Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna thinks it’s time for Premier Brian Pallister to show everyone his carbon-taxing cards.
Sitting in the second-floor boardroom at the downtown offices of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, McKenna said in an interview Wednesday that while she is "optimistic" that Pallister will ultimately reveal his long-awaited "made-in-Manitoba" approach to fighting climate change, she has also told the province in no uncertain terms that time is running out.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the only provinces to withhold their signatures from the federal government’s climate-change framework agreement, have been told to deliver their own plans by the end of this year.
Failure to comply will mean that, in addition to having a federal carbon tax imposed, both provinces will miss millions of dollars in federal incentives available to those provinces that meet the 2018 deadline to put a price on carbon.
"My goal is that everyone has a price on pollution in 2018 and I want to work with provinces, but I do need to see (Manitoba’s) plan by the end of the year," McKenna said Wednesday. "I think everyone wants to see the plan."
It’s unclear whether the imposition of an end-of-year deadline will move a premier who has been nothing less than intransigent on the climate-change file.
Pallister has promised to deliver his own plan to fight climate change, but has refused to reveal details to the public or the federal government. He has also consistently disparaged Ottawa’s plan for a minimum $10-per-tonne carbon tax by next year, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022, claiming that it is unfair in a province the size and economic profile of Manitoba.
When Ottawa asked him to provide details by the end of June, Pallister responded by announcing he would not reveal his home-grown plan until he gets a legal opinion about whether the federal government has the constitutional authority to impose a tax on provinces that don’t bring in their own plans by 2018.
McKenna declined to comment directly about the possibility of a legal challenge. Although Pallister has said he is not seeking a legal opinion to support specific court action, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has threatened to launch a lawsuit if Ottawa tries to impose a carbon tax on his province.
The federal government has the legal authority to regulate the environment, she said. "We are on firm legal ground."
Right now, she added, 80 per cent of Canadians live in a jurisdiction where there is a price on carbon. "We just think it’s fair that every jurisdiction does the same."
It may be fair, but it may also be a highly impractical notion with a premier like Pallister.
In what has to be one of the most unique approaches to a pressing national policy issue, Pallister has appeared to argue both for and against carbon pricing as a tool to fight climate change.
On the one hand, much of Pallister’s rhetoric on climate change is in lock-step with premiers from provinces that have introduced some form of carbon pricing.
When the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) organized a protest two weeks ago outside the Manitoba Legislature against a carbon tax, Pallister brusquely brushed them aside. He went as far as to call the CTF’s campaign "misguided" and insisted that "there isn’t an option to do nothing" when it comes to fighting climate change.
However, at the same time he has supported the principle of government intervention, he has also disparaged the federal climate-change strategy and its insistence that all provinces meet a minimum threshold of $10 per tonne of carbon by 2018. He and Wall remain the only premiers not to sign on to the federal climate-change framework agreement.
Pallister has complained that the federal plan unfairly punishes Manitobans for having spent decades investing huge sums of tax dollars in renewable hydroelectricity. "What’s good for St. John’s might not work for St. James," Pallister has said.
More recently, Pallister surprised many when he suggested a carbon tax isn’t "the only way to deal with climate change." However, he has repeatedly resisted attempts to get him to explain what that means and what he would do instead of imposing a price on carbon.
Rumours have run rampant throughout the summer that the Pallister government was on the verge of unveiling its "made-in-Manitoba" climate-change plan. But weeks have gone by with nary a hint of what he has in mind.
McKenna said she is in regular contact with Manitoba’s Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox. In fact, the two politicians enjoyed some paddling at Fort Whyte Centre west of Winnipeg on Tuesday. However, McKenna conceded that those discussions have not helped to flesh out the details of Manitoba’s position.
The basic premise of a national carbon pricing plan is to ensure everyone who is burning fossil fuels and thus contributing to climate change faces the same penalties. As a prelude to galvanizing a national benchmark for carbon pricing next year, McKenna is expected to introduce legislation this fall outlining new penalties for polluters.
To use the premier’s own rhetoric, it means that someone who drives a car in St. James should pay the same environmental tax on their gasoline as someone driving a car in St. John’s, N.L. As a result, McKenna said that a price on carbon must be part of any plan devised by Manitoba.
"I am mindful of (Pallister’s) concerns but we have no choice," McKenna said. "We all need to do our part to fight climate change."