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The Carbon Campaign of '09

Campbell's tax is an NDP wedge issue. But at what risk?

Andrew MacLeod 5 Jun

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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NDP's Robertson wouldn't break ranks.

What's likely to be the last substantive legislative session before the next provincial vote ended with signs the carbon tax will be a defining issue between now and the May 12, 2009 election.

The NDP has received criticism for not being clear about the party's position on the tax. Leader Carole James is on record supporting a carbon tax, and yet she's failed to support this one. But as the session closed, it became clear that whatever individual caucus members think of carbon taxes in general, they are opposed to Gordon Campbell's tax, which James stressed is a "gas tax."

"All we ended up with after this year of anticipation, where the premier said he was going to put together a real climate change plan, all we ended up with was a gas tax," James said in a May 28 interview. "Which is again going to hurt the people who are already struggling under this government."

Thanks to Premier Campbell, people are already paying more for MSP fees, car insurance, hydro, ferry tickets and transit fares, she said. "Now they're going to have one more bill to take on."

Watch for her to campaign in rural constituencies on the tax's unfairness, while telling city folk that the tax doesn't go far enough and won't make a difference to provincial carbon emissions anyway.

The party will also put the tax in a broader environmental context. As James put it to reporters in a scrum on the last day of the session, "This government doesn't care about the environment. They want to try and push forward an issue that doesn't address the real problem here."

Pragmatic politics

While that position has been trashed by environmental groups, it may, however, make plenty of political sense.

Finding the right issue could turn things around for the party, said former NDP MLA and strategist David Schreck. "What they need is something, a ballot box question, that can get voters steamed in between the end of April and voting day."

It's difficult to predict now what that issue will be, he added. "I don't think they can start campaigning on that issue until two or three weeks before voting day."

It also matters where the votes are. Picking up votes in the north and the interior of the province could swing a few key constituencies, making the difference between defeat and victory. With recent changes to B.C.'s electoral boundaries, some of those constituencies have just one voter for every three in some urban constituencies.

The way things are now, the carbon tax is a made-to-order election issue for the NDP and they should seize it, said Bill Tieleman, a political consultant who worked for the party in the 1990s.

"You have to drive it and drive it mercilessly," he said. "They have the opportunity to make Campbell wear not just the carbon tax, but the market increase as well."

The NDP should be holding town hall meetings on the tax and hammering on its weaknesses, he said, including making the case that it is unfair and regressive. The tax is supposed to be "revenue neutral" but more than half of what is collected will be given back as tax cuts to businesses, he said, not individuals.

The government's budget documents said that in the first three years of the carbon tax, of the $1.849 billion to be collected, $1.179 billion or about 64 per cent will go to individuals.

"It will hurt people, and those people are NDP voters," Tieleman said.

Principles first

But targeting the carbon tax could hurt the party's environmental image and make things awkward for MLAs like Gregor Robertson, the representative for Vancouver-Fairview who is running to be Vision Vancouver's candidate for mayor in the November municipal election.

A founder of the Happy Planet organic juice company and a long time environmental advocate, he had argued for carbon taxes in the past. Headed into the May 29 vote, he was getting pressure from some environmentally minded constituents to break ranks with his party and vote for the carbon tax.

As things turned out, Robertson voted against the bill. There was no opportunity to introduce amendments that would have applied the tax to big polluters until a cap and trade system or something more robust is in place, he said. "There was no way I could in good conscience support any of these bills that were rammed through in an outrageous breach of democracy."

'Politically dangerous': Penner

Certainly there are signs the Liberals would rather focus the debate elsewhere. Besides ramming it into law on the last day of the spring legislative session, without a full debate, James noted that Premier Gordon Campbell failed to mention the tax when he addressed northern mayors recently, though he was no doubt well aware it was a hot button issue people wanted to talk about.

"We certainly will campaign on it," said Carole Taylor, who as finance minister introduced the tax in the February budget, but who will not be running in the next election. "We believe climate change is a crucial issue for British Columbia and we believe people are ready for leaders who do what they say and not just talk about it."

