Erin O'Toole vs. the Carbon Tax: It Looks like a Lonely Fight

Erin O'Toole just can't get a break. Around every corner, it seems, is a rock and a hard place. First, it was the tensions between so-cons and libertarians; then his own party kneecapped him on climate change; and now the Supreme Court of Canada threatens to ensure that his campaign to kill the carbon tax ends not with a bang but a whimper. What's he to do?

In his response to the Court's decision, O'Toole promised to press on with an alternative to the carbon tax, one that won't fight climate change “on the backs of the poorest and working Canadians.” (In fact, these people usually enjoy a net benefit from the tax through the rebate.)

Had the Court struck down the tax, O'Toole would be leading a juggernaut into the next election. Instead, the provincial coalition against the tax is crumbling.

Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek says simply that his government will “respect the decision.” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe may be stomping mad, but he too is already talking about creating his own tax.

Brian Pallister is fighting his own case in court, but on grounds that are too narrow to give O'Toole more than a partial victory, even if Manitoba wins.

Even Jason Kenney admits that it's time to “consult with Albertans” about what comes next – which really means that he thinks a public consultation will get him a “mandate” to create a tax for Alberta. (“This is what Albertans have said they want me to do…”)

So, if O'Toole is still in this fight, he is pretty much on his own. Can he back down?

It's hard to see how. He can say that the provinces have decided to move on so, in the interest of collaboration, he will respect their wishes and set aside his opposition to the tax. But what will the premiers say when a reporter asks for their reaction?

They will of course blame the Court. They will say that, if the tax is here to stay, they have a duty to their citizens to put their own regimes in place so the revenues are collected locally, and each province can decide how they are spent. Then they will pause…and add that, if O'Toole wins the election and kills the tax, they will happily scrap these plans.

This turns the spotlight back on O'Toole, highlighting that he is now the only leader in a position to do something about the Court's ruling. He can use the election to fight the tax and, if he wins, repeal it.

In short, the premiers can fairly claim that they've done they're part to defeat the tax and now it's O'Toole's turn to take the lead. And there's a lot of pressure on him to do so.

Conservatives in Central and Atlantic Canada might accept a U-turn on the carbon tax, but out west this is a holy war. If O'Toole quits now, he'll be the general who fled the field just as the decisive battle was about to start. True Believers will never forgive him.

Nevertheless, in an interview on Rosie Barton Live yesterday, O'Toole refused to say definitively what he will do if the provinces adopt their own regimes. Instead, he insisted that they should “be in the driver's seat,” while affirming that he still “feels the need” to repeal the carbon tax.

In other words, “Let's see what happens...”

His cautiousness is understandable. O'Toole likely spent the weekend on the phone to the four premiers, trying to salvage a united front. Judging by the interview, it didn't go well.

The battle against the carbon tax has burned up a lot of time, resources, and energy and the premiers have now wrung from it about as much benefit as they're going to get.

Ontarians, for example, are increasingly of the view that the carbon tax makes sense. For Doug Ford, the Court decision is the excuse he needs to move on.

As for Moe and Kenney, O'Toole's prospects for winning the next election looked poor before the ruling; they now look even worse. Why bet on that horse?

The premiers likely can be persuaded to express support for O'Toole but, however they phrase it, that support will be conditional: if he wins the election, they'll support repealing the tax. In the meantime, they'll start planning to move on.

So, O'Toole is once again between a rock and a hard place. He is committed to fighting the next federal campaign on a promise to get rid of the carbon tax; meanwhile, everyone else is making plans to accept it.

Standing firm may be the price he has to pay to hang onto his core support in the west, but there are no new votes to win there. In Ontario, it will be an uphill battle and the most O'Toole can expect from Doug Ford is a lukewarm endorsement. In Atlantic Canada, he'll get even less.

O'Toole may yet choose to cut his losses and try to find a way to accept the carbon tax, but he'll have to talk a lot of nonsense and eat a lot of crow. Moreover, time is of the essence. A federal election can't be far off and the longer he waits the more committed he becomes.

What's the old phrase? “It's lonely at the top…”

Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.