Poilievre is playing carbon tax politics for political gain: political scientists

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada’s National Observer

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s motion of non-confidence over the federal carbon price likely won’t topple the government, but it doesn’t have to in order to serve the Conservative party agenda, political experts say.

“This has been a number one story, so it’s a win for them, regardless of what the outcome is,” said Alex Marland, a professor of Canadian politics at Acadia University.

“I think the goal is to frame the election as a carbon tax election, which is different than framing it as the Trudeau election,” Marland said. Poilievre’s goal is to ramp up pressure on this hot-button topic until April 1 and, ultimately, try to split off some Liberal MPs or create division within that party, he added.

There is no shortage of pressure. Poilievre and premiers from seven provinces have stepped up their attacks on the carbon tax as April 1 — the day the federal carbon price will increase from $65 to $80 per tonne — fast approaches. Last week at an “axe the tax” rally in Corner Brook, N.L., Poilievre took shots at the province’s Liberal MPs, calling them the “silent six” for keeping quiet in the days after Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey called on the federal government to pause the price increase, noted Marland.

This non-confidence motion is just one of many tactics to keep exploiting a wedge within the Liberals, said Marland. The Conservatives have claimed victory once already when the federal government made the contentious decision to implement a three-year exemption on home heating oil after facing internal pressure from its Atlantic MPs and the federal Conservatives.

In October, N.L. Liberal MP Ken McDonald, who has previously voted against his party on carbon pricing motions, criticized his party’s approach in Atlantic Canada on CBC News’ Power & Politics program in October. Then, he kicked off the new year by suggesting it’s time for a leadership review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but later backed away from those remarks.

Poilievre’s motion of non-confidence, which calls for the “House to be dissolved so Canadians can vote in a carbon tax election,” is unlikely to shatter the NDP’s agreement to prop up the Liberals, so it likely won’t succeed, said Marland.

Framing the next election as a “carbon tax election” instead of a vote against Trudeau allows the Conservatives to stick to their message even if Trudeau did step down and it makes it easier to attack the NDP, he said.

With so many premiers and provincial parties opposing the carbon price increase, this is the federal Conservatives’ moment and they’re making the most of it by putting the NDP, in particular, in an awkward spot, Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. It forces the NDP to prop up the Liberal government at the same time as Poilievre “is really making a bid for traditional NDP voters, in some ways, with this talk about the working class,” said Young.

“Presumably, at the local level, in places where it might matter, this is going to be used to bludgeon the NDP candidate that their party voted to keep the carbon tax.”

She added provincial NDP parties have been part of the “unravelling of support for the carbon tax.” For example, the Saskatchewan NDP supported the provincial government’s plan to stop paying the federal carbon price levy it owes Ottawa. Premier Scott Moe’s government officially stopped collecting the carbon tax on Jan. 1.

The political machinations over carbon pricing prompted eight Canadian environment and climate organizations this week to call out “some federal politicians and many premiers” for “shamelessly exploiting Canadians’ very real economic pain for political gain.”

“Climate policies have nothing to do with the hardships Canadians are facing, yet these politicians are ignoring the real causes of the cost of living crisis and scapegoating carbon pricing,” reads the statement issued March 20 by Climate Action Network Canada, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Équiterre, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice and the West Coast Environmental Law Association.

“It is clear to us that the debates and votes held in Parliament this week calling for a freeze on long-planned carbon pricing increases are part of a concerted effort to dismantle more than just carbon pricing: they are part of an ideologically driven effort to limit all climate action.”

The statement warns that these attacks undermine Canada’s climate plan as a whole and would allow multinational oil and gas companies to continue polluting without consequence.

Ultimately, staying in the news and keeping pressure on the government is a big deal for any opposition party, and clearly, the Poilievre’s Conservatives are achieving this, said Marland.