December 12, 2019

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Opinion

Pallister's ego behind carbon tax flip-flop

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods</p><p>Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/10/2018 (434 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It doesn't make any sense.

Earlier this week, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister stunned onlookers inside and outside the province with a decision to abandon his own $25-per-tonne carbon tax — the core lever in a complex, provincewide plan to curb carbon emissions.

The premier told reporters Wednesday he was throwing out nearly two years of work on a homegrown climate change plan because Ottawa did not "respect" Manitoba's desire to hold carbon taxes at about half the level demanded by the federal government.

It was not clear what Pallister meant by respect; the two levels of government disagree about the level at which carbon taxes should be set. Up until this week, the two levels of government disagreed over policy and methodology.

On Thursday, Pallister again tried to explain. This time, he tipped his hand about what might be the real reason for the about-face.

This isn't about a lack of respect for Manitoba's climate change policy. This is about a premier who is concerned the prime minister does not respect him personally.

Pallister acknowledged the origins of the course change go back to a recent visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It was Sept. 11, and the two leaders had gathered to celebrate the opening of a new Canada Goose parka factory in north Winnipeg. Afterwards, Pallister and Trudeau had a private meeting at the Manitoba legislature.

There was an air of conciliation about the entire visit. Although Pallister and Trudeau had sparred over many files, the recent election of Ontario Premier Doug Ford — who instantly established himself as a sworn enemy of the federal Liberal government — changed the entire nature of the federation. Ford didn't establish Pallister as a federal ally, but he was making Manitoba look like less of an enemy.

Adding to the generally positive mood was Trudeau agreeing to meet with Pallister at the legislature. Although not unprecedented, it was something prime ministers do not often do. As such, it added to the sense, on many issues, the two men had agreed to disagree and move on.

During the Canada Goose event, Trudeau even took the opportunity to applaud Pallister. "To see a leader, indeed a Conservative leader, who understands the need to have a complete plan that fights climate change... is something I very much welcome," the prime minister said.

Then, Trudeau went on to say something that may have lit the fuse on this week's explosive flip-flop.

"And I wish he would encourage some of the other conservative voices around the country to recognize that having a plan to fight climate change is something that all Canadians have a right to expect," the prime minister said, obviously referring to Ford and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe (both have promised to fight the federal carbon tax).

Even though Pallister had expressly distanced himself from those two leaders at a first ministers conference earlier in the month, it appears he was extremely displeased about being used as a punchline in a rhetorical battle between Ottawa and two bombastic Conservative premiers.

Following the meeting with Trudeau, Pallister swapped out his conciliatory language and posture seen earlier in the day for a more combative tone. He lashed out, and accused Ottawa of not "respecting" Manitoba's desire to forge its own climate change future.

Even if that were true — and you'd have to be extremely charitable to accept that as a viable explanation — it's still not a good excuse for abandoning a carbon tax plan you had strenuously defended for more than a year.

If Pallister was really concerned about a lack of respect, you might think he would defend the made-in-Manitoba plan with every fibre in his being. He would threaten, as he did earlier this year, to take Ottawa to court to defend the right of Manitoba to manage its own environmental affairs.

Instead, he abandons his own plan because of a lack of federal respect?

It just doesn't make sense.

The confusion is exacerbated when you consider the consequences of Pallister's flip-flop.

By withdrawing Manitoba's carbon tax plan, he is ensuring a federal carbon tax will be in place in January 2019. We know that because Pallister asked for, and received, a legal opinion that confirms Ottawa has the constitutional authority to impose a national carbon tax in any province that does not have its own comparable plan.

All along, Pallister has acknowledged Manitoba had to act on its own plan or it would be inviting Ottawa's intrusion. This was repeated most recently in a letter signed by Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires and sent to Progressive Conservative party members across the province last month.

In that letter, Squires said Ottawa has the legal authority to impose a tax on Manitoba if the province does not act. "Doing nothing," Squires wrote, "is not an option."

Apparently, if you hurt the premier's feelings, then doing nothing becomes an option.

Want more confusion? Even though Pallister is withdrawing his carbon tax plan, Manitobans will still pay a carbon tax and his government will still receive carbon tax revenue.

In the event a province does not introduce its own plan, and the federal government imposes its own tax, Ottawa has promised to return all carbon tax to the provinces in which it was collected.

So, in killing his own tax plan, Pallister gets his cake and an opportunity to eat it, too. He gets to rail against the imposition of a carbon tax, with the comfort of knowing Manitoba will still get all of the revenue.

Look deeply into this file and you can see pretty clearly this has nothing to do with respect, and everything to do with a political leader who has proven over and over again he has exceedingly thin skin.

Trudeau did not disrespect Manitoba on carbon taxes; Trudeau and Pallister disagree on the right way to encourage Canadians to consume less fossil fuel.

Trudeau did not make fun of Pallister at the Canada Goose news conference; he was only using some levity to defuse a potentially awkward moment.

When you boil it all down, you have this: a premier with a penchant for erratic behaviour who willingly trashes two years of hard work by his own government, with the full knowledge he cannot stop a carbon tax from being implemented and will get all the money anyway.

All because, it appears, the premier can't take a joke.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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