Thursday, September 20, 2012

Carbon Tax Fall-Out: Tom Mulcair and the NDP Choose Partisan Games Over Good Public Policy

Today, I am at a complete loss to adequately explain the growing frustration which I’ve been feeling with the Tom Mulcair’s New Democratic Party. “Frustration”, frankly, is too light a term to describe the feeling. As I can’t explain the emotion, let me at least relay the facts which have led me to this breaking point.

When Tom Mulcair was elected Leader of the NDP back in March, I was cautiously optimistic that he would bring a higher level of discourse to Ottawa, particularly around the economics of climate change, and why it’s important that action be taken. For me, the NDP has always seemed to be a Party which talked a good game about the environment, but frankly had little clue about what sorts of appropriate actions would be necessary to combat the climate crisis. For every NDP proposal which would have helped reduce our dependence of fossil fuels (eliminate corporate subsidies to multi-national oil companies; put a price on carbon emissions) there was a counter-proposal which would negate impacts and continue to place an economic burden on future generations (capping gasoline prices at the pump; subsidizing electricity bills).

Mulcair Chooses Spin Over Substance

Tom Mulcair, I thought, understood that haphazard uncoordinated actions would not lead to the sorts of emissions reductions which Canada has got to start seriously contemplating if we are truly going to be a world leader in the emerging green economy. Sure, I have never been wild about Cap & Trade, Mulcair and the NDP’s signature economic policy to address climate change impacts. But with the right supports in place, Cap & Trade at least might actually reduce emissions, given enough time, and do so in a way which might not bankrupt the economically challenged. Mulcair, who started his term as NDP Leader talking openly about sustainably developing the Alberta tar sands, seemed like he might “get it”.

In the last week, though, with parliament having returned after a summer break, it’s become crystal clear that for reasons of partisan game-playing, the NDP under Tom Mulcair doesn’t “get it” – and will go to great lengths to ensure that their spin-controlled message replaces anything akin to serious debate about Canada’s economic future.

Climate Change is an Economic Issue, Requiring Economic Policy Responses

Make no mistake: while Canada’s economy might be relatively healthy at present, if we stay the course, we are setting ourselves up to run into serious economic issues related to climate change and resource depletion. Our economy is already experiencing the mild effects of a warming planet, manifested in rising food prices, and the effects of resource depletion through rising gasoline prices. The continued threats posed by global warming and the end of inexpensive energy are real. Many whom traditionally support the NDP understand this.

Yet, Mulcair and the NDP would rather spin-control their message than develop any serious ideas about how best to address the coming economic crisis. This week, we’ve seen Mulcair and his acolytes go on the offensive over Canada’s trade deficit and capping gasoline prices, while ignoring the concerted attacks made by the Conservative Party over the NDP’s alleged support of a carbon tax. The NDP, rather than engage on the issue of carbon pricing (which is both an economic and environmental issue), instead chose to brand the Conservatives as “liars” without any attempt to explain just how their beloved Cap & Trade policy will actually impact Canadians.

Looking for Real Climate Heros?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, and former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, took Mulcair to task for this missed opportunity. Instead of engaging, however, Mulcair chose to refer to a “carbon tax” as being “regressive”, a term which in politics is followed by the sound of a door slamming on a potential policy outcome. A change of mind now on the NDP’s carbon pricing policy simply can no longer happen, for the “regressive” sound bite will be played over and over by his pro-climate change Conservative rivals.

And the fact that consumption taxes are anything but “regressive” seems to matter nothing at all to Mulcair. We’ve managed to reduce health-destroying tobacco use through the imposition of consumption taxes. We’ve succeeded in reducing acid rain by pricing the industrial use of sulphur dioxide. What’s regressive about curtailing carbon pollution by making it more expensive for those who choose to pollute?

Elizabeth May had this to say about Mulcair earlier this week:

“Thomas Mulcair should be ashamed for not defending a carbon tax system. British Columbia now has had such a revenue-neutral carbon tax in place for four years. The last time I checked, the economy of the province had not vanished. Not only that, but people in B.C. actually support the system.”

Today in parliament, Elizabeth May was shouted down by the NDP, after asking what Mulcair would do about the climate crisis, if the NDP were to form government. The NDP is clearly on a mission to marginalize other voices in the House, and add fuel to the flames of Canada’s democratic deficit in the process. It seems that they’ve determined that their future electoral success is riding on silencing other voices.

NDP Chooses Partisanship Over Policy

I am troubled by this for so many reasons, not least of which because I see uncritical supporters of the NDP in my own community mimic the politician’s talking points and engage in mindless partisanship. I know that many of these people are actually interested in taking action on climate change, and very concerned about the growing democratic deficit. Yet they are content to throw reasonable debate on good public policy under the bus in order to champion their own talking points, because they believe that the NDP will be more “electable” if they play the message-management game. This is what I’ve come to expect from Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. It is an absolute shame that the NDP has decided to engage in these same tactics now that they believe themselves to be a government in waiting.

I follow Sudbury NDP MP Glen Thibeault on Twitter. Full disclosure: I believe that Glen Thibeault is a hard-working MP and an asset to Sudbury. I often see Glen at community events both big and small, and I’ve heard Glen speak a number of times about important issues in the community. I think Glen is a really good guy. And that’s why it saddens me to see our NDP MP parrot the Party’s talking points about carbon taxes and Conservative lies, while trumpeting regressive and economically damaging NDP policies around energy use.

