The Supreme Court gives Conservatives a chance to move past the carbon tax

·7 min read
Supporters wave signs during an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Supporters wave signs during an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on the federal carbon price has enormous significance both for climate policy and constitutional law in this country.

It also offers Canada's conservative politicians an exit from the corner into which they've painted themselves.

If they can bring themselves to take it, they might be able to step around the question of pricing carbon emissions and set up their parties and governments to better handle the elections and policy choices of the coming decade.

"We're going to consider all options here," Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said today, notably declining to rule out implementing his own provincial carbon levy now that the constitutionality of the federal price has been upheld.

A short while later, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe threw in the towel, announcing that his government would implement a provincial fuel levy to replace the federal carbon price.

The federal fuel surcharge — commonly known as the "carbon tax" — is in place in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, the three provinces that led the charge to overturn federal carbon pricing legislation.

If it's inevitable, why not take charge?

But the premiers of each of those provinces can now reasonably tell their constituents that, unless there's a quick change of government in Ottawa, a carbon price of some kind is going to be in place — and if a carbon levy is inevitable, it might as well be the provincial government that designs the policy and controls the revenue.

The leader of the federal Conservatives — either now or in the future — could then simply defer to the provincial decisions.

Such a scenario might still see fights in future years over the finer details — how high the price should be, how exactly the revenue should be distributed. But the basic battle over the idea of pricing carbon emissions — a battle that has unreasonably dominated discussion of climate policy in Canada for far too long — would finally be put aside.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney embrace on stage at an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney embrace on stage at an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.(Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

That would clear space for the countless other issues Canada needs to confront if it's going to make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change. It also would make it easier for the federal Conservatives to form a government again.

Today's ruling by the Supreme Court could be read as the final chapter of a story that began in June 2008, when Stéphane Dion endorsed a carbon tax and made it the centrepiece of the Liberal Party's platform. Stephen Harper's Conservative government was vociferous in its opposition — Harper said it would "screw everybody" — and many argued the policy lost seats for Dion's Liberals in that year's election.

The Conservatives weren't entirely opposed to putting a price on carbon at the time — they would have imposed an indirect price through a cap-and-trade system. But when Democrats in the United States were unable to pass their own cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, the Conservatives shelved their plans.

The diminishing returns of anti-carbon-tax arguments

And when the NDP, which also has supported cap-and-trade, became the Harper government's primary opposition in 2011, the Conservatives doubled back. What the NDP was proposing, they said, was another ruinous carbon tax.

Conservative climate policy has remained largely frozen in place ever since.

In Right Here, Right Now, his 2018 meditation on the future of conservatism, Harper boasted that "political parties, including mine, have won elections just by opposing a carbon tax." Andrew Scheer tried to follow in those footsteps by running an anti-carbon tax campaign against Justin Trudeau's Liberals in 2019.

Scheer was joined by conservative premiers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford slapped anti-carbon tax stickers on the province's gas pumps. They posed together for the cover of Maclean's magazine as "The Resistance" and were touted as Trudeau's "worst nightmare."

But Justin Trudeau is not Stéphane Dion and the Canadian public in 2019 was not where it was in 2008. When all the ballots were counted, the Liberals were still in government — and 63.3 per cent of voters had sided with a party that supported a carbon tax.

Watch: Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole reacts to carbon tax ruling

Even while they moderated their positions somewhat to accept that pricing emissions from industrial facilities was OK, conservative opposition to the broader fuel levy continued. And conservatives could hang some remaining hope on the judicial challenges that three of those provincial governments had filed.

Had the Supreme Court ruled against the federal carbon pricing legislation, it would have breathed new life into the debate, likely guaranteeing that it remained a live political issue until the next federal election.

Today's ruling doesn't entirely close the door on the possibility that a government led by Erin O'Toole might repeal the federal legislation. For one thing, the next federal election could happen before new pricing policies are in place in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

For another, O'Toole's response to the Supreme Court's decision began with the vow that "Canada's Conservatives will repeal Justin Trudeau's carbon tax."

WATCH: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to carbon tax ruling

"[This] will be on the ballot in the next federal election," Kenney said today.

But based on the results of the last federal election, the person most happy to see it remain a ballot question might be Justin Trudeau.

Indeed, O'Toole — or the Conservative leader who succeeds him — might hope that Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario settle the question by implementing their own carbon levies before the Conservative Party faces the electorate again.

The problem for Conservatives is not simply that they oppose a carbon tax. It's that — likely as a consequence of that opposition — they've also failed to offer a credible alternative.

The Trudeau government's decision to return almost all of the revenue to consumers through rebates has significantly dampened public opposition. Support for "putting a price on pollution" — as the Liberals like to call it — might now be regarded by many voters as a sign that a politician is serious about climate change.

A dearth of alternatives

But in hindsight, the Conservatives' failure to come up with a believable plan of their own seems almost inevitable. Reputable economists have long argued that pricing carbon is the least economically disruptive way to reduce emissions. Conservatives have so far been unable to point to a different policy that would reduce emissions by the same amount at a lower cost.

Harper didn't put Canada on a path to meet its emissions targets. Scheer couldn't show voters how he'd get there. O'Toole and the Conservatives have yet to explain what they'd do, although he promises it would be "serious" and "comprehensive."

And the Supreme Court has now agreed that unless every province is meeting the same standard, a national carbon price won't work.

If Conservative supporters would be unhappy to see their leaders reverse course on carbon pricing, it's likely due in large part to Conservative politicians loudly condemning carbon pricing as a wholly ruinous policy for more than a decade — no matter what economists or climate policy experts said. If Conservatives have to eat a little crow, it's a crow they themselves spent a long time fattening up.

But at some point, you have to move on. As Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote for the majority, climate change is "an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world." There is little time left to waste on the way to fully confronting that threat.

The court has offered Conservatives an out. If they take it, everyone can move forward.