Thursday, May 15, 2008

We wanted policy and now we've got it. Sort of.

If there's been one lament from many Liberal bloggers such as myself over these past many months, it has been that the party hasn’t been talking policy near enough. OK, there’s actually been one other pretty big lament, but that’s a well-trodden other story. Well, now our call for policy has been answered. Sort of.

By now, everyone has heard the Liberals are thinking about implementing a carbon tax, a carbon tax shift, call it whatever you want. Actually, for those paying close attention the musing has been going on for some time. During the last round of by-elections, I attended an all-candidates debate in Toronto-Centre where the topic came up, and Liberal candidate (and now MP) Bob Rae spoke favourably of the idea. Green candidate Chris Tindal rightly said sounds great Bob, but that’s not current Liberal policy. Bob, who is one of those charged by Stephane Dion with drafting the policy platform, said trust me Chris, it’s on the way. It appears he was right. On a side note, there was strong support in the room for the concept. And on a cautionary note, I wouldn’t consider a by-election all candidates meeting audience in downtown Toronto representative of much of anything.

Anyway, on the plus side everyone is not only talking about a policy idea, but they’re talking about a Liberal policy idea. On the negative side, we’re not putting any details out there, there’s no meat on the bones. This could have a couple of consequences if not managed properly. For those like me, who are inclined to defend the idea, that’s though to do without knowing just how it will work. We can all speculate how we think it could/should work, creating confusion with differing models. People can fill it the blanks with their own hopes, and undoubtedly disappointing many when the actual details emerge. It’s also a vacuum for Conservative and NDP misinformation and distortion that is tough to counter without the actual plan. Well no, we’d never do it that way we can say, but we can’t say what we will do.

If we are trial-ballooning this thing, using the country as a free national focus group, that’s great. But if we don’t frame the debate, put it in context, put a little meat on the bones, then our opposition will define it negatively for us and sour our sample group, making the results meaningless and the policy stillborn. Long story short, if we’re serious about this we need details.

If done properly, and I think that’s the key caveat, I think this would be a good policy. Most Canadians would agree with the idea that those that pollute more should pay more. Green behaviour should be incented, wasteful behaviour penalized. As long as sensible mechanisms are built in to account for things like differences in rural and urban life, for example (long a blind spot in Liberal policy development, remember long guns) and it’s revenue neutral, and it’s put in the context of a wider green agenda and plan for a green economy, then I’m behind it.

What’s more, it’s a bold policy initiative that stakes-out strong green ground and speaks to an activist Liberal Party. It’s a chance to begin defining ourselves again, allow the electorate to see us in another light besides the QP scandal cut and thrust, and to engage with them again on our terms.

Can we sell it though? That’s the challenge, and that’s my big question. I’d like to channel Barrack Obama and say Yes We Can, but the honest answer is I don’t know, but I hope so. Can we figure out how to communicate this thing in a sound bite? That won’t be easy. We’ll need to, but we haven’t shown an aptitude for it in the past.

Take the last election, and the Conservative promise to cut the GST. Of course, they didn’t widely publicize the fact they planned to pay for it by cancelling previously granted Liberal income tax cuts, or, in other word, the Conservatives planned to raise income tax rates. Nearly every economist in the country (including, I’m sure, Stephen Harper) agreed this was a bad idea economically. Anyone that looked into the issue could see this was bad policy. But boy, was it good politics. We couldn’t get past that 5% GST sticker cash register photo-op. We had the right policy then, and they didn’t, but they sold it better, and they won.

I understand the view of those that say a carbon shift may be good policy, but its too hard to sell so we shouldn’t do it. I understand, but respectfully, I think that’s a cop-out. No matter how uphill the battle, some fights are worth fighting. Some fights need to be fought. And in this day and age, what fight can be more important than the environment?

If we only stand for things when they're easy to do, and not when they're hard, then do we really stand for anything at all?

Frankly, if we’re going to go down in the next election (not that I think we will) I’d rather go down fighting for something that we know to be right, fighting the good fight, then go down running a cookie-cutter, politics as usual, play it safe campaign designed by consultants and focus groups.

I think we can win this fight though, and the next election for that matter. Arm us with more details, and quickly, and start driving the debate rather than floating balloons. Don’t let the opposition define this thing before we do and pull the rug out from under us. Don’t do this half-assed. If we’re going to suit-up for this fight, let’s do it right.

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Oxford County Liberals said...