Environment minister Barry Penner also welcomed fighting a campaign on the carbon tax. "Already a number of significant environmental leaders have spoken out expressing shock and concern the NDP is using this approach to shore up their shrinking political support," he said.

Campaigning hard on the tax may backfire on the NDP, he said. "It's politically dangerous for them to try to score partisan advantage by opposing an initiative that's good for the environment," he said. "The NDP's approach can only encourage support both for the BC Liberal Party, and I suppose some disenfranchised NDP voters could continue to move to the Green Party."

The Greens have been closer to the NDP in some recent polls than the NDP have been to the Liberals, he said. "That trend will probably continue as the NDP attacks significant measures to combat climate change."

Lack of engagement

B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk said she supports the carbon tax and tax shifting, things her party has advocated since 2001.

She criticized some of the details of the Liberal plan, including the failure to use the money raised from the carbon tax on things that will help fight climate change, but said it was a step forward that all the parties should support.

"I think they've broken a barrier that you couldn't do a carbon tax," she said.

The tax is relatively small and most people won't notice much difference at the pumps or on their heating bills, she said. "It's hard to believe it could be creating such distress," she said. "The easiest way to save money right now is to drive less. For most of us that's certainly a possibility."

Much of the distress could have been dampened if the Liberals had handled the tax better, she said. They could have consulted more widely before introducing it, and now that they are doing it they could have made more effort to educate the public. "There's been a general lack of education, a general lack of engagement," she said.

Gift to the Greens?

"I'm disappointed the NDP is coming out against a carbon tax," Sterk said. It's foolish from a public policy point of view, she said, but added it could be a gift to her party. "I do think they'll make it an election issue... I think it's going to be central, because people are concerned about what the impact of the carbon tax is going to be on the cost of daily living."

NDP opposition to the tax may well send more environmental voters who can't stomach voting for Campbell her way.

"It gives us an opportunity, as does the inconsistency in the Liberal program," she said. "There ought to be a place in B.C. for a third party. We happen to be the third party at this point in time."

Everyone needs to get beyond the tax and start talking about climate change, she added. "Maybe we can provide a balanced voice about real action on climate change," she said, speaking on a day when she'd participated in a walking school bus in Victoria. "There are solutions that would allow us I think to improve not just on qualities of life, but improve our communities."

While the Greens are offering a broader plan plus an endorsement of Campbell's carbon tax, the NDP will be trying to sell the party's own green vision despite rejecting the tax.

Agreed to disagree

"We believe strongly in addressing climate change," James said. "Most the people I talk to recognize that a gas tax is not a climate change plan."

Campbell's tax fails to include big polluters, she said, while adding an expense for school boards, municipalities and other public institutions. "If you bring in a gas tax, that means more cuts to the classroom, larger classes for kids, less support for students with special needs because school boards are having to make those decisions."

Voters want to see action, but they also want it to be done reasonably, she said. "They want it to be done in a way that's fair, that's equitable and that addresses the differences we see around British Columbia."

Environmental groups are disappointed with the NDP position on the carbon tax, but James said she continues to meet with people from the Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute and other groups. "We've agreed to disagree on the carbon tax," she said.

Symbols not enough

People from these groups, including Suzuki's climate change specialist, Ian Bruce, have said the tax is an important symbol. "The time has passed for symbols," James said. "We need more than symbols if we're going to address climate change. We need action. We need a real action plan."

There needs to be investment in public transit, she said, as well as programs to encourage people to adopt energy-saving appliances and building methods. "If you're on a low to middle income, it can be hard to find the money to replace your water heater."

The NDP has a more detailed plan coming, she said. "I believe that people understand we need a real climate action plan and I'm looking forward to putting that out and talking to people around the province about what that looks like."

James said the party will continue to lead on environmental issues. "They know New Democrats have a good strong record on the environment and we're going to continue to have a good strong record on the environment."

In the 2005 election the Conservation Voters of B.C. endorsed three New Democrats (Gregor Robertson, David Cubberley and Rob Fleming), one Liberal (George Abbott) and one Green (Adriane Carr).

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