Untie your own hands, Mr. Dion

A tear-your-hair-out point-counterpoint in today’s National Post pits Liberal leader Stéphane Dion against Environment Minister John Baird, debating the merits of a carbon tax and green tax-shifting.

Dion, mind you, is at a disadvantage. He doesn’t have any of the specifics of the plan he’s arguing for, even though it is, in fact, his plan. He’s stuck with generalities, in a field where the devil is always in the details. He says things like this:

The Liberal tax shifting plan is as powerful as it is simple. We will cut taxes on those things we all want more of — income, savings, investment and innovation. And we will shift those taxes to what we all want less of — pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. We need to make polluters pay and put every single penny back in the hands of Canadians through the right tax cuts.

Which is pretty unequivocal, but because the details aren’t there, his debating opponent, Baird, can fight against a straw-man version of the plan, like so:

Can a carbon tax ever be truly revenue neutral? If government is collecting $1 in taxes, and “tax-shifts” that one dollar towards spending 50¢ on green programs and fifty cents on programs like health care and infrastructure, how does the government make up that lost revenue on health care and infrastructure? By raising taxes, of course.

That’s a hypothetical that Dion has denied himself the tools to counter. In so doing, he might well end up burying a plan that has broad support from everyone from David Suzuki to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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