With 17 words, Conservative MP Michael Chong took a bold step on Monday to chart a new path for his party on the environment.
“On the issue of climate change, I think it’s clear that carbon pricing has arrived in Canada,” said Chong, 44, at a news conference to officially enter the Conservative leadership race.
Ever since the Conservative Party of Canada was created in 2003, some of its most prominent members have flirted with the views expressed by climate change doubters and rejected calls for the government to make major polluters pay for contributing to global warming.
As a result, the government delayed action on some of the most significant sources of carbon pollution in Canada, but it did manage to take some steps:
It introduced regulations to match efforts taken by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to reduce tailpipe emissions from new cars.
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The Conservative government also followed the Ontario government’s lead with action to phase out emissions from coal power plants.
But the Conservatives failed to address the country’s fastest growing source of carbon pollution coming from the oil and gas companies that overlapped with its political base of power in Western Canada.
Shifting away from Stephen Harper's environmental legacy
As Chong, who represents an Ontario riding near Toronto, officially launched his leadership bid for the Conservative party, he said he wanted his party to shift away from former prime minister Stephen Harper’s environmental legacy and take action.
That would mean debating what to do after requiring polluters to pay for their emissions, he said. He also pivoted away from questions about his own party’s past, by using his endorsement of carbon pricing to launch a new attack against the Liberals.
“The real question is what do we do with the revenues that come into the system and as a Conservative, I believe that we should be using these revenues to reduce income taxes and I think that’s a critical point of differentiation with the Liberals,” Chong said. “The Liberals in Ontario and the Liberals in Ottawa, are going to be using these revenues to spend on government programs. That’s a wrong approach for two reasons. First it’s a tax grab. It increases taxes on families that are already struggling to pay the bills and secondly, it misses a huge economic opportunity which is to shift taxation from income to consumption, which has always been the conservative philosophy.”
He said this was the reason why former prime minister Brian Mulroney introduced Canada’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the 1980s.
“It’s good conservative economic theory to do that and I think if we present these policies, I think Conservatives will be attracted to the party because fiscal conservatives believe in those fundamental principles.”
David McLaughlin says Chong positioning himself as candidate of ideas
Former longtime Conservative staffer, David McLaughlin, a former chief of staff to Mulroney, said Chong is positioning himself as a candidate of ideas who can help the Tories break free from old shackles and move forward.
“It’s time that federal Conservatives confronted this reality and confronted this issue (of climate change) and I give Michael Chong full marks for stating it explicitly and saying that this is something that’s real,” McLaughlin said in an interview. “What Chong is doing is moving the Conservative party away from a losing position on questioning climate change to begin with, which is a Liberal victory, and moving them toward Conservative ground on challenging Liberals on economic approach to climate.”
Chong said that he believes the Liberals deserve to be critiqued about their climate change approach since there are tens of billions of tax revenues at stake.
“The question of what to do with the revenues has not been answered,” Chong said. “And so if the revenues are going to be used, to spend on government programs. It’s a tax grab and it’s going to be a huge burden on Canadians.”
He said the large revenues are based on estimates that Canadians now produce about 700 million megatons of carbon pollution every year at a time when provinces are considering a carbon tax of about $30 per tonne with plans to go further.
“We’re talking about revenues that will generate tens of billions of dollars a year for governments,” Chong said. “So what we do with these revenues is no small matter. And if we use those revenues, as the Liberals are proposing to do, to spend on government programs, it is going to have a serious negative impact on our economy.
“But if we use those revenues to cut income taxes, we will not only achieve the primary benefit of a reduction in emissions, we will also achieve a secondary benefit which is to shift our system away from taxation of income, which we want more of, toward the taxation of consumption.”
Chong, a former chief information officer for the National Hockey League Players Association, is the third person to officially enter the Conservative leadership race, following former ministers Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier.
For his part, Bernier, who represents the central Quebec riding of Beauce in Parliament, is actually among several Conservatives, including former prime minister Harper and former ministers Stockwell Day and Joe Oliver, who openly questioned climate change science in the past.
Bernier, who was traveling to Calgary on Monday and could not be reached for comment, had previously said the former Harper government’s reluctance to introduce strong climate change policies was based on its skepticism of the science.
“Every week that goes by confirms the wisdom of our government’s modest position,” Bernier wrote in a letter published in February 2010 in Montreal’s La Presse newspaper.
“There is, in fact, no scientific consensus. What’s certain is that it would be irresponsible to spend billions of dollars to impose unnecessary stringent regulations to resolve a problem whose gravity we are still not certain about. The alarmism that often characterized this issue is no longer at stake. Canada is right to be cautious.”
But McLaughlin explained that those views, if Bernier still holds them, would marginalize the Quebec MP’s leadership bid. McLaughlin, who was chief executive officer of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy - a government advisory panel that researched sustainable development issues until Harper announced it would be shut down in 2012 - noted that many others have embraced carbon pricing, including Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown, making it mainstream.
“If Bernier is still of the view that climate change is not real and questioning the science of it, then he is going to be in an increasing minority and it doesn’t matter what he says about Chong or others,” said McLaughlin, who also served as chief of staff to the late former finance minister, Jim Flaherty.
Chong has spent a dozen years as an MP, including a few months as a cabinet minister in 2006 before he resigned over a motion endorsed by Harper to get all federal politicians to recognize that the Québécois formed a distinct nation within Canada.
Chong said he still opposes this motion, while noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had taken the same position in 2006.
On climate change, he has long been known as an environmental champion within the Conservative caucus. He has occasionally rose in the House of Commons to denounce climate change doubters and highlight the reality of scientific evidence linking human activity to global warming.
Chong even was one of the few Conservatives on an all-party committee that met behind closed doors for a “safe space” to talk about climate change during Harper’s time in power.
McLaughlin said Chong’s leap into the leadership race is part of what will offer the Conservative party a chance to decide its a position on a full range of issues that it hadn’t done in the past.
“It was so busy in government taking a particular leader’s position that the party did not have the opportunity to figure out what its principles and values were in a more coherent way,” McLaughlin said. “He (Chong) may be on to something that will get him more ink, more attention and help the Conservatives move forward from past positions that shackled them.”
When asked whether a carbon tax would be part of his platform, Chong said it would depend on how the provinces decide to proceed. He noted that Alberta and British Columbia have introduced carbon taxes, while Quebec and Ontario are implementing a different market-based system where businesses would buy and sell credits to deliver reductions in emissions.
"So we’ll have to wait and see what provincial action, first, takes place, before the federal government can settle on a plan," Chong said. "What I will say, though, is that the federal government has a coordination role to play, because I think we want an economy that has a consistent price on carbon - that’s consistent, not only across economic sectors, but consistent across the regions of this country.”