Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government's push to put a "price on pollution" in front of a skeptical Saskatchewan audience Thursday, while lamenting Premier Scott Moe's insistence on taking the feds to court over the national climate plan.
At a town hall meeting at the Saskatoon Polytechnic, a vocational training school, Trudeau defended his government's approach to climate change, pipeline projects, refugees and veterans before a rather thin crowd of mostly young people.
While Trudeau has fetched crowds well into the thousands at past town halls, no more than a few hundred showed up for the midday event staged after a three-day Liberal caucus treat in the Prairie city.
Ryan, a self-described farm boy and plumber, asked the PM, "Where are we really going with this carbon tax thing? What's really the point?" He said he has many customers "extremely concerned about having that come to our province" and suggested government could prioritize energy efficiency and home retrofits through credits rather than introducing another layer of taxes.
The prime minister acknowledged it's a concern "many people have" but argued the policy is necessary because major carbon polluters in this country face no consequences.
"Climate change is real and it's a real challenge to our world ... The question is, what is the best way to take real action on this? The idea, it's fairly well accepted, is we should make the companies that are polluting responsible for their pollution — by paying," he said.
"The idea of putting a cost, a price on pollution is not just to bring in money ... It's actually to encourage someone to say, 'Well it won't cost me as much if I only pollute half as much.'"
That answer provided some insight into the Liberal government's new messaging strategy on its climate plan, which demands every province in the country put some sort of price on carbon to help offset greenhouse gas emissions.
A Liberal MP, speaking to CBC News after the caucus retreat, confirmed there's a concerted effort being made now to brand the tax as a "price on pollution." The idea is to convince voters that the tax is not a revenue grab but an attempt to drive down pollution levels by discouraging carbon emissions. Liberal MPs discussed at the caucus retreat how best to sell the pollution plan to voters weary of any additional costs.
"Because who really likes pollution?" the MP said.
Trudeau not a 'huge fan' of going alone on carbon tax
Canada signed on to ambitious emissions reduction targets at the Paris climate accord meeting in 2015, and a national pricing strategy is seen by Ottawa as the best way to accomplish those targets. However, the government has conceded a carbon price alone won't be enough to get there.
(The Liberal government maintained the same targets set by the former Conservative government: 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, and to 30 per cent by 2030.)
While welcomed by environmentalists, a number of conservative-minded politicians have rallied some Canadians against the national pricing strategy. Ontario Premier Doug Ford cruised to victory in the June election, at least in part, by promising to scrap the former provincial Liberal provincial government's cap and trade program. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said he wants the next federal election to be a referendum on the tax.
Trudeau acknowledged Thursday that he's making the case for his carbon policy deep in the heart of a region where politicians have been attacking it since it was announced — first by former premier Brad Wall and now by Moe.
Both leaders, who come from the right-leaning Saskatchewan Party, have said they will initiate court action to block any federal attempts to impose the tax.
Trudeau has said he will levy a price on carbon dioxide pollution starting at a minimum of $10 a tonne in 2019, rising by $10 each year to $50 a tonne by 2022.
"There are a couple of provinces, like Saskatchewan, that have said they don't want to do that [put a price on carbon]. In that case, we're going to move ahead and put a price on pollution here in Saskatchewan that will come on as of Jan. 1," Trudeau said.
"I'm not a huge fan of having the federal government go it alone. I'd rather do it in partnership with the provincial government here, but if they're not going to put forward a plan that will do its share, I'm going to have to move forward. But, like I said, every dollar will stay here in Saskatchewan," he told the audience, to some subdued heckling.
Trudeau has long insisted the plan will be revenue-neutral for the federal government, with any revenues generated under the system staying in the province or territory where they are generated.
Trudeau also reassured the audience that, in addition to his climate plan, the Liberal government is committed to seeing major energy projects built, including the Trans Mountain expansion project.
He conceded the recent Federal Court of Appeal ruling was a "bit of a setback," but Ottawa, which now owns the project, will make the court-ordered fixes to ensure construction is finished.
Refugees and their 'ideologies'
Trudeau also defended his government's approach to refugees after a question from an audience member about the wisdom of using taxpayer resources to resettle asylum seekers rather than spending more to help Canada's veterans.
"You say for Canada, how do you justify spending millions of dollars on refugees whose ideologies don't at all align with ours, while veterans are denied money they need to support their families, many of who were seriously wounded fighting the same extremist ideologies you're welcoming," the questioner, who did not identify himself, said to a smattering of cheers from the crowd.
Trudeau said Canada has a proud history of welcoming refugees. He also said that, "chances are, if they're coming to Canada, they're fleeing extremist ideologies and war and conflict." He also disputed the claim that Canada has been shortchanging its veterans.
The prime minister said Canada has some of the most generous benefits in the world for veterans and the Liberal government is committed to a series of initiatives like a "pensions for life" program. Trudeau noted his government recently agreed to pay $100 million more to veterans who were denied pensions or had their pensions clawed back.