I'd dispute your version of events, Jeff. The Cons. didn't win on the proposed GST tax drop, nor did they sell that idea successfully. They won when the RCMP decided to unusually publicize an investigation as enquired by the NDP into alleged insider stuff in Ralph's office. Prior to that, the Liberals were still leading in the polls, GST drop promise notwithstanding.

Woman at Mile 0 said...

Agreed Scott. The Libs would have won if the RCMP had not interfered with the election with their investigation of an allegation against Goodale that ultimately proved to be false. The Lib were at 40% support before that happened.

tdwebste said...

The Libs can win campaigning for fair, honest elections and government transparency.

They should have got some nerve, stood up and promised to bring down the Conservatives then did it. Rather supporting the Harper's Conservatives actions by promising no spring election.

Walks With Coffee said...

The tax shift policy distinguishes Dion from Harper, on a matter of substance.

Jeff said...

Scott, what I was saying was the Conservatives won the battle to shape the public opinion of their GST cut, not that they won the election because of the GST cut. I was talking about that one issue and how, although we had the policy on our side, they did the politics better. The point being we can't just have the policy on our side, we need to do a better job of communicating it.

tdwebste said...


Unfortunately some of their politics was very dirty. And I don't think all that many people know just how dirty.

Jason Hickman said...

(First of all, forgive me for largely re-posting something here, that I already posted on J. Cherniak's blog. I know, according to the secret partisan blogging code of conduct, that I'm supposed to post the same argument everywhere ;0) but I still don't like doing it too often.)

Let's get back to first principles for a minute.

Is the goal of this tax to encourage people to use less "carbon"?

If so, is it reasonable to assume that it will work?

This suggests that higher fuel prices generally do not necessarily reduce consumption where the need is there. (hattip). If the demand/need is there, the resource will be used, it seems, regardless of price.

Even taking the Libs at their word that prices at the pump won't go up - people are still going to need the other products that will be taxed more, unless there are the sort of technological developments that I don't see this policy, in particular, addressing.
I'm open to counterarguments, based on experience in Canada or elsewhere.

If the goal is to collect revenue, rather than a realistic expection of changing behaviour, then what exactly will the $$$ be used for, is that $$$ necessary and why is it being collected this way?

If the money is just going into the general revenue fund, where it can easily be used to pay for, I dunno, more GST cuts or income tax cuts or safe injection sites or battleships or whatever, that needs to be disclosed. If it's going to go into some environmental fund, then what are those dollars going to be used for? And won't the planned tax cuts elsewhere just obviate the revenues from the carbon-tax (or whatever it's called), assuming that the plan is indeed revenue-neutral?

Lest it seem that I'm just picking on the Liberals, I'm not. Some conservatives & libertarian-types out there have expressed support for this sort of tax. I'm doubtful but open to persuasion.

But what I'm really not a huge fan of, are further complications to an already over-complicated tax system ["We cut this tax here, whilst raising this tax over there, but that tax hike won't hurt you as long as you qualify for this deduction here..."], especially when they don't even accomplish the alleged goal. And yes, I'm aware that the Tories have intro'd similar complications as well, in case anyone wants to point that out.

Sorry Jeff, for the long-winded (but carbon-neutral!) post, but it seems everyone is in such a sweat over this particular issue without giving much thought as to whether it will, you know, work, in terms of a significant reduction in emissions.

Mike514 said...

Scott and Woman:
Everything would have gone great during the last election if not for that pesky RCMP investigation?

This one, single, isolated incident caused you to lose an entire election? Really? Wow.

Demosthenes said...

"This one, single, isolated incident..."

You know, as many times as I see them, I still can never get over conservatives pulling out variations on "a shitty third-rate burglary." You'd think they'd try to avoid inviting obvious comparisons to Watergate, but...

Anyway,the question here, politically, is who this will sell to. Will it switch Conservatives to Liberals? Doesn't seem likely, considering the amount of driving mnay conservatives doing, and conservative activists' near-universal loathing of public transportation.

But, and this is a big hairy but, it lays the groundwork for a big NDP/Green pickup. The NDP can't oppose this without looking "browner" than they already do. And the Greens? Without a carbon tax, there's just not much "there" there. Carbon taxes are so much a part of the modern Green movement that a Green/Red alliance in Canada becomes a serious possibility.

And what THAT means is that ridings that have over 50% of their voters currently split Liberal/NDP/Green (which is many) may see that split healing, with the Liberals benefiting from switchers seeing the possibility for real change.

But, that has to be measured against the number of Conservative/Liberal voters it might drive away. And considering how good the are at message control and banging the "increased taxes!" drum...

...let's just say that Dion's speechwriters and strategists are about to prove if they're worth the money.