Premier Brian Pallister has accomplished the unthinkable.
To the dismay of his colleagues and the delight of the opposition parties, Pallister will be remembered for blowing the largest electoral advantage in the history of Manitoba politics and leading the first single-term government since Sterling Lyon was defeated in 1980.
While there are already many other reasons for his meltdown (Manitoba Hydro, health care and education are contenders) future pundits will point to Pallister’s mismanagement of environmental issues as the central reason for this debacle.
And it will be Pallister who wears this defeat, not the Progressive Conservative party. His cabinet ministers are left to shrug helplessly at news conferences or in the legislature, when they are pushed to explain the latest flailing.
To date, we have seen little of the much-trumpeted "made-in-Manitoba" climate plan. After months of consultations with many organizations and individuals who took the time to offer constructive, non-partisan ideas and advice about managing greenhouse gas emissions and spending carbon-tax revenue — in both public consultations and online surveys, however inadequate and last-minute — the latest budget ignored them all.
It is becoming a perfect storm of Pallister’s own making. Mother Nature will provide the background chorus, as extreme weather patterns worsen over the next couple of years before the provincial election. The Manitoba Liberals have announced a policy platform that includes a raft of reasonable things — none of them new — that should already have been included in a Tory climate plan for Manitoba, but weren’t.
In these pages, for example, I have argued for two years we could make the province "carbon negative" and called on Premier Pallister to resign and let someone else try, if the Green Plan is the best his government can do (Premier’s green plan takes province nowhere, Nov. 2, 2017).
Of course, this is not the only trouble brewing. When the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce expresses dismay at the budget, the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association calls out the government for promises unkept, the health-care unions splutter about shortfalls in essential services, the post-secondary institutions object to doing ever more with even less, and even the blue-chip, Pallister-appointed board of Manitoba Hydro quits en masse, things are not coming up roses for the government.
Given how such advice has been ignored to date, I don’t expect the new expert advisory council appointed to assist the government on the climate and carbon file will be able to contribute more than their blessing to what the premier’s office decides.
As for that $25-per tonne carbon tax, it’s no big deal. It means five cents a litre at the pumps, when gas prices already jump 10 cents overnight because speculators somewhere else are playing games with the oil market.
At this meagre level, the carbon tax will not by itself lead to any significant change in consumer behaviour. Raised to 20 cents a litre, it might, but this extra nickel at least creates a minimal new revenue stream that could fund a few other alternatives to fossil-fuel consumption.
Such as what, you may ask? Fund more public transit, and make it free. Buy electric buses. Move the main railway lines and marshalling yards outside the city. Use the tracks (and perhaps those two extra lanes of Portage Avenue where the streetcar tracks were just paved over) to give Winnipeg a modern light rail system, so people will want to park their cars instead of sitting for hours a day in traffic. With real cost accounting instead of fudged carbon bookkeeping, all this would cost Manitobans about as much as we are already paying.
For farmers, instead of trying to buy their votes with a few-cents-a-litre exemption from carbon tax, use existing carbon calculation tools to make their operations more efficient and provide incentives for activities that sequester carbon. Anyone who has been a farmer for five years (or who wants to be one for that long) knows the necessity of caring for the land and water, and watches the changing climate with much more anxiety than an urbanite who thinks chickens are raised in cellophane.
Otherwise, imagine arguing against an opposition united under the banner of "Planet, not Pallister," backed by Mother Nature; endorsed by the business community, the agricultural sector, labour, Manitoba First Nations and Métis communities — with a platform generated by common sense and driven by parents’ concern for their children’s future.
Thanks to this budget, the foundation for such a coalition has already been laid.
Next time, Manitobans will not be fooled by sleight-of-hand around deficits, tax cuts and greenhouse gas emissions. Nor will they believe Tory attack ads saying there is no wise alternative to giving the Pallister government a second term.
Once is enough.
Peter Denton is a Manitoba-based sustainability activist, consultant and writer.