Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada’s National Observer
The federal Conservatives are already making hay over a Liberal MP’s decision to break rank and vote for a Conservative opposition day motion to repeal the carbon price.
Liberal MP Ken McDonald has voted against his party on carbon pricing before. But this time, he went further with an appearance on CBC News’ Power & Politics program to explain why and criticize his party’s approach to carbon pricing in Atlantic Canada.
McDonald said his constituents are losing faith in the Liberals and that federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is not the right messenger for carbon pricing in Atlantic provinces.
“If an election were called today, I’m not sure if the Liberal Party would actually form the government,” said McDonald.
When he broke rank and voted for the motion to repeal the carbon tax on Oct. 4, Conservative MPs gave McDonald a standing ovation. The Opposition wasted no time highlighting McDonald’s vote during question period on Oct. 6. Then, immediately after oral questions, multiple Conservative MPs tried — unsuccessfully — to table a transcript of McDonald’s comments about carbon pricing from Power & Politics.
McDonald is not the only Liberal MP concerned about the carbon price’s impact on residents in Atlantic Canada. Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre’s opposition day motion to repeal the carbon tax explicitly referred to “Atlantic Liberal” MPs who “allege they are not in favour” of the policy while continuing to support it over the years.
During the Sept. 28 debate on Poilievre’s motion, Nova Scotia MP Kody Blois emphasized that he supports carbon pricing and believes in its intent but thinks adjustments are needed to better reflect his constituents’ realities.
Multiple Atlantic Liberal MPs came together to advocate for these adjustments at the Liberals’ national caucus meeting in September.
New Brunswick MP Serge Cormier declined an interview request, but his office staff shared a Sept. 28 press release sent to provincial media in which he and fellow New Brunswick MPs René Arseneault and Wayne Long outlined their concerns about carbon pricing in the province.
In the release, the three Liberals say the federal carbon tax, which came into force in New Brunswick in July, “puts the province and its people at a disadvantage because it does not take into account the fact that it is largely rural.”
The federal carbon pricing system gives families in rural areas a 10 per cent increase on their rebate, which is delivered to Canadians every three months. Cormier, Arseneault and Blois want to double the rural supplement so rural residents receive a 20 per cent top-up.
Arseneault, who represents Madawaska-Restigouche, said he supports the underlying principles of carbon pricing, but the big problem is “transportation options are virtually non-existent” for his rural constituents. Without reliable public transit or enough electric vehicle charging stations, people have “no alternative to using their cars every day,” he said.
The three New Brunswick MPs also called for the federal government to study the carbon price’s impact in their province and in rural Canada “to see if any more adjustments should be made.”
They proposed more electric vehicle charging stations be installed in New Brunswick, that rural regions be supported in their efforts to provide public transit, and that the carbon price on heating oil be suspended. These changes are supported by numerous MPs, including P.E.I. MPs Sean Casey and Bobby Morrissey, who backed a Liberal Atlantic MP caucus proposal to increase the rural top-up for Climate Action Incentive Payments.
McDonald told reporters on Parliament Hill last week that his understanding is the federal government is looking at increasing the payments, but he doesn’t know if it will come to fruition.
Long expressed concerns in June, just before the carbon price kicked in, noting constituents are anxious about how it will affect them. He urged the Liberal government to soften the blow so his party doesn’t bleed support to the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada.
Canada’s National Observer reached out to Liberal MPs in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. for comment. New Brunswick MP Ginette Petitpas Taylor declined to comment. Most MPs did not respond to a request for comment. The federal environment minister also declined requests for comment but a spokesperson from Guilbeault’s office pointed out that New Brunswickers will start to receive their first-ever pollution pricing rebate payments on Oct. 13. This means a family of four can expect a double payment of $368 and another quarterly payment of $184 in January, reads the emailed statement.
“We must continue collaborating on government policy that at once fights climate change and supports Atlantic Canadians with the high cost of living,” said the spokesperson.
On Oct. 5, McDonald said he had not yet been disciplined for his actions or faced blowback from party leaders. He did not respond to questions and requests for comment from Canada’s National Observer.
McDonald voting with the Conservatives on a non-binding, symbolic opposition day motion is one thing, but doing the Power & Politics interview is “very different,” said Alex Marland, a professor of Canadian politics at Acadia University and author of Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada.
“If he had voted against it and kept quiet, it wouldn’t draw as much attention but agreeing to go on Power & Politics really creates problems because now you’re essentially almost acting like you’re part of the Opposition,” Marland told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview on Oct. 6.
A situation like this “would require conversations from the whip’s office” because the party “can’t allow that to carry on” and won’t want other MPs to think there is tolerance for this, said Marland.
Chief government whip Steven MacKinnon’s staff told Canada’s National Observer “it would not be appropriate” to provide comment on what action, if any, will be taken as a result of McDonald’s vote and the TV interview because those are internal discussions.
There are many possible disciplinary actions the whip can take in situations like this, ranging from a stern conversation to being kicked off committees, Marland explained.
McDonald is chair of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, which “would be the natural place to discipline him because there’s a little bit of a pay bump by being chair and it gives you a little bit more prestige,” said Marland. For example, Long, MP for Saint John-Rothesay, was kicked off two committees in 2017 for voting in favour of a Conservative motion related to small business tax changes.
But every circumstance is different and many variables could be at play behind the scenes, Marland cautioned. Things like personal relationships with leaders and party members come into play, as well as the calculus of whether disciplining an MP will further elevate the issue in the media or resolve the problem.
“There’s a big difference between just going up and voting a certain way and catching the whip’s office by surprise versus telling the whip’s office, ‘Listen, I need to do this for my constituents. I can’t support this,’” he explained. Sometimes MPs will be granted permission to vote against the party and be instructed to spin their decision in a way that still emphasizes support for the party. After all, dissent is healthy, said Marland.
McKinnon’s staff would not say whether McDonald spoke to them about his intent to vote with the Conservatives.
“I don’t think that happened in this case, because there’s no way he would have gotten on Power & Politics to express this stuff. It just brings too much heat to the issue and it doesn’t sound like he was doing it in a way that was really, like, managed by the Liberals,” Marland mused.
Marland nodded to the Atlantic Liberal MPs’ proposal to increase the rural top-up as revealing “a bigger, thorny problem, which is how do you differentiate a rural area versus an urban area, and how do you actually execute that in terms of giving people money?” The line between urban and rural isn’t always clearly divided by postal code, said Marland.
“I’ve been told that’s a real problem for the federal government. They just can’t figure it out,” he added.
There’s always a risk disciplining a vocal backbencher could cause others to revolt, said Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. However, he said doing nothing is a greater risk because the Liberals are vulnerable and down in the polls, while the Conservatives are up and rising.
The first few weeks of the parliamentary session have been rocked by a series of events far more detrimental than a rogue MP voting with the Opposition to repeal the carbon price. Former Speaker Anthony Rota’s decision to invite a former member of a Nazi unit into the House of Commons and the government’s deteriorating relations with India puts the federal government in a position where it looks weak, said Desserud.
There’s also quite a substantial base for Conservative support in every single province, he noted, meanwhile, the only Liberal provincial government is Newfoundland and Labrador. The Liberals’ seats in Atlantic Canada are “very important” in his estimation, but Desserud isn’t sure the “Liberal brain trust” knows that.
From his perch in P.E.I., Desserud observes that the public does not like the carbon price; “It is not selling” despite Maritimers being more aware than ever of climate change and its impacts — particularly the frequency of storms.
“I’ve never seen this many, many hurricanes actually make it to the Maritimes, ever, in a period of time like this,” said Desserud. But, “perception is everything” and right now, “the Conservatives are winning the rhetoric war.”