The NDP wants Canadians to think that a carbon tax is regressive because it was once championed by the Liberals, a political party which the NDP (along with the Conservatives) is out to destroy as a valid vehicle of political expression. Although they won’t say it, they are also opposed to a carbon tax because the Green Party supports it. The NDP won’t say it because it is an NDP stratagem to *never* talk about the Green Party, for talking about the Greens would be an acknowledgement that the Green Party actually exists and has a place in Canada’s political spectrum, which they see as a threat. Remember: it was Jack Layton’s decision in 2008 to initially deny Elizabeth May an opportunity to participate in the televised leadership debates. I can’t help but wonder if Mulcair will try to pull the same stunt in 2015.

What the NDP does instead is trumpet their Cap & Trade policy without explaining at all how it will actually work. And that is critical, because any Cap & Trade scheme is bound to raise consumer prices on many goods and services. But the NDP doesn’t acknowledge this. And they have no plan about how best to address rising prices (probably because they won’t acknowledge that prices will actually rise). What kind of economic policy does that amount to? Wishful thinking, at best maybe.

Carbon Pricing - Why Getting the Right Policy is Important

In fact, consumer prices are bound to rise under any carbon pricing plan, including the Conservative’s own poorly-implemented (and needlessly expensive) plan for to regulate carbon emission standards for industrial sectors (the Conservatives, too, refuse to acknowledge that their actions will lead to rising prices for consumers). And yes, a carbon tax will also raise prices for consumers. Why run away from these facts? I don’t know. For me, discussing them is part of the informed debate on which process to price emissions (and thereby reducing emissions) works better.

Business and industry leaders in Canada have for years now acknowledged that carbon pricing is coming. They’ve been trying to drive the debate about the best mechanisms to price carbon, and many, including CEO’s in some of the largest multinational oil companies, such as Shell and Exxon, have suggested that a direct tax would be the simplest way to price emissions. It would also lead to stable and predictable prices, which are important for small businesses which don’t have the same flexibilities to absorb market-driven changes to prices. That’s probably the biggest reason that I’m not a fan of Cap & Trade, because it could disadvantage small, local businesses.

But the other advantage of a revenue-neutral carbon tax has over Cap & Trade is that taxation revenues derived from the tax can be put back into programs which will ensure that those least well off are not severely impacted by rising prices. What’s not clear is that the NDP has taken into consideration how, exactly, rising prices might impact the economically vulnerable, particularly those who are living on fixed incomes. This is probably because the NDP continues to want to pretend that Cap & Trade is only going to impact large corporations, and not, well, everyone. Or does the NDP really naively believe that corporations won’t pass along increased costs to consumers?

Sadly ironic is the fact that those very same people who are most at risk from a poorly implemented Cap & Trade scheme are the very same people whom the NDP has traditionally championed – the economically vulnerable.

NDP Paints Itself Into a Carbon Corner

A much better approach would be for the NDP to move away from a wasteful Cap & Trade scheme for carbon pricing altogether, and actually adopt the revenue-neutral carbon tax called for by business and industry. As time has gone by, the verdict on the success of Cap & Trade appears to be negative, with Europe’s carbon trading scheme doing little to reduce emissions, and the private Chicago-based emissions trading scheme having collapsed altogether. In the United States, Congress turned down the Waxman-Markey bill, which would have established Cap & Trade there. Increasingly, revenue-neutral carbon taxes, or carbon fee & dividend approaches, are being championed as a better approach to carbon pricing. However, Mulcair appears to have completely undermined the NDP’s ability to switch horses now with his “regressive” labelling of a carbon tax.

All of this must be very disheartening for Canadians, many of whom have traditionally supported the NDP. For me, it’s beyond frustrating. It’s outright infuriating.

Apparently, Winning is Everything for the NDP

What we’re seeing the NDP turn into under Tom Mulcair’s leadership is a Party more concerned about dividing and conquering than putting good public policy proposals forward. Further, the NDP will continue to wear the mantle of economic mismanagement in the minds of Canadians, since they refuse to acknowledge the likely economic impacts of their own policy proposals. For Canadians concerned about the climate crisis, it should now be clear that the NDP is not the Party which is going to take global warming seriously. We saw it happen in British Columbia recently, with the NDP campaigning against B.C.’s emissions-reducing carbon tax. I fear that the same is now happening with the NDP nationally, and we can expect the NDP to try to silence a legitimate debate on carbon pricing. Likely because the NDP knows that their own policy is poorly conceived.

On carbon pollution, Tom Mulcair says he wants to make the “polluter pay”. But, for partisan political reasons, what he won’t candidly tell Canadians is that the polluter is us. Mulcair cynically wants Canadians to think that the climate crisis can be solved by taxing multinational corporations, while preserving the status quo which we ordinary Canadians have come to enjoy. Now that the era of inexpensive energy use has come to an end, and the world is facing the global challenge of a changing climate, the game has changed. If pretending otherwise is the NDP prescription for prosperity in the 21st Century, Canada under a Mulcair government will be ill-prepared to take advantage of the opportunities which a truly green economy offers. And we will all be worse off for it.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

No comments: