If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
That appears to be the Conservative Party of Canada’s attitude towards the federal carbon tax and rebate, which was updated last week with an ambitious schedule of increases that will culminate in a $170-per-tonne carbon price by 2030. Even though they lost last year’s election on the back of a failed attempt to depict the carbon tax as a “job killing” measure, they still refuse to embrace carbon pricing, an idea that originally came from their own ideological ranks.
If anything, they’re doubling down on their disdain for the policy. As Conservative strategist and former Andrew Scheer staffer Stephen Taylor tweeted: “The carbon tax is a redistribution scheme from rural Canadians to urban Canadians.
This is, to be clear, abject nonsense. In provinces where the federal backstop applies, rural residents get a 10 per cent top-up on their rebate — and the rebates are biggest in provinces with large rural populations like Alberta and Saskatchewan. Farmers, meanwhile, don’t pay the carbon tax on fuels they use in combines and other machines; similarly, owners of fishing vessels in Atlantic Canada are also exempted. And if the premiers of the Prairie provinces were truly interested in protecting farmers, they could pass their own climate plan — one that does more for agricultural producers than the federal backstop.
But Taylor unintentionally raises an interesting question: Who, exactly, is subsidizing whom in Canada? After all, while Conservatives seem to spend unusually large portions of their days being outraged about the federal equalization program, they’re weirdly silent about the billions in de facto transfers from urban and suburban taxpayers to rural ones.
There’s a frustrating lack of data here, but in a 2007 paper for the C.D. Howe Institute, University of Calgary economics professor Ron Kneebone tried to quantify the relative contributions that urban and rural Canadians make. In 2002, he found that the federal government ran a $23.5-billion surplus with the nine largest cities and a $14.49-billion deficit with the rest of the country, while nearly 90 per cent of the $12.01-billion deficit the 10 provincial governments ran was driven by non-urban residents.
Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2002, Calgary residents paid $2,223 more in federal tax revenue per capita than they received in federal programs, Torontonians kicked up an extra $2,285 and Vancouverites overcontributed by $918.
It’s not just about money, either. The votes of rural Canadians are more influential — and in some cases, far more influential — than those of urban and suburban voters. While the most recent redistribution of federal seats helped address the structural under-representation of voters in B.C., Ontario and Alberta by adding new seats in those provinces, it failed to apply the principle of representation by population to Canada’s cities and suburbs. As a result, while ridings in rural parts of the country can have as few as 35,000 people, there are lots of ridings in the 905 region that have more than three times that number.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those urban-to-rural transfers, just as there’s nothing wrong with the federal equalization program. But the reality of those transfers is out of step with the space that rural residents occupy in our national political imagination. And the more we cater to them, the more we risk ignoring the vital and urgent concerns of people who are central to our economic and social prosperity.
After all, whether folks in rural Canada want to acknowledge it or not, our country’s economic future depends more on its cities and the growing number of people who live in them than ever before. As the University of Ottawa’s Michael Pal told the CBC’s Brent Bambury back in 2015: “We see Canada as a country of farmers and people earning their income from things in the woods, but that's not who we are any more. We are an urban country."
"When the federal government gets its next opportunity to align Canada’s electoral map with the reality of its population ... it needs to do more than just tinker at the margins," @maxfawcett writes. "Instead, it needs to go big — literally."
None of this is to suggest that the federal government shouldn’t support rural communities, or that their contributions — most notably, the production of the food we all depend on and take for granted — aren’t important. If anything, the government should be doing more to bridge the growing divide between urban and rural Canadians. But it can’t do that at the expense of the millions of Canadians who live in and around our major cities.
That’s why, when the federal government gets its next opportunity to align Canada’s electoral map with the reality of its population after the 2021 census is complete, it needs to do more than just tinker at the margins. Instead, it needs to go big — literally.
By adding dozens of new seats in mostly urban and suburban areas of the country, the government would achieve a number of positive democratic outcomes. First and foremost, it would reduce the disparity between rural and urban votes, and ensure ballots cast in one part of the country aren’t worth more than those cast in another.
But as political theorist and author David Moscrop has argued repeatedly, expanding the number of seats in Canada’s Parliament would have other consequences — including eroding some of the power that’s been allowed to concentrate in the prime minister’s office and the unelected staffers who work there.
“With more elected members,” he writes, “the power balance would shift, and citizens would be better served by MPs who were more than mere spokespersons for the party leadership.”
This would surely be unpopular among federal Conservatives like Stephen Taylor, who have seen their party’s support in urban parts of the country continue to drop. Those numbers are unlikely to improve any time soon, given the Conservative Party of Canada’s continued intransigence towards things like climate policy and the carbon tax and rebate. Creating more jobs for politicians, meanwhile, would almost certainly infuriate small-government groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
But governing is about serving the interests of the largest number of people, not catering to the noisiest ones. And as urban and suburban Canada continues to grow in size and economic clout, it’s time for our political institutions to better reflect that reality.
Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines.