MONTREAL—The next watershed moment in Canada’s climate change conversation is scheduled for Thursday. That’s when the Supreme Court will pronounce on the fate of the federal carbon tax.

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This article was published 20/3/2021 (251 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

MONTREAL—The next watershed moment in Canada’s climate change conversation is scheduled for Thursday. That’s when the Supreme Court will pronounce on the fate of the federal carbon tax.

For Justin Trudeau’s government, the stakes could not be higher. Should the court find that Ottawa has exceeded its constitutional powers, one of the consequences of the decision would be to transfer the lead in the Canadian fight on climate change to largely unfriendly premiers.

The federal carbon tax only applies in provinces that decline to meet the floor price on greenhouse gas emissions set by Ottawa using policies of their own. With Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan leading the charge, they have been fighting the tax in the courts.

But it is a central piece in Canada’s current climate change infrastructure.

There is a consensus that without a carbon tax in its toolbox, Ottawa would struggle to craft an alternative plan efficient enough for Canada to have a shot at meeting its 2050 target of a carbon-free economy. That consensus includes a number of prominent Conservative thinkers.

And yet, going back to the drawing board to take the carbon tax out of the picture is exactly what the Conservatives will be proposing in the next federal campaign.

Pre-empting the court’s decision and any internal discussion that might result from a federal legal victory, Erin O’Toole has already drawn his line in the sand.

On Friday, he told his party’s convention that a Conservative government would "scrap Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax on working Canadians." In the same breath, the CPC leader promised to come up with a credible alternative.

If that sounds familiar, it is because the party campaigned on the same theme under Andrew Scheer in 2019. Back then, two-thirds of the electorate voted for parties that supported a carbon tax.

To listen to O’Toole, the problem with the last campaign was not the party’s crusade against the carbon tax but rather the limitations of Scheer’s plan.

But his own promise of a more credible plan comes with the significant caveat that "as important as climate change is, getting our economy back on track is more."

On the notion that there is a contradiction between aggressively addressing climate change and running a healthy economy, O’Toole is at odds not only with the other federal parties but also with Joe Biden’s U.S. administration — as well as a growing number of corporate leaders at home and abroad.

On Friday, O’Toole prefaced the climate change section of his speech with the politically unusual warning that many would be "disappointed" by his remarks.

That disappointment — as he must know — extends to more than a few of his party’s supporters.

For many Conservatives outside of the Prairie provinces, the prospect of again going into a campaign burdened with a promise to scrap the federal carbon tax is a dispiriting one.

Lisa Raitt was the party’s deputy leader at the time of her defeat in the GTA riding of Milton in the last election.

Last week she told the Clean Prosperity forum that: "The reality is that the carbon tax club that I had in 2008 and 2011 was kind of taken away from me in 2019 for the very reason that the carbon tax was being implemented and Ontarians did not feel like the carpet had been pulled from under them."

Raitt is convinced the party’s stance on the carbon tax led to her defeat. "It always came back to the fact that we opposed a carbon price meant that we were opposed to the climate. That was table stakes at every single door."

Even if he had wanted to pivot on the carbon tax, O’Toole probably did not have the moral authority to pull off the move.

The party is failing to thrive in the polls. At the same time, he has raised hackles within the influential social conservative wing of his party by ousting one of its own from the CPC caucus.

In the event of a provincial defeat in the Supreme Court, Alberta’s Jason Kenney, whose support is credited with having injected much needed momentum in O’Toole’s leadership campaign, is probably the premier most likely to want to continue to prosecute the issue on the hustings.

And then this is a party whose convention delegates can’t even agree with their leader that climate change is real.

But it is not every prominent Conservative whose support is so grounded in visceral opposition to the carbon tax.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford campaigned against carbon pricing in 2018 only to see scores of voters who had supported his party provincially not blink an eye on the way to casting a ballot for Trudeau federally a year later.

If the Supreme Court gives the Liberal carbon tax a passing grade on Thursday, will Ford be as eager as his federal leader to again take up arms against a concept that has gained widespread social acceptability in his province?

Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: chantalh28@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert