The political calculations of the Alberta carbon tax

carbon tax
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Photo: Nicholas Godin.

Do carbon tax + climate policies + pipeline approvals = Notley NDP pathway to 2019 election success?

A key characteristic of Rachel Notley’s deeply unpopular carbon tax is being ignored: while the prevailing wisdom is that Alberta hates it and she will pay at the polls in 2019, it may turn out to be the wedge issue that unites disparate voters in a winning NDP coalition.

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Jason Kenney (left), leadership candidate of the PC party, Brian Jean, Wildrose leader. Photo: CBC

Sumeet Gulati is an associate professor of economics at UBC. He says the Alberta government could have emulated Liberal’s approach in BC by making the carbon tax revenue neutral (lowering other taxes, such as income and business taxes, to offset the cost of the carbon tax), which taxpayers eventually accepted.

The carbon tax was introduced in 2008 and featured prominently in the 2009 provincial election.

“The NDP lobbied and campaigned against the tax and lost that election in part because it lost a lot of supporters who were environmentally aware and either didn’t vote or voted Liberal,” said Gulati in an interview.

After Christy Clark became premier in 2011, she floated the idea of axing the carbon tax, but the Liberal Party rejected that idea, says Galati, and five or six years later the carbon tax is no longer a political issue in British Columbia.

Notley chose not to make the Alberta carbon tax revenue neutral. Only 60 per cent of the revenue is returned to consumers in the form of rebates, most of it to low income families.

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Now she seems to be paying the political price for her government’s climate policies. An Oct. Mainstreet/Postmedia poll found only 34 per cent of Albertans approve of her performance, while 57 per cent disapprove and 10 per cent aren’t sure. In fact, Notley is far more popular outside the province than at home.

But before Wildrose leader Brian Jean or Jason Kenney – presumptive heir to the PC leadership – buy a new suit and think about laying claim to the premier’s Legislature parking spot, they may want to consider that the Alberta carbon tax just might be the path to re-election for the NDP, says Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey.

Think about this: 1) carbon taxes and climate policies are popular outside Alberta (with the exception of Saskatchewan) and unpopular inside the province; 2) pipelines are popular inside Alberta but unpopular in the rest of Canada; 3) link climate policies and pipelines and Canadians in every province overwhelmingly approve.

“We saw [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau talk in Nov. about how Alberta climate policies, especially the carbon tax, were critical to the approval of two pipelines,” said Brownsey in an interview. “And now I’m seeing Alberta government advertising pop up all over the place with the same message.”

carbon taxThat’s the conclusion of an Abacus Data poll from Oct. CEO David Coletto says the data show that Canadians believe the national economy has begun transitioning from fossil fuels to cleaner energy technology but oil and gas will still be needed for decades to come.

“Even in those provinces where we would expect opposition to a carbon price to be highest, we found majority support in Alberta and Saskatchewan, so that tells us that at the base level most Canadians, almost all Canadians, recognize the importance of shifting our energy use to one that’s cleaner,” said Coletto in an interview. 

The survey of 15,000 Canadians also shows that a carbon tax plays well with the New Democrat demographic.

carbon tax
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“What’s interesting is that Liberal and New Democrat supporters, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly support or accept the idea of carbon pricing, as do younger Canadians,” says Coletto.

“The older you get, the more likely you are to think that a national carbon price is a bad idea.”

Brownsey says that depending on young voters is a problem because most are disengaged from politics and apathetic to democracy and voting.

Where are the most young voters in Alberta? In Calgary, expected to be the key battleground of the 2019 election.

Quitto Maggi is the president of Mainstreet Research, which has been commissioned by Postmedia to do several public opinion polls on the Alberta carbon tax. Maggi says support for the carbon tax is highest in Edmonton (50%), lowest in rural areas (10%), and midway in Calgary (35%). Calgary also has a politically diverse culture, with the NDP, Wildrose and PCs all having pockets of strength.

“There is a great divide between urban and rural, with support being high in Edmonton, the lowest outside of Edmonton and Calgary,” he said in an interview.

But Maggie notes that Alberta attitudes toward the carbon tax haven’t changed much over the polls. The collapse in oil prices, rising unemployment, and dismal business prospects have failed to move the needle one way or the other.

This suggests using the carbon tax and climate policies as a wedge issue to energize voters under 35, pry away red Tories from the PC party, and persuade Liberals to abandon their party allegiance just as it seems poised to make federal gains under Trudeau, might be risky.

But Brownsey says the Trudeau Government’s explicit message that pipeline approvals depend upon Alberta climate policies – and the inference that ending the NDP policies, as Jean and Kenney have promised to do, might mean no more federal green lights for new pipelines, like Energy East – could be enough to  move Calgary voters into the NDP coalition.

The other key question is whether familiarity (the carbon tax begins Jan. 1) will breed contempt or acceptance, as Gulati claims has happened in BC?

Two-and-a-half or three years is a long time in politics. And plenty of time for the Notley and the NDP to move that needle in key urban ridings.

Notley’s success or failure will likely determine the outcome of the next provincial election.

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