In 2018, it may be hard to imagine a federal election fought on a single issue.
These days, the major parties are all scrambling to offer a little something for everyone. The 2015 leaders’ debates, for instance, covered everything from infrastructure spending & the national debt, to democratic reform, to Muslim women wearing niqabs.
Justin Trudeau’s winning platform featured somewhere in the ballpark of 300 campaign promises – depending on who’s counting, of course.
The 1988 “Free Trade Election”
But if we cast our minds back to 1988, we would recall what has since been dubbed the “Free Trade Election” (I confess, this all happened several years before I was born).
In that election, Brian Mulroney, John Turner & Ed Broadbent focused their campaigning on the single most important issue of the day: the newly signed Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA) and the precursor to NAFTA.
The deal had been signed by Prime Minister Mulroney prior to the election, a decision strongly opposed by both the Liberals & the NDP.
Mulroney was essentially seeking validation from the voters, a clear mandate supporting his program of free trade.
By winning that election, his Progressive Conservatives were able to continue to push the free trade agenda, which eventually resulted in the signing of NAFTA. That 1988 single-issue election was pivotal in defining our economic relationship with the US and Mexico over the past 25 years.
Carbon tax could become the next election fight
Fast-forward to 2018. A storm is brewing that has politicians deeply divided, and could very well dominate the debate in next year’s federal election.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his environment minister Catherine McKenna are deeply convinced that a carbon tax (or “price on pollution”, if you prefer) is the only way to meaningfully counter the effects of climate change.
Despite being questioned on whether their proposed tax – which starts at $10 a tonne and eventually increases to $50 – will even meet the emission reduction targets in the Paris Accord, they have signaled their willingness to fight an election over the issue.
In a way, Trudeau’s quest for validation from the voters for his carbon tax is similar to Mulroney’s for free trade nearly 30 years ago.
In the other corner of the political ring, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Alberta UCP Leader Jason Kenney could not be more opposed to the Liberal plan.
Mr. Kenney has promised his first act as Alberta Premier will be to repeal the tax already implemented by the NDP government in Alberta. Premier Ford is taking Trudeau’s government to court over the federal carbon pricing plan. And Andrew Scheer has kicked off this “election year” with a campaign-style rally in which he challenged the Trudeau to “bring it on” when it comes to debating carbon taxes.
Canadians will be the ultimate decision makers
The stage is set for a full-fledged carbon tax battle. But the questions now are: a) How much will Canadians care about this issue? and b) Who has the upper hand in this debate?
One reason carbon pricing could be a big election issue is that it touches two policy areas of concern to the Canadian public: the environment & the pocketbook. Abacus Data has recently found that 80% of Canadians say climate change is a ‘very big’ or ‘moderately big’ problem.
Furthermore, Canadians enjoy good international PR, especially when Canada appears to take a leadership role on the world stage.
On the other hand, nobody likes to pay more to fill up their car or heat their home. The politician who turns a deaf ear to cost of living concerns in an election does so at their own peril. Trudeau hopes to avoid this perception by offering annual rebates at tax time for those families in the provinces that don’t already have a federally-approved taxation plan.
So who currently stands the best chance of winning over the voters? It’s tough to say.
The prime minister is still popular with voters, and may be able to convince Canadians that his plan is in the best interest of the planet, and that the conservative opponents of the carbon tax just aren’t serious about protecting the environment. And as long as Andrew Scheer avoids releasing a credible environmental plan, the characterization may stick.
However, an Angus Reid poll over the summer revealed that two-thirds of Canadians think the provincial governments should ultimately be the ones to decide whether to impose a carbon tax or not.
With more and more provinces banding together to oppose the Prime Minister’s plan, it may be risky for Trudeau to fight an election on the promise of overriding the wishes of the premiers. Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, PEI, the Northwest Territories, and Alberta (assuming Jason Kenney is elected next year) may give Andrew Scheer the reinforcement he needs in this fight.
In 2019, Canadians may be treated to a Liberal campaign bus blazoned with the oft-repeated Trudeau-McKenna mantra: “THE ENVIRONMENT & THE ECONOMY GO HAND IN HAND”, while Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford are busy handing out “AXE THE CARBON TAX” bumper stickers. Will it be as thoughtful an election as 1998? Doubtful.