Category Archives: Liberal Party

The Green Shift for beginners

We put together what I think is a pretty good primer on the Liberals’ Green Shift for the Citizen today. Here’s senior writer Don Butler’s main explainer piece, and my analysis of why the Liberals are having such trouble with their sales job.

The Green Shift isn’t central: Dion

This is one of those semi-gaffes that sinks campaigns.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said today that his Green Shift plan featuring a controversial carbon tax is not a major part of his election platform.

“You have said it was but never me,” Dion told reporters.

His surprise declaration follows by a day campaign appearances in the Toronto area where he failed to mention it once in his speeches.

Dion released the Green Shift plan in June in Ottawa with great fanfare. It proposes to tax fossil fuels while cutting taxes for lower and middle income Canadians.

“I have always said it was an important policy for Canada. I strongly believe it would be good for Canada,” he told reporters.

You can see what he’s getting at. Dion and the Liberals aren’t just running on the Green Shift. They do actually have a bunch of other ideas and proposals, which they’ve been trickling out as the campaign progresses, as parties will.

But that’s not what he said, and what he said is that the platform plank that he’s allowed everybody to believe is central to the Liberal campaign is not, in fact, central to the Liberal campaign.

I suspect this is a mortal wound.

Managing abundance

Matthew Yglesias debunks the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is an expert on America’s energy problems:

Alaska politicians never worry that energy may be getting too expensive and think about how to respond. They worry that energy might get too cheap! Alaska politicians don’t develop expertise in energy conservation measures or alternative fuels, they develop expertise in fighting with out-of-state executives about how to divide the profits that come from expensive energy. That’s the energy problem people think about in Alaska, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas and Louisiana but it’s not the energy problem people worry about in Michigan or Ohio or Virginia or Florida or New Mexico or Colorado or most anywhere else in the country.

It’s up there with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s assertion that Canada could lead the world in water-resources management, since we have so much water. No: we don’t have so much water because we’re so damned good at hoarding it, we have so much because we got a lucky deal. You want to see some people who are good at managing water, go to Saudi Arabia or someplace, where they don’t have any.

The Canadian Greens’ first MP

On paper — hey, great, the Greens have acquired their first member of Parliament by accepting a former Liberal who’s been sitting as an independent. That’s how the Bloc Québécois started in Parliament, more or less.

But O, what a headache Blair Wilson could prove to be. He’s been sitting as an independent because his former party suspended him for (1) alleged election financing irregularities, and (2) not disclosing some unrelated matters to the party before the election. He’s been cleared of the first, but the second problem was enough to keep the Liberals from readmitting him to caucus. He barely squeaked into Parliament in a riding where the Greens finished a very distant fourth, with six per cent of the vote, so Wilson’s very unlikely to hold the seat longer than a few more months.

All it does, the only thing, is boost the Greens’ argument for being included in the televised leaders’ debates. I think they should have been on the stage a long time ago on principle, but given leader Elizabeth May’s stated support for Stéphane Dion for prime minister, as a practical matter having her take part might not be the best thing for the party’s electoral fortunes.

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.

The thing about Liberals is that they act like Liberals

Rightish Green activist and sometime candidate John Ogilvie isn’t thrilled by the federal Liberals’ insistence on combining a carbon tax with wealth redistribution:

Personally, I’m pissed that Dion is mashing together a carbon tax shift AND an assortment of anti-poverty, child-tax-credit initiatives. It’s not that I’m against these income-redistribution initiatives, but I am smart enough as a citizen to consider the carbon tax shift and the income-redistribution projects SEPARATELY.

By failing to make the tax shift truly neutral for all taxpayers, Dion has prevented us from making a good clean case for the Green tax shift.

True. Though in fairness, even green Liberals aren’t Greens. Stéphane Dion is up-front about the idea that his party should stand for three principles — economic prosperity, social justice and environmental consciousness — and it’s a trademark of the party that the three all kind of get munged up together in many policies, so it’s hard to tell what the point of any particular measure is. No reason why a carbon tax should be any different.

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.

Dion takes the field at last


For Immediate Release
June 18, 2008

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion Announces the Liberal Green Shift

Date: Thursday, June 19, 2008
Time: 10:00 AM
Location: House of Commons, Railway Room, 253-D Centre Block, Ottawa, Ontario

Please note that all details are subject to change. All times are local.

– 30 –

Contact :

Press Office
Office of the Leader of the Opposition

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.

Canada’s politicians refuse to make sense.

(Photo credit: “Stephane Dion,” Flickr/ycanada_news)

So Liberal leader Stéphane Dion raised the idea of a carbon tax and then wandered off, refusing to offer any details. Crucially, he’s declined to emphasize what should be a pretty important point — that in his view, a tax on CO2-generating fossil fuels would be matched with tax cuts in other areas, like income and corporate profits.

A legion of economists, including pretty conservative ones, say this is a good idea, but he’s given them nothing to work with, so they’re keeping quiet. Instead, he’s left the field to his critics, who are equally legion.

Tactically, this is dumb.

Yet what’s astounding to me is how, even given this massive advantage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton have managed to come off like ninnies. Econo-blogger Stephen Gordon puts it well:

The CPC is targeting the people who don’t want to pay those costs, and Stéphane Dion is going after those who do. The NDP’s niche appears to be voters who want someone else to pay the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So as usual, nobody has a credible plan on the table.