Already, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole is striking a different tone on climate than his predecessor.
Like former leader Andrew Scheer, O’Toole has rejected the current Liberal government’s carbon tax. And like Scheer, O’Toole has been friendly toward emissions-intensive oil and gas in Western Canada. But where Scheer delivered a climate plan that was roundly criticized for being ineffective and unpopular with voters in the 2019 election, O’Toole has so far made a point of promising voters something more concrete and less divisive.
“We weren’t solid enough on this issue in the last few years,” he told CBC News on Sept. 8, in one of his first one-on-one interviews as leader.
“When we sign an international accord, we have to ... have a serious plan to get there.”
The big question, however, is how O’Toole can write a plan stringent enough to get Canada to hit its Paris goal to reduce emissions by a third, yet remain appealing to the Conservative base in oil-friendly Western Canada.
On that front, B.C. MP Dan Albas — the Conservative Party’s new environment critic, appointed last week by O’Toole to help write this new vision — has his work cut out for him.
“The art of politics is ultimately the art of the possible,” Albas said in a phone interview with Canada’s National Observer Friday. “You never know if you don't try.”
Even beyond the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, the question of how O’Toole’s conservatives will handle environmental policy is also high-stakes politically. The issue dragged the Conservatives down during the last election.
Although both O’Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said they don’t want a snap election this fall, that possibility is on the table after Trudeau, whose Liberals hold a minority government, prorogued Parliament last month. No matter when the next election happens, the Conservatives will likely need to win over the vote-rich 905 region of Toronto’s suburbs, where swing voters in 2019 spurned Scheer’s climate plan.
Two-thirds of voters who are open to choosing the Tories but didn’t do so in the last election are looking for strong climate commitments, according to a poll by Leger and the non-profit Clean Prosperity, released Tuesday.
Some longtime Tories are watching for a stronger stance on climate, too. In a phone interview last week, conservative media commentator Tim Powers said he wants to see the party have a “mature conversation” about how to approach it.
Under new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, environment critic and B.C. MP Dan Albas has his work cut out for him. His task: writing a climate plan popular enough to win votes, but ambitious enough to hit Canada’s climate targets. #cdnpoli
“I think it’s only obvious,” Powers said.
“Most people, even in the regions where extractive industries are important, recognize that this debate has got to go beyond rhetoric and things need to be done.”
Albas says he’s working on it, though he’s only a few days into the job. He’s tasked with examining the Conservative approach to climate and environment as a whole with “fresh eyes,” he added.
“We want to be serious players on this file,” he said.
“We are going to work with provinces in a way that the Trudeau government hasn't. We are going to be focused on more practical, results-oriented things. You know, we want to see good things happen in this country. And so, those are my marching orders.”
‘Democracy is getting enough people to say yes’
Albas, an MP who has represented the interior B.C. riding of Central Okanagan – Similkameen – Nicola since 2011, ran a martial arts gym before he ran for a seat in Parliament. He was also a Penticton, B.C., city councillor.
He was re-elected by a relatively tight two per cent margin in 2015, but won a decisive victory in 2019. Albas received national praise in 2012 for a private members’ bill that made it easier to sell B.C. wine in the rest of Canada, and writes regular “MP reports” that are picked up by local news outlets.
“Dan Albas is one of the extremely good ones,” wrote James Miller, then-managing editor of the Penticton Herald, in a 2014 column endorsing Albas’ bid to run again in his riding.
In 2016, Albas endorsed former MP Maxime Bernier in the race to become Conservative leader that Scheer would go on to win — but he publicly distanced himself from Bernier when the former Tory left the party in 2018 and started his own far-right conservative party.
“When you work with someone building this country up, it’s regrettable to use descriptions that aren’t positive or productive,” he said at the time.
“Dan is viewed as very good with stakeholders,” Powers said. “Those who have worked with him in different capacities say that he gets trying to strike a balance.”
Balance will be critical as the Conservatives figure out a path forward, Albas said: “Democracy is getting enough people to say yes.”
Coming from the Okanagan, Albas said he understands the urgency of acting on climate: his riding has experienced the fires and floods that are quickly becoming B.C.’s new normal.
