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How carbon tax became Canada's Obamacare

Preston Manning, then the godfather of the Canadian right, at the 2013 Manning Conference

"Putting a price on carbon" was always going to be unpopular with people who use fossil fuels out of necessity and for fun, or at least with a large portion of the population in a well-off northern country that, climate change notwithstanding, still gets pretty cold in the winter.

In other words, Canadians, with their furnaces, SUVs and snowmobiles, have never really embraced the notion.

After 40 years of neoliberal conditioning to the idea all taxes are bad, used as a justification and strategy for dismantling public services and transferring wealth to the wealthiest fraction of society, imposition of a new tax was guaranteed to be controversial. Even a mere blogger could have told you that ... and I'm pretty sure I did.

In those circumstances, a carbon tax was only likely to be implemented without an uproar if there was a level of consensus in society that such a policy was necessary for the good of the environment we all depend on for our survival as a species.

What is easy to forget is that not so long ago there appeared to be just such a consensus for this approach.

In 2013, I was at the Manning Networking Conference as a fascinated observer while Preston Manning, then the godfather of the Canadian right and host of its annual Ottawa clambake, clambered onto the stage to preach the gospel of what he called "green capitalism."

At the heart of this project, as blogger Dave Cournoyer has recently reminded us, was the idea of applying market tools like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes to reduce carbon inputs into the environment, thereby achieving a social good.

As we all understand, the market fundamentalist right loves "market solutions" with the same fervour it despises taxes that impact wealthy people.

Was the need to create green capitalism a sincere conviction by Manning, or just a cynical ploy to exploit the zeitgeist of the early Twenty-teens? Hard to say. I'm inclined to think he was sincere … as long as it remained convenient.

Manning certainly gave some thought to figuring out how to sell the idea, some of which Liberals and New Democrats might have adopted for their own good. His advice, some of it sound, included this: "Start with the climate change effects our audience is already aware of, particularly in resource-producing areas, and then present the science."

So, while progressive parties got there first, in the early Teens there appeared to be a real consensus -- at least an elite consensus -- that there was support for carbon taxes as a mechanism to save the environment from the worst impacts of a market economy.

I suppose centrist and progressive parties can thus be forgiven for imagining such a plan could be put into practice without a strong negative public reaction. Alas, this did not account for the willingness of people to view an idea positively in theory but oppose it when it might actually cost them money. And it certainly didn't account for the deep cynicism of the North American right.

And so carbon taxes have become the Obamacare of Canada: A right-wing idea adopted by the progressive centre only to see it hysterically denounced by the people who came up with it.

The NDP and the Liberals (which are both really centre-right parties nowadays) really should have seen this coming.

Far-right demagogues like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney who rallied in Calgary Friday night with their supporters to assail "the worst tax ever, anywhere," must be chuckling behind their fists.

Of course, the right itself has changed since 2013. It is more overt in its greed, cynicism, destructiveness and crypto-fascism in the Age of Trump. We can't really be sure whether Ford and Kenney's opposition to carbon taxes is cynically convenient or sincere.

However, in terms of impact, the distinction is meaningless. We can be confident the election of politicians who espouse their policies will lead to more and faster climate change.

We can be certain, too, that Manning is no longer the godfather of the Canadian right. Today, that title rightfully belongs to Ford, with Kenney as his regional consigliore in the West.

Since these are the same people who insist the slow progress of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is proof the social license approach once advocated by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not working and never will, the ironic result is they may have discredited in the eyes of their supporters and opponents alike the only strategy other than open totalitarianism that is likely to see new pipelines built.

The social license experiment is the only reason the now-state-owned Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project has gotten as much traction as it has and will likely be built despite the dubious business case for its massive cost.

As climate change grows worse and more visible, public support for drastic measures to curtail carbon pollution will grow more strident and widespread as well.

Expect, therefore, increasing numbers of Canadians, not just coastal environmentalists, to grow skeptical of soft market solutions and harden their demands for no more pipelines, ever. Period. Don't even be surprised if there is a popular outcry to halt to all oilsands extraction.

Such a viewpoint is unlikely to ever be popular in Alberta, but then we don't have a coastline of our own, do we?

It would be ironic indeed if, thanks to the cynical flip-flops of the right, another pipeline to the coast is never built in Canada, including that natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.​

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