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Canadians barely support carbon tax; don't like BC version, poll finds

Canadians are willing to flirt with a nationwide carbon tax to fight climate change, but bets are off when it comes to paying the bill, a new poll has found.

A Harris-Decima telephone poll conducted exclusively for The Canadian Press found 49 per cent of respondents said they supported bringing in a carbon tax.

But when asked specifically if they'd support a carbon tax like British Columbia's which would incrementally hike the cost of gas and home heating oil, support dropped to 42 per cent.

The telephone survey of 1,000 Canadians conducted April 29 to May 3 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.

Jeff Walker, Harris-Decima senior vice-president, said the polling numbers indicate Canadians believe the carbon tax is a concept worthy of some consideration, but there are deep concerns when the cost of a carbon tax hits home.

"The carbon tax is one of the most interesting issues I think somebody like me as a pollster looks at because it's a classic story of theory and practice," he said.

"What we find is that in theory, many people support the principle of a carbon tax and even the implementation of a carbon tax, broadly speaking.

"But the problem is, of course, when it's implemented there's a whole bunch of people who don't like paying the price of a carbon tax."

Support for the tax was highest among Quebecers, where 62 per cent of respondents were fine with the idea.

Support for the tax was lowest in B.C., the only province that actually has one. Respondents in British Columbia were less supportive of the tax than even those in Alberta, where there was 40 per cent support.

In Atlantic Canada, 56 per cent of respondents supported the introduction of a carbon tax, 45 per cent of Ontarians supported it and respondents in Manitoba and Saskatchewan were evenly split over whether they supported it or not.

But the numbers shift strongly against the tax when respondents were asked for their reaction to the introduction of the carbon tax in British Columbia.

Atlantic Canadians were the least put off - support for the B.C.-style tax was at 33 per cent.

In Quebec, where support for the tax was highest in theory, support for the actual B.C. tax dropped to 52 per cent.

"It's definitely not seen as a winner nationally," said Walker.

"The thing that people are most troubled about in regards to this is many people aren't sure it will necessarily motivate the right kind of behaviour.

"It seems like people look at carbon taxes in a vacuum as a policy choice and say, 'You know what, that doesn't necessarily make sense."'

In fact, 60 per cent of respondents in British Columbia said the tax hasn't done much to reduce fossil fuel use in the province and almost as many said it hadn't motivated them to change their behaviour.

The poll also suggested a carbon tax can be damaging politically no matter what position a politician takes on it.

In a further on-line survey of 1,000 British Columbian voters, Harris-Decima found about as many respondents were angry with B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell for introducing the tax as were angry with NDP Leader Carole James for opposing it.

Federally, former federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion suffered career-ending political burns when he tried to make a carbon tax part of the Liberal election failed campaign platform last fall.

Dion resigned as Liberal leader shortly afterwards, but the party at its recent convention in Vancouver voted to take a future run at a carbon tax.

Campbell, who is currently campaigning for a third consecutive mandate on May 12, introduced Canada's first escalating carbon tax on fossil fuels last July.

The B.C. tax, which rises by 50 per cent in July, currently adds about 2.4 cents per litre on fuel costs, including gasoline.

On the campaign trail, Campbell touts the tax as a weapon to fight global warming while the New Democrats, who promise to drop the carbon tax, say it is unfair to northern and rural residents.

Environmental psychologist Robert Gifford, who teaches at the University of Victoria, said tough economic times are registering harsh environmental truths.

Canadians want to do the right thing for the environment, but when it costs money and they are struggling to hold onto their jobs, clean air will have to wait, he said.

"Eighty to eighty-five per cent of North Americans think something should be done, and it's an important issue, but what you have is concern that's a mile wide and an inch deep," said Gifford .

But despite the widespread ambivalence to the carbon tax in British Columbia, the political fallout may end up hurting the NDP most for their opposition to it, said Walker.

Traditional soft environment voters in British Columbia who usually go into every election vowing to vote Green, but end up going with the NDP are now considering staying Green to punish the NDP, he said.

"A few votes one way or the other could have a huge effect on the outcome of this election, said Walker.

"Even though it could only be 10 per cent of the population that's on this NDP-Green switch question, that can have an effect on the outcome."

The online Harris-Decima poll found a neck-and-neck race between the Liberals and the New Democrats in B.C., but also identified up to 28 per cent of undecided voters.

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