Ken Boessenkool: A real climate-change plan will help O'Toole ... even in the west

Conservatives shouldn't scrap carbon taxes, but tweak them into vote winners, not just in the Toronto area, but even in Alberta.

By: Ken Boessenkool

Just under a year ago I wrote that Conservatives will not win the suburban 905 region around Toronto without a credible climate change plan. I later wrote that a carbon tax with offsetting tax cuts was a vote winner in those Toronto suburbs. Those arguments have stood the test of time, including a refresh of that poll last fall

And of course, Conservatives can’t win a national election without doing well in the 905. 

Oh sure, my detractors said, adopting a carbon tax might win seats in the 905 but it will cost Conservatives a bundle of seats in Western Canada. 

I admit I was worried. I shouldn’t have been.  

A new poll by Clean Prosperity (where I chair a non-remunerative Advisory Group) suggests that adopting a carbon tax won’t put Conservative seats at risk in Western Canada. In fact, it might actually help Conservatives hold on to some of those seats they hold by slim margins. 

Let’s dig a little deeper.  

The Clean Prosperity poll conducted (like the others) by Conservative pollster Andrew Enns of Leger surveyed Conservative held ridings across western Canada. That’s worth repeating. The poll was only conducted in ridings of current Conservative Party of Canada MPs.  

Those Conservative held ridings were divided into three groups: low-risk ridings where the Conservative margin of victory was greater than 50 per cent in the 2019 election; medium-risk ridings where the margin was between 20 and 50 per cent; and high-risk ridings where the margin of victory was 20 per cent or less. 

Conservatives have a lock on these ridings. Forty two per cent say they will vote for the Conservatives and a further 34 per cent are accessible Conservative voters (including previous Conservative voters, voters for whom Conservatives are their second choice and voters who don’t rule out voting Conservative). This is most true in Alberta (48 and 31, respectively) and least true in British Columbia (29 and 39 respectively). 

Among Conservative voters, climate change as an issue ranks behind jobs and the economy, debts and deficits and even pharmacare. But among accessible Conservative voters, climate change ranks above all these issues except jobs and the economy.  

Fully three quarters of accessible Conservative voters in Conservative-held ridings are worried about the impacts of climate change. That mirrors the proportion of all voters that are worried about climate change in high risk ridings. 

There are encouraging signs that Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives recognize the need for a credible climate-change policy. And that’s a good thing for western Canadian voters.  

In high-risk ridings, a credible climate change plan will make 30 per cent of voters “more likely” to support the Conservatives against 10 per cent for whom it will make them “less likely” to support Conservatives (47 percent said it would make no difference). In low-risk ridings 57 per cent say “no difference,” with 23 per cent saying it would make them “more likely” and the same 10 per cent saying “less likely.” 

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So a credible climate change plan will help conservatives hold at-risk ridings, and pose no threat to them in their bastions in the rural west. 

But of course, a credible climate change policy could mean anything. So what if a credible climate-change policy meant imposing a carbon tax? What if a credible climate change policy meant “paying more per litre at the gas station, and pay more per unit of natural gas for home heating” (actual words Andrew used in the poll)? 

Would this cause conservative voters flee for the exits?  

Hardly. 

Among Conservative voters, 46 per cent say this would make no difference to their vote and 14 per cent say it would make them “more likely” to vote Conservative. This would make some Conservative voters consider the exits — 30 per cent say it would make them “less likely” to vote Conservative. Subsequent questions reveal that these voters become undecided voters rather than move to the Maverick or Peoples Parties. 

But… 

Those numbers are flipped for accessible Conservative voters. Twenty four per cent say it will make them “more likely” to vote Conservative, with 14 per cent saying “less likely.” So it’s a net vote winner among accessible voters. A similar net win is evident in high-risk ridings. 

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And of course, no credible conservative would propose a carbon tax without using the revenue to cut taxes. If you tell Conservative voters that carbon tax revenues will be used to cut personal income taxes, 24 per cent say that combination (we’ve not dropped the carbon tax here) will make them “more likely” to vote Conservative and 14 percent say “less likely.”  

That sweetener is pretty sweet. A carbon tax with income tax cuts is a net winner among Conservative voters. In fact, without a conservative counter, the current Liberal plan might attract enough voters to flip some of those seats into the Liberal column. 

If that’s not enough motivation, here’s the kicker: Andrew asked Conservative voters “If O’Toole proposes a carbon pricing policy in order to increase the party’s chances of winning government, will you support that decision?” 

Now in response to the the question above, the straight-up question on increasing gasoline and home heating costs, only 26 percent of Conservative voters said are “somewhat” or “strongly” supportive, even if many of these folks said it wouldn’t necessarily change their vote. 

But if Erin O’Toole proposes a carbon tax, and says to his western Canadian voters “I need this to form a national conservative government,” that number jumps from 26 percent to … wait for it … 67 per cent. 

That’s a resounding vote of confidence in both Erin O’Toole as Conservative leader as well as a deep desire on the part of Conservative-held ridings in western Canada to see a national Conservative government. 

And, as we’ve seen, a carbon tax linked to income tax cuts will bring more accessible voters to the table and make some of those at-risk ridings just a little less risky. 

In the next couple months, the Supreme Court of Canada is almost certainly going to validate the ability of the federal government to impose a national carbon pricing backstop. Jason Kenney and Doug Ford have both put in place a carbon tax on industrial emissions. The federal government is already imposing a carbon tax on consumers in both provinces. 

All Canadians are already paying a carbon tax — either to Ottawa or to their provincial government. The Supreme Court will soon affirm this arrangement. 

Erin O’Toole should not unravel all of this. Rather, he should find ways to tweak it — making it fairer to rural Canadians and families with children, for example — as part of a credible and comprehensive Conservative climate-change plan. That kind of plan — even one with a carbon tax — is a winning strategy in critical suburbs around Toronto and does not risk seats in his western bastion.  

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the conservative thing to do. And it’s the winning thing to do. 


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