Category Archives: Conservative Party

Taking stock

Obama speaks

Obama speaks

(Credit: “obama,” Flickr/BohPhoto)

Wow. Lots has changed since I was last blogging here something like as often as I want to, back before the Canadian federal election ate my life. That kicked off at the beginning of September; since then the markets have spiralled downward, the prices of oil and of gas have tanked, a serious recession has apparently begun, the Canadian Conservatives have been re-elected and named a new cabinet, and, oh yes, the Americans elected Barack Obama.

The landscape has clearly changed. Some observations:

  1. The crashing price of energy — oil is down more than 50 per cent from its high last summer — indicates dramatically reduced demand for the stuff. Environmentally speaking, this is good: the slower we burn through the supply, the less urgent will be efforts to exploit marginal deposits of it. But it’s also a clear indicator of dramatically reduced economic activity, which means people as a whole are poorer. There’s a serious policy problem: When fuel was expensive, critics said we couldn’t afford cockamamie plans to make it more expensive — by taxing it — to encourage the use of alternatives. Now it’s cheaper, but critics say the economy can’t take any more shocks, such as a tax on fuel. There will never be a comfortable time for market-oriented policies that make any kind of energy more expensive.
  2. If we’re lucky, though, people won’t soon forget how unpleasant it was to take out second mortgages to fill the tank and won’t flock back to SUVs they don’t need. I’m not terribly optimistic on this point, though: we had the energy crisis of the 1970s and the SUV came along anyway.
  3. The downturn should, however, create opportunities for entrepreneurs with the best kind of green ideas: those that help the planet while making the economy more productive. Efficiency is a lot more appealing in bust times than in booms. And the downturn should also kill off some of the sillier children of the recent green boomlet, such as bogus carbon-offset programs.
  4. With a weaker economy, the make-work argument for green policies (that aggressive government action to promote green technology will “create jobs”) appeals to a lot more people. Obama’s platform promises five million new green-collar jobs, for instance. More jobs may be a happy byproduct of sound environmental policy, but making them a deliberate economic end is asking for trouble.
  5. In the same vein, rumour that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unsettling. I have no idea whether Kennedy is a capable administrator who can head a large government entity; I do respect his vigour and enthusiasm in fighting traditional pollution, especially of waterways. The question is whether the EPA will be the point agency on climate change in an Obama administration or whether the issue will be seen as essentially an economic/industrial matter and be handed to an appropriate cabinet officer. I hope that’s what happens.
  6. In Canada, the environment portfolio’s just been given to Jim Prentice, who was most recently the minister of industry. He’s also considered Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most quietly competent ministers. We’ll have to see whether what Harper’s after from him is quiet or competence. I hope Prentice is in the job to steal the best parts of the Liberals’ “Green Shift” plan. Harper could safely do that pretty much immediately, since its author, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, is resigning in disgrace over the election results as soon as his busted party can pick a successor.
  7. By the way, poor Stéphane Dion. A very good man in a very wrong job.

Regular blogging resumes. Thanks for your patience.

A shortage of options

Columnizing for CBC.ca, Simon Jackson pumps up the idea that a growing bloc of young voters is keen on something like my own brand of environmentalist conservatism: seeing sound long-term economic policy and sound long-term environmental policy as pretty much the same thing, and wishing desperately there were somebody to vote for who seems to really get that.

Jackson surveys the bleak electoral landscape:

All of the current parties have elements within their platforms that should be attractive to Young Green Tories.

Jack Layton’s NDP has placed an emphasis on “green-collared jobs;” Stéphane Dion’s Liberals have the Green Shift that marries a tax on pollution with massive income tax cuts; and the Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have a strong emphasis in investing in green technology, such as capturing carbon, that would benefit both the environment and the economy.

Yet each party also appears to have a fatal flaw when it comes to attracting Young Green Tories: the NDP is still viewed as the party of old-school socialism; the Liberals are perceived to be suffering from a leftward retreat and sponsorship-scandal hangover; and the Conservatives are feared to be insincere in their support for the environment.

The Green party appears to have the best hope of rallying Young Green Tories — at least with their talk on the campaign trail of “catering neither to the left nor right but rather to those who believe in sound fiscal management and strengthening our economy while ensuring that it is sustainable.”

Indeed, this purposeful approach of the Greens — reading correctly the mood of many of today’s young activists — may be what is contributing to their surge in popular support in recent polls.

That said, as Andrew Steele of the Globe and Mail noted recently in his online column, when the Green platform is assessed closely, the party still has fringe elements of the old-school activist community that may ultimately be the stumbling block to an electoral breakthrough.

Two thoughts. First, the notion that “the Conservatives are feared to be insincere in their support for the environment” is the best wry understatement I’ve read all months.

Second, I’m not sure the Greens are really surging. They’re doing OK in the CBC’s Harris-Decima poll, 12 per cent, though probably not well enough to win any seats. Nanos has them at six. The Strategic Counsel’s battleground-riding polls (PDF) show a bit of a surge, and then a subsiding. Neither here nor there, though, since I think the underlying point about the Greens’ crunchy history showing through a bit too much is accurate.

