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This article was published 1/11/2017 (838 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Conflicts between levels of government often unfold at a glacial pace.
A ‘wait and see’ is the preferred approach when governments in Canada disagree. Polite diplomatic language, the weapon of choice for politicians in battle, can obscure underlying conflicts. When pressed by reporters for incendiary language, good politicians often play their cards close to their vests to create time and space for senior bureaucrats to iron out disputes.
Most of the time, that’s exactly what happens. That is not, however, the state of relations between Manitoba and Ottawa on climate change.
Last week, Manitoba unveiled its long-awaited carbon tax strategy, which involves a $25-per-tonne tax starting next year. Although both sides were quiet over the weekend, on Monday Ottawa served notice that Premier Brian Pallister’s made-in-Manitoba plan is not going to satisfy the demands of a federal climate change policy.
Ottawa wanted an introductory carbon tax of $10 per tonne introduced in 2018, and to then see it ramp up to $50 per tonne by 2022. Manitoba refused to sign that accord, holding out for a better deal on health care that never materialized.
Realizing that it could not simply ignore Ottawa’s demands, Pallister devised a plan that would set the carbon tax at $25 and refused to increase it in future years. Pallister has argued he can meet the same carbon reduction targets without increasing the tax.
The federal government had previously indicated some willingness to accept carbon-reduction measures other than a tax if they could be shown to be effective. Still, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was unimpressed with Pallister’s strategy. "Manitoba’s approach is good for the first two years. After that, they will have to go up."
If McKenna had been looking westward from Parliament Hill immediately after uttering those comments, she would have been able to see the mushroom cloud that erupted from Pallister’s office on the northeast corner of the Manitoba Legislative building. If Manitoba’s premier hates anything more than taxes, it is being told what to do by a federal Liberal government.
The official response was left to Manitoba’s Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires, who immediately returned fire: "Manitobans will decide what Manitobans will do." It is an excellent tag line, one worthy of a bumper sticker or T-shirt. It will not, however, defuse this growing conflict.
If there is middle ground here, neither side is doing a very good job of laying it out.
Between "it will have to go up" and "Manitobans will decide for themselves," there seems to be very little room for compromise. Although a court battle seemed a remote possibility even a week ago, suddenly it seems like the preferred option, particularly for Pallister.
A notorious penny-pincher, Pallister has already demonstrated a willingness to invest in legal opinions that fuel his desire to defy Ottawa. That opinion — which suggested Ottawa had the authority to impose a carbon tax on Manitoba but might not if the province devised its own strategy — cost only $40,000. Although that’s a paltry sum in relative terms, it was still a colossal waste of money.
Ottawa has the constitutional responsibility to manage the environment. And there is tremendous sense in making sure any "national plan" is applied consistently across the country. When Ottawa is trying to discourage Canadians from consuming carbon-spewing fossil fuels, it is imperative that motorists in Fredericton pay the same carbon levy for gasoline as motorists in Coquitlam.
Still, if Manitoba really wanted to make the case that it deserves to walk a different path on carbon reduction, it needed to come forward with a more complete strategy. Instead, all the premier could deliver was half measures.
The most glaring omission from the made-in-Manitoba plan was a complete absence of any information about what the province will do with the money generated by the $25-per-tonne levy, estimated to be about $250 million per year. Pallister’s claim that he can accomplish the same reduction in carbon emissions with a lower tax rate is without merit unless he explains how he will use the revenue to create incentives to reduce consumption of, or switch away from, fossil fuels.
Pallister claimed he needed more time to consult with Manitobans on the best use of the revenue. It should also be noted that when Pallister says "consultation," he really means "online survey," the same methodology used to gather public reaction to the possible introduction of a health-care premium and other budget strategies.
The results of that earlier effort were nothing short of hilarious: unscientific in its approach, the online survey only succeeded in creating inconclusive data that was muddled and conflicted.
The premier needs to acknowledge that if he really wants to accurately collect public opinion, he needs to use scientific methods. Otherwise, the online survey is nothing more than group therapy masquerading as consultation. And that’s not a good enough reason to hold back on his plans for the carbon tax revenue.
How long will the standoff on carbon reduction last? The rubber meets the road two years from now, when Manitoba’s $25-per-tonne tax will fall below the rate being charged in other provinces. Until that time, however, the sparring will undoubtedly continue.
Pallister seems determined to hold his ground against what he perceives to be the federal Liberal government’s bully tactics. And while Ottawa has done enough to earn the title of bully, the premier should remember one important and indisputable reality of the issue he is waging war over.
A $50-per-tonne tax may not save the environment. But needless fighting with Ottawa only contributes to an oversupply of hot air.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 8:36 AM CDT: Photo added.