How many political leaders does it take to levy a carbon tax? After yet another face-to-face meeting between Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, two may not be enough.
On Monday morning in the toasty confines of a downtown Winnipeg hotel, Pallister got 30 minutes of face time with Trudeau, who is in Winnipeg for a three-day cabinet retreat. Trudeau and his ministers have been holding court with various subject matter experts and strategists in preparation for the spring sitting of the House of Commons.
However, it's impossible for the prime minister to visit a provincial capital for a meeting like this and not set aside time for a parlay with the resident premier. Although these events are typically more about photo opportunities than actual deal making, staff for both the premier and prime minister tout them as productive relationship building sessions. Pallister and Trudeau could certainly use some of that.
Past mini-summits between the two leaders have not been productive. In fact, at times, they have seemed downright destructive. Could this meeting, held in the face of some of the worst of Manitoba's winter weather, be any different?
Remarkably, when he left his chat with the prime minister, Pallister hinted strongly on Monday that maybe — just maybe — he and Trudeau may have reached the precipice of some sort of compromise on the carbon tax dispute that has eclipsed their relationship for the past three years.
Not a solution. But rather, a place where the path to a solution is coming into view.
Although these events are typically more about photo opportunities than actual deal making, staff for both the premier and prime minister tout them as productive relationship building sessions.
For reasons still not clear, in the fall of 2018, immediately following a prickly encounter with Trudeau in Winnipeg, Pallister withdrew a made-in-Manitoba carbon tax plan that would have levied a $25-per-tonne levy on carbon emissions. At a joint news conference, Trudeau jokingly suggested that Pallister might be able to persuade other conservative premiers to get on the carbon tax bandwagon; a few days later Pallister responded by killing his own tax plan.
That left Manitoba at the mercy of the federal carbon tax, which Trudeau ultimately has promised will rise to $50 per tonne. Faced with a federal ultimatum, Pallister pulled the plug on his own plan and joined other conservative premiers in legal challenges to the federal tax.
This week, however, Pallister said the Trudeau government is now open to continue talking about the made-in-Manitoba scheme in exchange for, among other things, Manitoba's support in calming separatist sentiments that have been raging across Western Canada since last fall's federal election.
Does that mean Manitoba could re-introduce its own tax with Trudeau's blessing? And further, that Ottawa would be prepared to let Manitoba remain at $25 per tonne after taking into consideration other investments in things like hydro electricity?
Perhaps, but not necessarily.
Pallister was asked directly if, following talks with Trudeau, he would re-introduce a carbon tax plan of his own. As he has throughout this dispute with Ottawa, Pallister continued playing the tease. "There could well be," Pallister said. Later, he did nearly commit to unveiling a "modified" plan that included some sort of "carbon pricing".
Pallister's cryptic comments suggest to some observers the Trudeau government may be preparing to relent on its fight with Manitoba over carbon tax to signal that it is, in its current minority mandate, more cooperative and less likely to bully provinces on climate change policy. These observers cite a recent agreement with New Brunswick, in which Ottawa stopped imposing the federal carbon tax and approved a provincial plan.
The New Brunswick deal appears to allow that province to levy a carbon tax that falls below the so-called federal backstop, which is the deal that Manitoba wants. Pallister said his revised plan will include carbon pricing that is "flat and low like the Prairie horizon."
The stars all seem to be lining up except for one small problem: other representatives of the federal government are dismissing the idea that dissident provinces like Manitoba are going to get any special deals. In Winnipeg, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Monday that Ottawa will not abandon its climate change goals just to pander to Western provinces.
"We have to be forward-looking with climate change," Wilkinson told Canadian Press. "At the end of the day, the challenge that we are facing is one of the emissions that exist today. We need to ... have plans as to how we're going to reduce the emissions that exist today."
Of course, that is what federal and provincial officials are saying Monday. On Tuesday, Trudeau is scheduled to hold a news conference on the final day of the cabinet retreat, before heading to Ottawa for a caucus retreat. And Pallister said he will make some sort of related announcement on Tuesday as he heads to Brandon for Ag Days.
The stars all seem to be lining up except for one small problem: other representatives of the federal government are dismissing the idea that dissident provinces like Manitoba are going to get any special deals.
Boil it all down and you have this: since last November, Pallister has met twice face-to-face with Trudeau and once with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, acknowledged now by most political observers as the federal government's designated premier-whisperer. In each of those three meetings, the battle over which level of government will impose which kind of carbon tax has been brought up.
And, despite claims to the contrary by all combatants that there is mutual respect oozing out of everyone's pores, no deal has been struck.
It's certainly time for both Pallister and Trudeau to get a deal done to end the hostilities. That may require some concerted compromise by both sides, and some doctoral level political marketing to ensure that everyone looks like it got everything it wanted.
But after three face-to-face sit downs, it's time to get it done and move on to other important files.
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 Monday, January 20, 2020 at 7:20 PM CST: Fixes typo.
8:50 PM: Fixes typo.