OTTAWA—There are growing concerns within the federal Conservative caucus that leader Erin O’Toole will move the party towards accepting a carbon tax, the Star has learned.
O’Toole has promised a robust climate policy, and has embraced the Liberals’ goal of net zero emissions by 2050. O’Toole has ruled out maintaining the Liberal government’s existing carbon tax.
But multiple sources told the Star that Conservative MPs are in the dark about how the party will actually achieve that net-zero goal without introducing carbon pricing — a policy that has been long vilified by the Conservatives.
“It’s widespread,” said one party source, when asked about concerns among Conservative MPs that O’Toole will pitch a carbon-pricing scheme.
The worry among certain elements within the Conservative caucus “is that he is preparing to abandon the promise to do away with the carbon tax,” the source said, adding that O’Toole has been more “nuanced” on the issue since becoming leader.
Another source said the concerns are not limited to caucus, and there “would be a revolt” within the party’s conservative base if O’Toole proposes any kind of carbon tax.
The grumblings are part of a larger issue for O’Toole — the gap between what he wants to do with the party and what the party’s (predominantly Western) caucus is willing to accept.
One party source expressed frustration with MPs in safe Western ridings, who the source said are unwilling to moderate the party’s stance on issues like climate change in order to appeal to voters in provinces like Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
“A lot of this is that the Western MPs in particular don’t want to have to defend any change at all … They don’t want any change on our position on the environment. They don’t like the quote ‘moving the party to the centre’,” the source said.
“For them, Scheer? The (2019) platform? All that stuff was perfect. They had no complaints. They don’t actually care if we’re in government or not, and that one piece has become extremely evident over the last few months … You’re not willing to give up five points (in a Western riding) in order to give that to someone in Ontario for us to win there?”
The source said caucus has been briefed twice in recent months — most recently in January — about the party’s electoral strategy and internal polling. While the party’s platform is still a work in progress, the source said, caucus should be aware of the direction O’Toole is moving.
A second source said MPs have been told “time and time again” about how internal polling shows the party is within striking distance of a 175-seat majority. But little has been shared by the party’s leadership about the plan to get there — or what the party is pitching to Canadians in the coming election.
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“The plan is seemingly to support everything the Liberals have done, except claim that we would do it in a more competent way and provide more clarity,” said one source with direct knowledge of caucus discussions, who spoke on the condition they not be named.
“(We need a plan) that will give a compelling message to the general population that we’d take Canadians down a different road if we’re elected.”
O’Toole and his team do not want a spring election, and most admit the party would be hard pressed to win against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should there be an election in the coming months. If the Liberals were to secure a majority, few people in Conservative circles believe O’Toole would get another shot to lead the party into a future election.
Asked if anyone around O’Toole had raised these issues with the leader, one source said that “if he has not heard (the concerns), he’s deaf.”
“We’re united in a singular focus making sure Canada leads the world in the economic recovery post COVID,” O’Toole told reporters Tuesday.
“I’m very excited about, in a few weeks, our policy convention … (which will) allow us to get back to that singular focus I mentioned: how can we make sure that Canada leads the G7 in job creation, in economic growth post COVID.”
Many economists and environmental policy experts agree that carbon pricing is the cheapest and most efficient way for countries to reduce emissions. The Liberals introduced a national carbon tax in 2019. It was not implemented in provinces that developed carbon pricing regimes that met or exceeded federal targets. Canadians living in provinces that have the federal levy — including Ontario — receive federal tax rebates to defray the carbon levy’s costs.
But the Conservatives have consistently and vigorously opposed consumer carbon taxes. Proposing one would not only cause O’Toole trouble within the party’s elected ranks, but the usually dependable base — and potentially fuel Western populist movements already simmering in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In February, O’Toole promised to present Canadians a “very detailed plan” for the Conservative party to cut emissions.
O’Toole framed the issue as crucial to attracting a younger generation of voters to the party.
“So I think millennials will see, maybe this isn’t your father’s Conservative party,” O’Toole said.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier
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