Newsflash: Canadian PM’s American Idol supports Stephane Dion-esque carbon tax shift

Note: for non-Canadian readers (or, indeed for Canadian readers who don’t follow politics) Stephane Dion was the milquetoast who led the Liberal Party of Canada to its then-worst-ever federal election result in 2008.  He ran on a campaign of a carbon tax shift (“The Green Shift“), for which the Conservative Party mocked and savaged him.

We’ll get to Stephen Harper and his erstwhile idol after the jump, but a bit of background discussion is necessary to provide a proper context…

– – – – –

Well, Hell froze over yesterday.   And I don’t just mean the Michigan town, which is indeed hovering around the freezing mark.  :)

Grover Norquist, founder of anti-tax conservative lobby group Americans for Tax Reform, suggested that a revenue-neutral carbon tax, paired with income tax cuts, would be allowed under his “never any new taxes, ever” pledge — which pretty much all elected and aspiring Republicans sign onto.  (Hat tip to Climate Progress, here.)

If Obama can capitalize on this — and to be honest, his track record in his first term doesn’t inspire confidence — the US might actually be able implement a carbon tax.  A drop in income taxes should satisfy a lot of Republican and Tea Party types, because it would reduce the fiscally-prudent citizen’s tax burden.  (Whether most of us are fiscally prudent, is another matter.  ;)  )

A good analogy might be how American conservatives generally supported the expansion of lotteries in the 1980’s — it was possible to reduce income taxes because people dumb enough to buy lotto tickets, basically subsidized everyone else’s contribution.  In a carbon tax shift, people dumb enough to consume lots of energy (directly, or in the form of products and services) subsidize contributions for the rest of us.  Happily, from a social justice perspective, it’s the 1% (and especially the 0.1% and 0.01%) who consume the most energy per capita.  Regrettably, people buying lottery tickets are almost always in the 99%…

The US passing a carbon tax would be extraordinarily good news for Canadians — especially our siblings living in the northern 95% of the country, who are seeing the worst effects of climate change.  (Most of Canada’s population lives in a thin stripe just north of the American border.)

Canada’s current government years ago promised that it would match Canada’s climate policies to the US’ policies, ostensibly to avoid imposing a competitive disadvantage on national industry.  Given the government’s ties to the Alberta bitumen complex, however, the more likely explanation is that the Conservative Party never expected the US to do anything meaningful, and hoped to use American inaction as an excuse for their own indolence.


As it turns out, a few years ago Obama committed the US to a 17% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, by 2020.  Perhaps suffering a mild cause of “greenis envy”  ;)  Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged the same.  The thing is, even without a carbon tax, the US will probably achieve this goal — Canada won’t.

The US will be able to reduce its overall emissions by one-sixth by 2020 for several reasons, among them:

  • Americans are driving less, and in much more fuel-efficient cars (vehicles from the “Hummer” decade are gradually being replaced by vehicles from the “Volt” decade)
  • admittedly, yes, the big recession did have an impact – Americans are consuming less, generally
  • but mainly because old coal plants are being retired en masse

Natural gas boosters are right to claim some credit for the retirement of coal plants, but we might thank far-right-wing capitalism instead.  See, everything has some redeeming features!  ;)  Over the past quarter-century, American utilities consistently underinvested in their power plants — lobbying to get grandfathered past new legislation, instead of actually doing overhauling their facilities.  After all, every dollar you reduce on capital expenditures, is a dollar that boosts the bottom line, juicing the stock price and fattening the value of those executive stock options.  :)  A lot of the coal plants being closed are fifty-odd years old, and in every way are at end-of-life.  They’re too far gone to justify refurbishing.

If these utilities had been subject to strong regulatory bodies, or run by public utilities, it’s likely that many of them would have put their coal plants through upgrades over the years… meaning that fewer of them would be facing closure today!

As for Canada, we won’t be able to reduce our own emissions because:

  • the extraordinarily-energy-intensive oil sands continue to expand, offsetting all the reduced emissions everywhere else in the country
  • Canadian electricity is roughly half hydroelectric, meaning there’s less coal electricity to replace.  (To use the business phrase, we don’t have as many low-hanging fruit as the US does.)



So now let’s turn back to Stephen Harper and his “American Idol”, Grover Norquist.  Here’s my rationale for linking the two of them in this way.

