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This is the sound a dying government makes
A desperate Liberal government just undermined its climate policy and ceded the carbon price narrative to the Conservatives. It's not great.
Every government reaches a point where it begins to age like a fruit fly. Fast. You can tell when it happens. The government gets lazy, sloppy, entitled, arrogant, incompetent, and desperate. But governments are human things. They’re supported — made possible, rather — by institutions, but they’re run by flesh and blood humans. So, governments fall apart because people fall apart. They stay too long, get too tired, make too many enemies, and get too far away from the people they’re elected to serve.
Last week, the Liberal government announced a policy carve-out for its signature carbon pricing initiative, removing the price from home heating oil for three years. As it happens, very few Canadians outside of Atlantic Canada use oil for home heating. As it happens, Liberal electoral fortunes are waning in a region it may desperately need to hold on to government, and where Conservatives have been weak since the 1980s, but no longer.
If we give the carve-out a fair shake, as we should, we might say that Atlantic Canada is facing an economic crisis, and even with the supposedly revenue-neutral carbon scheme, residents can’t afford to make ends meet — particularly as winter approaches. That’s fair enough, though it calls into question the design of carbon pricing to begin with. Did the Liberals always intend to allow for ad hoc carve-outs? If so, why didn’t they say so at the outset? If not, how did they miss such an eventuality? Did they expect that there would never be tough economic times?
Even if we accept the reasoning for giving Atlantic Canada a break, what about the rest of the country? Millions are facing tough times and a similar affordability crisis from sea to sea to sea. The opposition Conservatives leapt on this point immediately, which anyone who’s followed politics anywhere in the world for any amount of time could have seen coming.
Soon after the government announced the carbon price suspension measure, Pierre Poilievre demanded it be removed “on all forms of heat.” He further seized the moment to say that his party was ready in Parliament to cooperate with doing just that — and for introducing a “national carbon tax pause.” The Liberals set and walked into a trap, which the Conservatives were all too happy to welcome.
By introducing the de-facto Atlantic Canada carbon price carve-out, the Trudeau government has at once shown it hadn’t fully thought through its plan, ceded the carbon pricing narrative to Poilievre (who wants to “axe the tax”), undermined the Liberal climate action plan (insufficient as it is), and set the federation against itself and the feds at a time when Alberta is putting pressure on national unity with its own wacky schemes and cries of Western alienation.
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As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, a Liberal minister took to TV last week to advocate for a return to old school regional patronage — a strategy that worked wonders for the Liberals throughout much of the 20th century, including in the prairies, but was awful for democracy. On CTV’s Question Period, Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings told Vassy Kapelos that when it came to the carve-out, Atlantic Canada was the squeaky wheel — on a vehicle driven by Liberals.
“…I can tell you Atlantic Caucus was vocal with what they've heard from their constituents,” Hutchings told Kapelos, adding that “perhaps they need to elect more Liberals in the Prairies so that we can have that conversation as well.”
That’s the quiet part out loud. Very sloppy, sad, offensive stuff.
In the most charitable reading of Hutchings’ comments, we can hear her say that the key to getting good policies for your region from the federal government is having a strong advocate at the table. But this logic suggests that Liberals from the prairies (such as the two in Alberta) are poor advocates for their region. It also suggests that the Liberals are unable or unwilling to govern for regions in which they don’t have scores of MPs. In essence, even a charitable reading of what Hutchings said is an indictment of the government’s capacity to govern as it passes the 8-year mark of its time in power.
The Liberals can read the polls as well as anybody. They know they’re down, possibly out, with at least one projection model signalling a 100 percent chance of a Conservative government based on current numbers. According to 338 Canada’s seat projection, current data would put the Conservatives around 207 seats, with the Liberals around 81. That’s a mighty rout. And, sure, lots can happen between now and the next election. And elections matter. And parties have come back from steep pre-election deficits (who can forget British Columbia in 2013?). But no one who is being honest with themselves or anyone else thinks any of this is good news for the Liberals. And I can’t imagine many worlds in which a tired, sloppy, desperate government gets any better with age at this point. That’s the thing with fruit flies. They age fast and then they die.
So, we watch to see what comes next. Will the Liberals offer more carve-outs for other regions? For other elements covered by the carbon price? Will they further take their foot off the pedal on climate change efforts as we wrap up the country’s worst-ever fire season and what is most likely to be the hottest recorded year in the history of the planet? What is the government willing to give away or give up on in the hopes of clinging to power?
Little of what comes next is going to be pretty. Much of it will be cynical. It’s tough to watch a government die, to hear its desperate wails. Inevitable as the cycle of decline is, one always hopes the end to be more dignified and productive. Once again, that seems unlikely. It also seems that on their way down, the Liberals are set to take their so-called principles, and the planet, with them.