With the election campaign reaching the midpoint, it looks to me as through the Liberals are probably the best environmental vote, but they leave so much else to be desired that it’d be a nose-holder for sure.

An environmental policy, this ain’t

Cutting taxes on diesel is not what you’d call “green.”

Stephen Harper pledged Tuesday that a re-elected Conservative government would halve a federal tax on diesel fuel. The prime minister is expected to contrast the move with the carbon tax on diesel fuel that is a centrepiece of the Liberal party’s Green Shift plan.

The Tories will take to two cents per litre the four-cents-a-litre excise tax. The Tories say that would cost the federal treasury $600 million a year.

As Stephen Gordon writes, “it takes two serious and pressing problems – the deteriorating fiscal situation and greenhouse gas emissions – and makes them both worse.”

Why study something when you already know you won’t do it

What a good, small-c conservative idea this would have been.

Government officials have abruptly cancelled a comprehensive study into the benefits of using tolls, congestion charges, parking levies and other “urban transportation pricing mechanisms” to help reduce pollution in Canada’s largest cities and pay for more public transport.

The study, which had been commissioned this week by Transport Canada, was to have examined “how pricing can be used as a tool to induce greater efficiency and sustainability in urban transportation,” according to a request for tender document. A government spokesman told the Globe and Mail Saturday that the government did not wish to push forward with the study.

But I suppose it’s hard to let sound economic thinking get in the way of sound political thinking.

Kyoto and IPCC kind of OK after all, Tories suggest

Saturday the federal Tories published the draft version of the first set of rules needed to make their climate-change plan work. These, on — deep breath! — how to devise and formally submit a system for measuring your emissions reductions if you’re a major industrial greenhouse-gas emitter, took over a year to produce and there are two more sets of rules to go before the system can kick in. With a deadline of 2020 to cut absolute emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels, the delays are getting Kyoto-esque.

Nevertheless, I notice two interesting things about the proposed rules.

The government proposes to fast-track emissions-reduction measuring systems that have already been approved under several existing authorities, such as Alberta’s, France’s, California’s … and the Kyoto Accord:

The Fast Track eligibility list will include about 30 external protocols that meet the following criteria:

  • the protocol is a complete document (i.e., not a seed document) that has been approved for use by the Clean Development Mechanism, Alberta’s Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, the California Climate Action Registry, the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme in New South Wales, France’s Offset System, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative;

Likewise, the government is referring people to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for some best practices on how to measure, for instance, the greenhouse-gas effects of changing land uses (that is, basically, growing forests to sequester carbon dioxide).

It’s interesting that the government rejects the targets agreed to in the Kyoto Accord and recommended by the IPCC, but supports the science underlying other elements in the treaty and advice from the UN panel.

A second thing that’s made even clearer from the new document is that this really is about heavy industrial emitters whose fundamental business process — smelting iron, generating electricity, whatever — are big emissions sources. It’s smokestacks here, not tailpipes. Mom-and-Pop shops are not considered part of the problem under these regulations, but they’re also not considered part of the solution. That is, the only people big emitters are going to be able to buy credits from are other big emitters that have cleaned up their acts. Small companies with clever ideas and entrepreneurs whose whole business model is to create and sell offsets need not apply, except perhaps as consultants to the existing emitters.

That’s the way you’d do it if your goal is to stick it to industry (and its customers and workers), and it matches the rhetoric the government has been using since the general outline of the plan came out a year ago last April. It’s not the way you’d do it if your goal is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the most economically efficient way possible.

Two ways to be disingenuous about your greenhouse-gas plan

Spotty posting lately — paid work’s been running me ragged. But here’s a superb post from Paul Wells, looking at how the Tories’ carbon-cutting policy matches up with the Liberals‘.

The Conservatives can’t have it both ways: their plan is only stronger than the Liberals’ if it is applied in such a way as to impose onerous deadlines and real costs on emitters. So they can’t claim their plan is tougher at the same time as they complain about the costs of Dion’s.

Of course, when I use phrases like “can’t have it both ways” and “they can’t claim,” I mean they certainly will claim and they probably can have it both ways. This is the evolving John Baird Two-Step, which the minister has rehearsed in a few interviews this summer: Why put up with the nasty cost of the Liberal tax scheme, when you can have the much tougher, more responsible Conservative plan instead?

This analysis strikes me as taking the Conservatives’ plan much too seriously. It’s been well over a year since the policy was announced — where’s the implementation plan? Perhaps the Tories thought there’d have been an election by now, sending everything back to Square One, but no such luck.

The approach here seems to be to promote a ridiculously tough policy that you have no intention of actually putting into practice. That way you can really have it both ways.

Harper’s case

As disappointing (albeit expected) as the G8 countries’ meaningless declaration on their plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions is, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s remarks on the subject are the most compelling sum-up of his views I’ve heard yet:

“The argument that we should do more is an interesting argument, but it can’t be made by those who aren’t doing anything, so I think the pressure will be on them to do something,” the prime minister told reporters at the luxury hotel where the summit was held.