Firstly, it’s catchy.  Like “greenis envy”.  :)

Secondly, Stephen Harper left politics in 1997 to lead a Canadian lobbying group very similar to Norquist’s own Americans for Tax Reform.  Specifically, Harper joined the National Citizens Coalition, a far-right-wing Canadian lobby group which was formed in the 1960’s to oppose the increased government spending which came about as a result of Universal Healthcare.  You younger Canadians, this is why when Harper returned to politics, people said he’d try to dismantle Medicare.

Thankfully, the overwhelming Canadian support for public healthcare means no politician, however right-wing, is dumb enough to touch it (for a while at least…).  As Michael Moore correctly noted in Sicko, Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian healthcare (and grandfather of Keifer Sutherland) was even voted the Greatest Canadian, a few years back.  One senses that Obama will enjoy a similar reputation in the US, if ever they manage to achieve universal coverage there.

Incidentally, every few years the Fraser Institute (the Canadian equivalent to the Heritage Foundation in the States) puts out an alarming report to the effect that Canadians’ tax burden has increased 40% in the past fifty years, and how terrible that all is.  Never mentioned is that their starting point is always just prior to Canadians’ favourite and most treasured public institution (the aforementioned universal healthcare system).  And that this public institution is almost entirely responsible for the tax difference between the early 1960’s and today…

To add a modicum — a pinch! — of fairness, cherry-picking of datapoints isn’t exclusive to the plutocratic class and their toadying Smithers-es.  Germany lobbied hard for the original Kyoto protocol to use 1990 as a starting year… because that was just after German reunification, and the country hadn’t yet shut down the super-inefficient East German coal plants.  If, say, 1992 or 1994 was used as a starting point, Germany would’ve had a lot more work ahead of it.

Naturally, my inclination is to see the German sleight-of-hand as less serious than the Fraser Institute’s.  After all, the Germans were still committing to do real work (and have done an admirable job in the intervening years).  Others’ opinions may differ.  :)

Thirdly, with its tagline of “more freedom through less government”, the NCC’s political ideology pretty much matches that of Americans for Tax Reform.  Heck, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Harper even sued for the right to allow unlimited third-party spending during election campaigns.  (And gosh, that works so well for our southern cousins, now, doesn’t it?)  His main break with the Norquist model was that instead of staying a king-maker among conservatives, Harper re-entered politics to become king.


Grover Norquist’s proving himself a carbon tax shift-supporting polluter’s quisling makes for a bigger ideological break.  We’ll see how the Prime Minister responds.  An investigative journalism series from BC’s scrappy online paper The Tyee this summer even claimed that Calgary’s oil boardrooms — including Suncor and Cenovus — even want a carbon tax.

Canada’s business community — including the Alberta oilpatch — is “overwhelmingly in favour of a price on carbon” because it is seen as inevitable; and since we don’t have one now, the price of carbon is an unquantifiable business risk.  If we had a carbon price, however big or small, people could punch numbers with certainty into spreadsheets, and business decisions could be made.

You can also be sure the oilpatch would want Harper to be the one setting the price on carbon, because the Conservatives dominate the electoral ridings in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where most of Canada’s fossil fuels are produced.  The nightmare scenario for them would be to have an NDP majority — with few if any MP’s in either province, and therefore nothing politically to lose — bypassing the kid-gloves and suddenly slapping on a meaningful carbon price.  Indeed, those tactics might well energize NDP supporters in the rest of the country…


Unfortunately, the Conservatives’ most recent media campaign — incorrectly accusing the NDP of having a carbon tax plan (when in fact the NDP favours a weaker, flimsier cap-and-trade policy which prices carbon but isn’t classified as a carbon tax per se) probably tells us that Harper will stick to ideological guns, even when his allies want him to move into the 21st century.  This is unfortunate.

(If you change “Mulcair’s $20 billion carbon tax plan” with “Tommy Douglas / Lester Pearson’s $X billion socialized medicine plan” you get a sense of how vigorously the National Citizens Coalition opposed public healthcare in its earlier days.)

I’d imagine the Conservative Party will instead fall back to its oft-used line that a carbon tax is off the table because Canadians rejected it in 2008.  This is a fantastically hollow argument because, as we all know, social mores change over time.

One need only consider that in 1884 Prime Minister John A MacDonald proposed giving women the right to vote.  We would have beaten New Zealand by a decade, in becoming the first country in the world to do so.  (Admittedly, once we did so, others would’ve probably followed suit, meaning our lead wouldn’t’ve been ten years.)  But instead, we didn’t.  And no doubt in the next thirty-five years, many a social conservative argued that women’s right to vote was a non-starter “because Canadians rejected it in 1884″…



full disclosure: blogger currently donates to the NDP (for now :)  ).

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