Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s proposed carbon tax has merits; his method for introducing it does not. Provincial environment ministers were meeting federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in Montreal Monday, aiming to work out an agreement on carbon pricing, when Trudeau announced in Parliament that the federal government would impose a floor price on carbon pollution, starting at $10 a tonne in 2018 and rising each year to $50 a tonne by 2022.
Ottawa would impose carbon pricing on provinces or territories that don’t implement a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system by 2018.
It’s a well-intended effort to reduce atmospheric pollution, but Trudeau’s heavy-handed approach threatens to poison the political atmosphere. It’s not so much what was done, but how it was done. Critics can be excused for wondering if Justin Trudeau is channelling his predecessor or his father.
As prime minister, Stephen Harper was seen as standing aloof from the provinces. Although he conferred with premiers individually, in person or by phone, he avoided meeting the premiers as a group.
First ministers’ conferences that include the prime minister have been a fact of Canadian political life for the better part of a century, growing more frequent as closer collaboration between the provincial and federal governments evolved. But that stopped with Harper. The last time he met the premiers was in 2009.
It’s not a mystery. He stood to gain little politically from such meetings. The provinces would be coming to the table to ask for more money, and he wanted to project an image of frugality. The provinces would want the federal government to do more; he favoured the federal government doing less.
And such meetings would have the potential to be contentious, but that’s politics for you. And it’s not necessarily bad.
While partisan rancour often goes beyond the limits of civility, the adversarial approach can be healthy. Opposing views are presented, debated, attacked and defended. The process can weed out the weak stances, strengthen the viable ones. Good compromises can result.
The provincial environment ministers didn’t have that opportunity with the carbon-tax issue. Trudeau could have been firm. He could have told the provinces to come up with an agreement by a certain date, or he would impose a solution.
The outcome could well have been the same, but the reaction would likely have been different. The parties would have had a chance to be heard, perhaps to suggest compromises.
Much of the credit for the Liberals’ 2015 victory can be given to Trudeau’s approachability and willingness to listen. His demeanour stood in sharp contrast to Harper’s autocratic manner.
But to announce the carbon-pricing plan at the very moment environment ministers were discussing it smacks of the arrogance that typified many of the actions of Trudeau the Elder. Is Justin Trudeau morphing into his philosopher-king father?
Likely not, but the imposition of the carbon-tax plan has raised the spectre of the National Energy Program that Pierre Trudeau imposed on the provinces in 1980, making his name a hiss and byword in the prairie provinces to this day.
Sometimes an iron hand is needed. When change is needed and agreement can’t be reached, measures imposed from above might be necessary. But that should be done rarely and carefully.
Harper was criticized for using his majority as a sledgehammer, especially when a majority of Canadians did not vote for his party. Justin Trudeau is in the same position. He could have lived up to his promise to do things differently by conferring with the provinces before imposing the carbon tax.
Trudeau had a chance to improve federal-provincial relations. He muffed it.
© Copyright Times Colonist