Author Topic: Whitcomb: Climate change politics are undermining federalism  (Read 257 times)

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Whitcomb: Climate change politics are undermining federalism

Canada’s largest province is about to reject the federal climate change policy.  Saskatchewan never accepted it and Alberta could reject it in 2019. Maybe it’s time for reflection. The current policy calls for the provinces to implement a federal government plan. That, however, is a contradiction of federalism, a system which reflects the fact that […]

Canada’s largest province is about to reject the federal climate change policy.  Saskatchewan never accepted it and Alberta could reject it in 2019. Maybe it’s time for reflection.


The current policy calls for the provinces to implement a federal government plan. That, however, is a contradiction of federalism, a system which reflects the fact that the feds and the provinces have different interests. Policies to deal with pollution in Ontario may be inappropriate for Newfoundland or Saskatchewan. The current federal government overlooked such differences when it decided that there was only one solution to global warming, a carbon tax, and only two acceptable ways to implement it, cap-and-trade or a carbon levy. Unfortunately, not all Canadians and provinces accept these assumptions, and the consensus is shrinking.


In 2015, Saskatchewan’s then-premier Brad Wall pointed out that his economy was far more dependent on fossil fuels than were other provinces. A carbon tax would be disproportionately costly, which was unacceptable. That dispute is going to court and no one knows what the outcome will be.


Alberta’s NDP government endorsed the federal scheme, providing the federal government got a pipeline built. That linked dealing with climate change to increasing energy production, linked reducing gas emissions to raising them. But the pipeline has not been built, and bitumen is unlikely to flow before a provincial election which could empower the United Conservative Party. The UCP is strongly opposed to the federal climate plan. It, and the incoming Ontario Conservative government, oppose carbon taxes because everyone will pay them whether or not that reduces their consumption of carbon. The two parties believe governments always spend any money that is available (and in fact Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have not returned all their carbon tax revenue to taxpayers).


In challenging Ontario’s upcoming withdrawal from cap-and-trade, the federal government is introducing a new and very dangerous interpretation of federalism. No one questioned that Ontario’s program was within its jurisdiction. Now the federal government is saying that if Ontario repeals its own law, it will be replaced by the imposition of a federal tax exclusively within Ontario’s borders. In effect it will be a “provincial” tax, not a “national” or “federal” one applied to all Canadians.


But the federal government has no mandate to force Ontario to retain one of its own programs if its government wants to repeal it. In effect, the federal level is trying to use its taxation power to make the environment an exclusive federal responsibility.


The courts might uphold the federal government’s right to collect such a tax but the political battle could be fatal. If it can prevent Doug Ford repealing an existing Ontario law, then it can prevent other provinces repealing other provincial laws. In that case, there is no federalism, no division of power, and no independent provincial jurisdiction. Quebec could not repeal its cap-and-trade law – just the threat the separatists need to rise from their death-bed.


The federal government can forge ahead with a series of political and court battles, or it can go back to the drawing board, in which case there seem to be two options. One is co-operative federalism – namely, call a heads-of-government meeting and confirm Canada’s Paris goals; each provinces’ share of those goals; the federal right to implement policies within its jurisdiction; each province’s right to implement their own policies as they wish; and confirm that they will all co-operate to avoid duplication or contradictory policies.


The second option is for the federal government to raise its existing national carbon tax on gasoline and other forms of fossil fuel. It has full constitutional power to do so, can do it any time, the revenue can be returned to taxpayers, and it could be completely transparent. Actually, if it had done this in 2016, Canada would already be on the way to meeting its Paris goals, rather than locked in an increasingly ugly and unnecessary federal-provincial, regional, political and ideological battle.


It’s not too late to get it right but that does mean going back to the drawing board.


Ed Whitcomb is the author of Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces, the contentious history of the Canadian federation, and of short histories of all 10 provinces.


 


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