Kurl: Should Trudeau rethink his approach to the carbon tax?

The prime minister needs to keep onside those people who are torn between their own household cost pressures and their concern for the environment.

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There are times in politics when two conflicting things are true at the same time. Public reaction to the impending federal carbon-tax increase is one of those times. Follow along, dear readers, and don’t worry, I promise the cognitive dissonance will not break your brains.

For months, the Trudeau government has appeared to be in a state of paralysis as dissatisfaction grows with a carbon tax it could no longer sell based on the merits of doing the right thing for climate change in the face of Official Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre’s incessant pounding over inflation and cost of living concerns. The slogan “JustinInflation” has morphed into “Axe the Tax.”

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I wondered last fall if the prime minister had lost the room over his signature policy. Fast-forward six months, and more than one narrative emerges.

On one hand, left-of-centre voters (those who say they would vote Liberal, NDP or Bloc Québécois in an upcoming federal election) have found new vigour in defending and even advocating for an increase as scheduled April 1. On the other, these would-be supporters represent a much smaller group than they were at this time last year.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of those who would support the Conservatives in a future election would “axe the tax” (75 per cent) or at least lower it (nine per cent). This, as the party leads in vote intention by nearly a two-to-one margin over the Liberals.

I have watched as Trudeau adamantly defends his commitment to the scheduled increase, and as economists defend the tax. I am not an economist, but I defer to the expertise of those who are. Not everyone (that’s an understatement) does. Thus, a political fight over carbon pricing is not going to do well based on how many economists think this is good policy.

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While more Canadians subject to the federal carbon tax are aware of the rebate than were last November, and, in turn, believe they are receiving more in rebate than they pay out, the majority in affected provinces would still prefer to scrap or lower the tax. Why? Because, according to recent public opinion data from the Angus Reid Institute, the majority in provinces covered by the federal carbon tax doubt it’s doing much to reduce Canadian greenhouse gas emissions (let alone global emissions). They are broadly of the view that while fighting climate change is still important, it is less important than alleviating cost-of-living issues. It is not that Canadians are blanket climate-change deniers (many are, most are not) but that those identifying climate change as a top issue has declined relative to those who say the cost of living is more important.

Recently, the prime minister complained that the premiers pushing back against the April 1 tax increase have failed to offer better alternatives. He says this of Poilievre too. The problem: for most Canadians outside B.C. and Quebec, the issue is not that the opposition has crappy or no alternatives to a federal consumer carbon tax, but that carbon pricing is something that feel they can’t afford.

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He may be loath to do it, but at some point  — in the name of saving his brave and ground-breaking policy to aid a rapidly warming planet — the prime minister must consider a short-term suspension or freeze on increases to the price of carbon consumption, just to keep folks torn between their own household cost pressures and care for the environment onside. (Remember, he’s already done this with the home-heating oil carve-out that benefited Atlantic Canada.)

Or he can continue to double, triple and quadruple down, betting true believers will swallow the fiscal pain they genuinely feel in order to help save the planet. But so many of his 2015, 2019 and 2021 followers are deserting him as they worry about meeting rent, mortgage and grocery payments.

Pierre Poilievre has declared that under his leadership, carbon pricing will be impossible. However, politics is the art of the possible. Maybe Justin Trudeau needs to think harder about this before he loses more support.

Shachi Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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