Monday, May 26, 2008

A Liberal green shift, and policy development 2.0

The discussion that has been initiated by Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party around a green tax shift is an opportunity for a public policy debate, involving a wide swath of the Canadian populace, around how we as a nation should be addressing the challenges around the environment, carbon and pollution, and the economy.

Inevitably however, when politics are involved actual debate on the merits of the issue usually proves all but impossible. The Conservatives and sympathetic pundits, for example, are raising the gas tax bogeyman, saying the dastardly Liberals want to raise your gas tax and, I don’t know, use the proceeds to build a giant statue of Pierre Trudeau made out of gold with his middle-finger extended towards Calgary or something. This, of course, ignores the fact that a) the statue will actually be built out of bronze and b) the Liberals have made repeated statements to the contrary:

“The policy hasn’t even been announced yet and already the Conservatives are on the attack, claiming we want to put up gas taxes. Nothing is farther from the truth. We already have enough excise tax on gas at the pumps. There are no plans—repeat no plans—to increase the excise tax.” -- Michael Ignatieff

The gas tax bogeyman has also been raised by the NDP, reaffirming the old notion politics makes strange bedfellows. They’ve also added in some of their own flava however, playing the “big bad corporate bogeyman is going to get you, your children, and your little dog too” card, insisting the Liberals are in bed with big business to gouge the “average Canadian” and ensure the corporate fat cats can buy bigger swimming pools and faster private jets or something.

Frankly, I think our friends the “average Canadians” can see through such bogeymen, and would prefer an actual debate on the merits of a green tax shift, actual fact-based arguments for and against, rather than fear-mongery politics as usual smears. Polls are consistently showing an appetite to at least discuss a carbon shift, and a strong base of support for the idea. Even if the public doesn’t end up supporting it, I think they’re likely to look more favourably on those groups that attempt to engage them in discussion, rather than scare them by going Boogedy Boogedy Boo a lot.

Which is what makes the Liberal approach to developing their carbon shift policy so interesting. They’ve put the idea out there, laid out a very few broad brush-strokes (no gas tax increase) and have let the debate ensue. Environmental groups, the media, the other parties, and other groups are all commenting and putting in their two cents.

As Steve noted over the weekend, this gives the Liberals a chance to hear many of the attack lines from the opposing parties and factor them into the final policy, blunting their attack lines when the policy is actually released. That’s useful.

Politics aside though, it’s also a sharp change from the usual method of policy development. Usually, in a political party, policy is developed in one of two ways. There’s the formal mechanism, where resolutions begin at the riding level and move up through the party structure to the national biennial for adoption by the delegates. These are non-binding and are usually ignored by the parliamentary wing. Then there’s the election platform, developed by the leader’s office and campaign team, in consultation with pollsters, and usually/hopefully selected stakeholders and interest groups.

The way this carbon shift policy is being developed though holds promise for a new, more open, more democratized way to develop policy. Rather than just involving a few special interests, open up the process to the country. Lay-out the broad direction and let everyone help fill in the details. Discover potential problems before the final policy is written and solve them preemptively. The end result can be a more sound, grounded policy with a greater chance of wide acceptance.

If the devil is, as they say, in the details, this is one way of getting those details right the first time.

Of course, such a road isn’t without risk. I’ve laid them out before: giving the opposition a chance to define it before you have, poisoning the ground. It’s a bold experiment though, one that could pay dividends, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

My environmentalist is bigger than your environmentalist

In the mean time though, the opposing parties are stuck in the old politics as usual framework. Such as this NDP release of last week, which has been seized-upon today by many of their supportive bloggers.

The NDP attempts to claim the Liberals are in the pockets of Scrooge McDuck by quoting a few opponents to a carbon shift and implying the only person in favour of such a move is a pro-business lobby group.

That’s laughable. While I don’t think the NDP’s strategy of whipping our environmentalists out and asking Canadians whose is bigger is really the best way to debate environmental policy, for the record here’s just a few of the people that support such an idea. I’ll leave it to you to decide if size really does matter.

David Suzuki: Famed environmentalist David Suzuki has strongly backed Liberal leader Stephane Dion's emerging carbon tax plan and slammed the NDP and Conservatives.

After hearing the NDP's criticism of Dion's plan, Suzuki said: "I'm really shocked with the NDP with this. I thought that they had a very progressive environmental outlook."

"To oppose (the carbon tax plan), its just nonsense. It's certainly the way we got to go," he said Sunday on CTV's Question Period.

Stephen Hazell: Environmentalist Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said Mr. Layton's comments are regrettable because a strong climate-change plan would include cap-and-trade measures as well as carbon taxes.

"The carbon tax has a huge advantage over cap-and-trade in that it can be put in place very quickly and deliver results very quickly, whereas cap-and-trade, it's taken Europe decades to get that one figured out," he said. "It's just regrettable that he's focusing on the negative."

Mr. Hazell said there are ways to ensure low-income people receive assistance so they are not hurt by carbon taxes.

"It just seems a little bit like pandering to us," he said. "They're pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices, the folks who would typically support the NDP. But we think it's alarmist and it's not helpful."

Elizabeth May: "We need to act on the climate crisis, and a carbon tax is a litmus test of whether a party is serious about it or not," May told CTV's Question Period on Sunday.

Layton's opposition to a carbon tax "is not part of the global social democratic approach," she said, adding his political rivalry with the Liberals may be driving policy.

The Green Party also advocates a carbon tax.

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Anonymous said...

BCL: I see your quotes and raise you...

“We do not favour a Carbon Tax where money is transferred from companies to the federal government and is lost in general revenue.”
Balancing our Carbon Budget,
Liberal Party of Canada White Paper on the Environment, March 2007

"…the single most effective solution to rising greenhouse gas emissions is using the market to put a price on carbon…"
David Suzuki Foundation

“I think cap-and-trade system makes more sense.”
Senator Barack Obama

“Cap-and-trade programs offer significant advantages over traditional regulatory policies, particularly in the effort to address climate change.”
Climate Change 101,
Pew Center on Global Climate Change, February 2008

“Cap-and-trade stimulates the development of new technological solutions.”
Climate Change 101,
Pew Center on Global Climate Change, February 2008

That being said, the NDP cap and trade proposal is not about which plan is bigger but which plan is most effective for carbon emission reduction and that is fair to low income Canadians.

Question: can you show me how carbon emission will decrease when a significant proportion of an individual's carbon footprint derives from fuel and heating usage?

Question: can you explain to me how low income and working Canadians won't feel the pain of the carbon tax on a day to day basis when they will only see a yearly or quarterly carbon tax rebate?

The NDP plan has a hard cap. The Liberal plan does not.

The NDP plan will require that corporations that make up more than 50% of Canadian emissions stay below the cap or they will be required to pay for their pollution.

Question: with a 'revenue neutral' plan, how will federal government help offset the costs of greening Canada (more transit, better rail, rebates for retrofitting homes and businesses, help develop green collar jobs)?

The NDP has a comprehensive Green Plan which people can read at

Steve V said...


BCer quoted the three top environmentalists in Canada, you quote an American politician? Barack Obama, environmental expert, who knew. I'll take Jeff's hand thanks :) I would add Pew has argued that the two systems could be used in combination, it is not entirely a one or the other proposition from their perspective.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I quoted the LIberal party of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Obama, and the Pew Centre. So I quoted your party, the environmentalist you are using to bash NDP, and internationally respected NGO and one pretty special (I think many libs would agree) US politician who will (hopefully) be the next president and head of our largest trading partner.

Nice try. check.

Jeff said...

Check? Alrighty then. But in the first comment you raised me, which is a poker analogy, not a chess one. So, yellow card! But let's look at your quotes. First, from the LPC:

We do not favour a Carbon Tax where money is transferred from companies to the federal government and is lost in general revenue

And we don't. Which is why we'd better make sure the money isn't lost in general revenue. Good thing we're still developing the policy.

Your second is from the David Suzuki Foundation. I quoted David Suzuki himself. And if you look at your Suzuki foundation quote and mine from the man himself, they're not contradictory. I don't think he sees it as a one or the other scenario, but favours a broad-based approach, like in Europe. And your quote does nothing to contradict his view the NDP is putting politics ahead of policy by coming out so stridently against a carbon shift, which is an important part of that broad-based approach.

And "the environmentalist I'm using to bash the NDP?" Really? He's actually bashing the NDP all by himself, he doesn't need my help. Next the NDP will tell me Suzuki is in the pockets of the corporate fat cats.

Barrack Obama, environmental expert, really? I like the guy, but I hope he'll listen to experts like, say, David Suzuki.

And Steve addressed the Pew Center.

So, king me.

Anonymous said...

BCL: I believe in poker you say check when you are continuing to play the hand, but not raising the bet - but I could be wrong ;)

I didn't say that Obama was an environmental expert but he may very well be the next leader of our major trading partner - I would imagine that having a policy that doesn't disadvantage the Canadian economy would be a good thing...just sayin'

In terms of David Suzuki - your right he did slam the NDP but I wonder what he will be saying if the LPC carbon plan doesn't include gas and heating...Not such an infective enviro policy if that is the case. We shall see.

toujoursdan said...

A carbon tax is incomplete. Why aren't we doing what the Swedes did and putting together a national plan to wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether?

At best our dependence on oil puts our economy at risk from pressures out of our control, at worst we continue to careen at nearly full speed towards a brick wall. Whether Peak Oil is here now, or is a few years or decades away, it is inevitable and the sooner a party comes up with a workable plan to address the end of cheap oil, including huge expenditures in efficient public transport, better urban planning, alternative energy - both on a micro and macro scale, and perhaps toward the end of the plan raising a carbon tax and ending the highway and other subsidies that make car transport artificially cheap, the better it is for all Canadians.

I believe human-caused climate change is real but don't even get into debates with the opposition. Climate change doesn't have to be the key reason to move away from fossil fuel consumption, recognition that it is an economic and social dead end is.

bza said...

I would like to see the policy since I do have some concerns about the idea. I am a little concerned about how progressive a carbon tax would be?

Our income tax system has different tax brackets based on what ability people have to pay. Rich people pay more, poor people pay less.

I wonder how a carbon tax would handle that, since most fuel taxes are a flat tax.

I've heard about the idea of an tax rebate. Though, the problem there is that many lower income folks don't file their taxes and wouldn't have access to it. This has been a problem with the Child Tax Benefit.

A carbon tax is a good idea, but whether it can progressively tax people based on income is an important thing to consider.