Ken Boessenkool: O'Toole can risk adopting a carbon tax ... in fact, he has to

If the Conservatives are going to win, they need to "hunt where the ducks are" and add voters who didn't support them last time.

By: Ken Boessenkool

The purpose of a political party is to win elections. It took me a while to figure this out … about the time between hammering in lawn signs for the Reform Party in high school and being in the room when Stephen Harper won his majority government  

We just had an election where that same party failed to win. Lots of people have theories as to why. That’s good, because if you don’t know why you lost, you’ll find it a lot harder to win. 

Thankfully, well known Conservative pollster Andrew Enns of Leger conducted a large (5,000 responses) poll in the days after the election paid for by Clean Prosperity that can help dismiss a couple popular explanations for the Conservatives losing the election that are floating around.  

Clean Prosperity (where I chair a volunteer strategic advisory group) makes no secret of their support for revenue-neutral carbon taxes. They’ve paid for previous polls that showed how the Conservatives needed a credible climate plan even if that plan included a carbon tax to win the 905, and that having such a credible climate plan would not lose them seats in western Canada

We’ve just come through an election where the Conservatives had a credible climate plan and yet they failed to break through in the 905 and lost support in western Canada. 

It’s fair then to ask: Did the Conservative’s credible climate plan, including a novel way of taxing carbon and rebating it back to Canadians, contribute to the failure to win? 

In a word, no. 

As is commonly done by campaign teams, the Clean Prosperity poll segmented voters into four categories. First, there are Conservative voters. Second, are people who say the Conservatives are their second choice and/or have voted Conservative in the past but didn’t this time (Liberal-Conservative and NDP-Conservative switchers). I’ll call them Accessible Conservative voters. Third is anyone who is not in the first two groups but fails to rule out voting Conservative, which I’ll call Possible Conservative voters. Finally there are people who say they will never vote Conservative. 

If the Conservatives are going to win, they need to hunt where the ducks are by adding more Accessible and/or Possible Conservative voters than any Conservative voters they lose.  

And for those advocating that the easiest way to do that is to bring back the People’s and Maverick Party voters, it’s worth noting three things. First, they make up only 12 per cent of Accessible and five per cent of Possible voters. Second, among People’s/Maverick Party voters, just over 40 per cent had the Conservative party as their second choice, and third, just under 40 per cent said they voted for Andrew Scheer last time.  

Conclusion? You simply cannot add the People’s/Maverick vote to the Conservative vote. People’s/Maverick voters are not the only ducks we are looking for. 

Others say it was the adoption of a carbon tax that contributed to the loss. Within the Conservative party, the debate over carbon taxes goes something like this: On the one side folks argue that Conservatives can win any election where they are on the side of fighting tax increases. On the other side are those (like me) who think we cannot win without a credible climate change plan. And further, many of those (like me) think carbon taxes an essential part of a credible, and more importantly market- and incentive-based, Conservative climate plan. And finally, these folks (like me) worry that if the primary thing voters hear from you on climate change is that you are against carbon taxes, they will not believe you have a credible climate plan. 

The poll can help us figure out who’s right. 

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It is true that there are just under four Conservative voters who want the new government to focus on lowering taxes for every one that wants it to focus on climate change. But that ratio is one-to-one for Accessible, and one-to-two for Possible voters. So while Conservative voters would prefer to focus on lower taxes, Accessible and Possible voters (where the ducks are) want tax cuts balanced with a stronger climate plan. 

Lowering taxes exclusively speaks to the voters the Conservatives have. It does not speak to the voters Conservatives need.  

Not that Conservative voters don’t care about climate policy. Forty per cent of Conservative voters say they “cannot vote for a federal political party unless they have a strong plan for addressing climate change.” And fully 60 per cent of Accessible and Possible voters won’t vote for a party without a climate change plan.  

And almost three times as many Conservative voters support setting “clear targets” than do not support, and twice as many Conservative voters support “Canada achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050” as don’t support. Laughably small groups of Accessible and Possible voters don’t support clear targets or reaching net zero. 

So the failure to present a credible climate plan will not only lose us existing voters, it will make it harder to get new ones. 

What about where the rubber hits the road? How do Conservative voters feel about extending the burden of climate change beyond investing in technology, dinging corporations and big polluters, or helping the oil and gas industry transition (all of which have massive support)? 

This might be surprising to some, but over half of Conservative voters agree that “A carbon tax and rebate that makes it more expensive to pollute, and then sends the proceeds back to Canadians as cheques or tax cuts,” should be part of the plan to address climate change. Two thirds of both Accessible and Possible voters agree. That’s a big blow to the “Win any election fighting any and all tax increases” crowd. 

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But it gets worse (for the anti-carbon tax crowd). Sixty per cent of Conservative voters and 65 per cent of Accessible voters support a carbon tax where all the proceeds are used to cut personal income taxes. Even among the People’s/Maverick Party voters, support and opposition to this idea are about equal.  

And worse (for the same crowd): When asked “If the Conservative Party of Canada were to adopt this policy, would it make you more likely to vote for them in an election, less likely or not change your likelihood of voting Conservative?” only 14 percent of Conservative voters said it would make them “less likely.” Interestingly, among People’s/Maverick voters, only 18 per cent said it would make them “less likely.” Put another way, carbon taxes coupled with income tax cuts are a vote winner by a two-to-one margin. This is perhaps a hint of where O’Toole should go from here. 

And if you want a carbon tax to attract some of those People’s/Maverick Part voters? A carbon tax that sends more of the proceeds to rural and suburban households at the expense of urban households makes a carbon tax a net winner among those voters. 

Three conclusions emerge from all of this.  

First, adopting an anti-carbon tax strategy to appeal to People’s/Maverick voters would yield disappointing returns. Not only are a large share of People’s/Maverick voters not easily accessible to the Conservative party, but a large chunk of their voters aren’t even offended by carbon tax, if it was packaged the right way. 

Second, if the Conservatives want to significantly change their electoral fortunes they need to hunt where the ducks are. There is clear and strong support not only for a credible climate policy among Accessible and Possible voters, but those voters support a carbon tax as an important part of such a credible climate plan. 

Third, over 85 per cent of existing Conservative voters will not change their vote if the Conservative party runs on a carbon tax coupled with income tax cuts. Of course, the 15 percent who are less likely to vote Conservative is not nothing. Conservatives need to learn who these folks are to make sure that the design of their carbon tax plan minimizes any losses and so the party can design other policies to keep them in the tent. We should have lots of opportunity to get this right given climate was low down the list of priority issues for most Conservatives.  

On balance, the evidence that the Conservative’s climate plan, including O’Toole’s version of the carbon tax, cost them the election is weak at worst, and completely wrong at best. A credible climate change policy, including a carbon tax, should be a central part of any Conservative platform going forward.  


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