In the coming years, developing countries will account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s emissions, Harper noted.

“I could show you the graphs. We cannot control greenhouse gases in the developed world alone,” he said.

“By 2050, the developed world will probably represent no more than 20 per cent of emissions, so when we say we need participation by developing countries, this is not a philosophical position. This is a mathematical certainty.”

The “Green shift”

Enfin, the federal Liberals have taken the curtains off their green tax-shifting policy (PDF). It might not be too late to recover from the months they’ve spent defending a thing they wouldn’t tell anybody about against attacks that couldn’t definitively be said to be absurd, given that the thing being attacked was a near-cipher.

But now the real thing is out there, and it seems to me it’s more or less as billed: a tax on high-emission fossil fuels that’s high enough to make a difference (eventually working out to $40 a tonne of carbon dioxide), if not as high as tough environmentalists might like ($50 a tonne is generally the low end of credible estimates of what a carbon tax should be, and they go as high as $150 a tonne), counterbalanced by cuts to personal and corporate income taxes and enhancements to programs that send money to people at the bottom of the economic scale who pay few taxes or none at all.

As the CBC reports:

The plan offers the following personal income tax cuts in compensation as people pay more for heating costs, food and other items:

  • A 1.5 percentage point rate reduction for the lowest tax bracket (the first $37,885 of taxable income), to 13.5 per cent from 15.
  • A one percentage point rate reduction for the second-lowest tax bracket ($37,885-$75,769), to 21 per cent from 22.
  • A one percentage point rate reduction for the bracket between $75,769 and $123,184, to 25 per cent from 26.

Dion also unveiled a number of tax credits he said would help out families. He said that the plan, by the fourth year, would include a new refundable child tax credit worth $350 per child per year.

The Liberals would also introduce a new guaranteed family supplement that would provide $1,225 to low-income families with children under 18.

As well, the plan would include a green credit worth $150 every year for every rural tax taxpayer, beginning in the first year of the plan.

I’m not going to pretend I think it’s a great plan, so filled with politically necessary exceptions and loopholes is it. The extra rebate for people living in rural or far-North areas, for instance, is pure pandering, and so’s the decision not to add more taxes to gasoline. Yes, it’s already heavily taxed, but not for this reason. If we’re levying green taxes, gas shouldn’t get a pass because we’re already taxing it to pay for roads and so on.

The collection of ways the Liberals’ plan sends money to the poor is fiddly and smacks of opportunism: funding favourite programs rather than finding the most efficient and simplest ways to get money back to people.

So it’s flawed. Maybe because it can’t be perfect and still stand any chance in hell, but all the same: flawed.

Rather than taking it on on those grounds, though, the opposition (including the government, though in the case of the Tories I’m not the first to say that they seem to like acting as if they were still on the other side of the aisle) is continuing the screamfest as if nothing had changed — as if there weren’t an actual thing on the table to discuss now.

The New Democrats are just blithering. Says CP:

NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair said nothing in the plan compels emission reductions. He characterized Dion’s carbon tax as “a fine” on industry for continuing to pump out unlimited increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

This is technically true but is a meaningful criticism only if you don’t believe that money affects people’s choices. Which, given that we’re talking about the NDP, is indeed the case, though why they’re so worked up about the advantages the rich have over the poor, I’m no longer sure. Also, why they aren’t calling for repeals of fines as presumably meaningless punishments for crimes.

The Conservatives, supposedly the party with policy smarts, are the most disappointing. Says Canwest:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper led the flood of negative reaction. “They’re so bankrupt intellectually that the only policy idea they can come up with is to impose a new tax on energy prices at a time when energy prices are a national and global problem. That is their only idea?” said Harper during an appearance in Huntsville, Ont.

“Mr. Dion’s policies are crazy. This is crazy economics. It’s crazy environmental policy.”

It is self-evidently not the Liberals’ only idea, but what the heck. Even if it is, it’s supported by a who’s-who of economists and environmental thinkers, left and right alike. Even the American Enterprise Institute supports tax-shifting in principle, and they’re nuts (but in the Tories’ direction, I mean, not the NDP’s). The C.D. Howe Institute, Don Drummond of TD, Tom freaking D’Aquino of the richie-rich CEOs’ association. They’re all on board. This is an idea the Conservatives should have stolen.

But now that they’ve sent Jason Kenney out to dump all over the thing, they’ve definitively boxed themselves in. Never. Policy innovation? Forget it.

Beating up on a carbon tax

Stéphane Dion’s inept failure to define what he means by a “carbon tax,” which I’ve decried at some length, left the barn door wide open for this, which is almost self-parodying in its refusal to engage with the actual issue at hand.

The “You think it’s easy to load websites?” line while some of the elaborate Flash stuff downloads is pretty good, admittedly.

It’s probably going to work, at least for the purposes of killing the carbon-tax idea. As far as winning the Tories a majority government is concerned, I think it’s most likely to reinforce the idea that the Conservatives are temperamentally kind of assholes, and never more so than when they’re in a position of strength.

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.