tax – to breach. They don’t trump the “peace, order and good government” clause in the Constitution, even if it treads on provincial jurisdiction.

What we get now is pretty strong judicial transparency on a politically opaque world. Trudeau champions a carbon tax as an interventionist leader in the economy, and owns the TransMountain pipeline and advocates the scrapped Keystone XL expansion. O’Toole opposes a carbon tax as a free-marketer, acknowledges climate change even if his party’s rank-and-file won’t, and wants industry to pay for pollution but won’t tell us how.

There, clear as a bell. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.