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Erin O'Toole's carbon tax is like a bottle deposit, says Calgary MP Ron Liepert

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Ron Liepert in his days in Alberta provincial politics. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

I hear that Calgary Signal Hill Conservative MP Ron Liepert -- who the Canadian Press kindly described as an experienced Alberta politician -- has been using the deposit you pay on a bottle of beer to explain Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's carbon tax proposal.

This is a flawed metaphor, but first a word or two about Liepert.

For many years the former broadcaster who once served as Peter Lougheed's press secretary was thought by many to have been the worst provincial health minister in Alberta history.

I grant you, the current incumbent is giving him a run for his money. But I personally think we should wait for the dust to settle and historians to weigh in before we concede the ground to Tyler Shandro.

Suffice it to say that in the health portfolio Liepert was so bad ...

(Off-stage voice: How bad was he?)

... He was so bad that he actually made Raj Sherman look good!

Alert readers will recall that Sherman was the Progressive Conservative parliamentary secretary for health when Liepert was the minister.

Apparently Sherman was an excellent emergency room physician, but as a politician he had some deficiencies too. It would be fair to describe his tenure in politics as a train wreck.

When Sherman complained about hospital emergency room wait times in the fall of 2010, it annoyed premier Ed Stelmach so much he kicked him out of caucus and sent him to sit on the legislative time-out chair as an Independent.

The next year Sherman crossed the floor to the Alberta Liberals, who were still the official Opposition, and soon proclaimed his intention to seek the soon-to-be-vacant leadership of the party. He succeeded in that ambition and in short order almost single-handedly destroyed the party.

Still, when Liepert used to appear in Alberta towns to explain why the Alberta health-care system was falling apart on his watch, the seniors who turned out to energetically boo him would often say, "I really liked that young doctor, though. They should put him in charge."

I kid you not. I was there. I heard it.

Good thing Stelmach didn't take that advice or Alberta today might still have a provincial Liberal Party and no health-care system!

Getting back to Liepert, he even had his own cleanup guy who followed him around like a political Mr. Wolf, only friendlier. That was the affable Gene Zwozdesky, who the PCs would send in to clean up the mess when Liepert had finished smashing the crockery. Zwozdesky isn't around anymore, having gone to join the silent majority, as they used to say in the 19th century.

That's too bad for Jason Kenney, the current premier of Alberta. The United Conservative Party could use someone like Zwozdesky. But that, as they say, is another column.

Like most of the PC leadership, Liepert backed Gary Mar in the 2011 PC leadership race that Alison Redford won.

But Liepert tended to fail upward. So, since he had upset education and laid waste to health care, Stelmach promoted him to the energy portfolio. When Redford was sworn in as premier, she moved him to the finance ministry, arguably a promotion as well. He left provincial politics in 2012.

In 2014, Liepert decided to switch to federal politics, beat the appalling Rob Anders for the nomination for the new Calgary Signal Hill riding, and was soon was off to Ottawa, where every Conservative leader since has had the good sense to keep him well away from the party's front benches.

For a long time now, Liepert has been barely heard from, except that time he got caught personally doing essential house repairs at his Palm Springs residence during the pandemic.

Now, though, he has resurfaced to tout O'Toole's carbon tax proposal by comparing it to a bottle deposit, which for some reason caught the attention of an obviously bored Canadian Press reporter.

It's not really a tax, Liepert says, sort of channelling Rachel Notley, whose NDP carbon levy allowed every Conservative in Alberta to attack her government relentlessly, and eventually successfully.

Well, he could hardly call it a levy, seeing as it really does sort of look a bit like Notley's effort, only not as well designed, so he says it's just like a bottle deposit.

Apparently he tells this to credulous Conservative voters who phone his office to complain they were told carbon taxes were evil and promised Conservatives would never do anything like that.

Yeah, says Liepert, but with our, uh, carbon deposit, you get money back, so you can use it to buy stuff that will pump even more carbon into the atmosphere! Or something.

Mind you, unlike your typical bottle deposit, you don't actually get to choose what you get to spend this credit on -- someone connected to the Conservative Party will be doing the deciding for you. And if you want to save it for your retirement because O'Toole's friends in Alberta want to take your pension away, well, sorry, you're outta luck.

Rather than resisting a carbon tax, in other words, O'Toole is just retreating to a place where he can "make the case for a rebranded one that does as little as possible," Max Fawcett explained in the National Observer last month.

And Andrew Leach, the University of Alberta economist, described the O'Toole carbon tax as "an economically flawed administrative nightmare with many privacy implications, all to avoid the perception that he's proposing a carbon tax."

Plus, you don't get to enjoy whatever it was that came in the bottle.

But other than that, sure, it's sort of like a bottle deposit.

The scary thing about this, if the recent media reaction is anything to go by, it just might work -- both to sell O'Toole's ridiculous idea and to sell O'Toole himself as a potential PM.

If it did, Liepert could very well find himself back in a position where he could start wrecking stuff again, this time at the national level. Now that's scary!

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Editor's note, May 19, 2021: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that premier Alison Redford had promoted Liepert to the energy portfolio. In fact premier Ed Stelmach promoted Liepert to the energy portfolio, premier Redford promoted him again to the finance ministry, and he left provincial politics in 2012. The story has been corrected.

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