But he also said that coming from B.C. has allowed him to see the “opportunities” presented by liquified natural gas (LNG), which he and O’Toole have promoted as a way for Canada to help foreign countries move away from coal, which is far more emissions-intensive. (That idea, also boosted by federal Liberals, has been disputed by analysts.)
He’s not the only one to support B.C. LNG — B.C.’s provincial NDP government has a similar stance — however, it has also been controversial in some regions. Earlier this year, groups opposed to a natural gas pipeline project blockaded key railroad lines across the country.
“It's not the only step, obviously,” Albas said, regarding LNG.
He also outlined a list of environmental issues he’d like to tackle: improving access to clean energy for Indigenous communities, reforestation programs and initiatives to address invasive species on freshwater lakes. And O’Toole has his own ideas, outlined in his platform for the leadership race. Among them, investments in research on carbon capture, working with the oil and gas industry to write a plan that would get them to net-zero emissions, supporting regions affected economically and environmentally by the climate crisis and increased reliance on nuclear power.
O’Toole has said he would support any province that wants to pursue carbon tax, but beyond an industrial polluter-pay program, he’s not generally in favour of pursuing the policy.
Some form of carbon pricing plan isn’t entirely off the table, Albas said, though he also pointed to findings that B.C.’s carbon tax has not decreased overall emissions. (Experts say that the rise in emissions is due to economic growth, and that emissions would have increased more if not for the program.)
Still, Albas said he thinks it’s important to work with the provinces closely to find a plan they’re actually willing to implement, rather than policies such as a carbon tax that have inspired resistance. He said he’s also talking to municipalities, First Nations, environmental organizations and anyone else who wants to chat.
“Quite frankly, if we always talk about carbon tax, it's very divisive,” Albas said. “What are some things that we can do that are practical?”
Albas also said he’s looking forward to working with Liberal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, a fellow B.C. resident who Albas said he has a lot in common with.
Powers said he thinks the right conversations are happening. If the Conservatives were to suddenly change course on a carbon tax, that wouldn’t feel genuine, he said.
“Look, we have to get there on climate policy while at the same time respecting the power of the resources and the economic impact that they have now,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
How to win the 905
How the Conservatives move forward on the climate file has the potential to define their performance in the next election. But if they’re willing to pen a strong plan, they may be able to unlock a wide swath of swing voters in Ontario’s 905 region, according to the poll by Leger and Clean Prosperity.
Of voters who indicated they were open to voting Conservative but didn’t do so in 2019, 68 per cent said they were in favour of a carbon tax that gave rebates to Canadians, the survey found. (The current Liberal plan does give households a rebate.)
“If they want to win over 905 voters on the climate file, a good first step would be to think about their own version of carbon taxes,” said Clean Prosperity executive director Michael Bernstein.
“The challenge is that this policy has become, for unfortunate reasons, so partisan.”
If the party is looking for its own spin on a carbon pricing scheme, Bernstein said, the survey found about 61 per cent of all voters in the 905 said they’d support a carbon tax that used all the proceeds to cut personal income taxes, with 28 per cent overall saying such a plan would make them more likely to vote blue. (Former Conservative Party leadership contestant Michael Chong, who is still an MP, pitched such a plan in 2016.)
Though Bernstein said he thinks it’s possible the Tories could sell Canadians on a climate plan that includes LNG, it has to be part of a suite of tougher measures.
“I would say (LNG) should not be a marquee part of a climate policy,” he added.
Bernstein said he knows a carbon tax is a tougher sell in the Prairies than in the 905, but he hopes the Conservatives could play a role in getting the West on board.
“Maybe the Conservatives could really help forge a consensus around climate change policy in Canada,” he said.
“It’s an appealing vision, but it’s still quite a number of steps away. We still need to see what kind of policies are going to be presented.”
Powers said he thinks so far, O’Toole is closer than other recent Conservative leaders to embracing thoughtful environmental policy. With oil and gas companies investing in clean technologies, he sees an opportunity to work with the industry to move forward.
Still, forging ahead will require courage, he said. He said he hopes O’Toole, Albas and the rest of the Conservative caucus are willing to show some.
“Don't be afraid to take some so-called risks here that may be viewed as risky by the base,” he said.
“Do the work of selling people on why some gradual changes are necessary.”
Emma McIntosh / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer