Canada can learn from Australia’s carbon pricing mistakes

by - 4 min read

Canada can learn from Australia’s carbon pricing mistakes

by - 4 min read


In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fulfilled his pledge to implement a national carbon price just months before he hits the campaign trail. However, the “sunny ways” he declared in 2015 have given way to disenchantment as his poll numbers have dropped and conservative parties seized on carbon taxes as their path to power.

Premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney successfully used carbon pricing to energize their bases and win a mandate to face off against the feds. Now Conservative leader Andrew Scheer hopes to replicate their success this fall, vowing to repeal the carbon tax if he becomes prime minister.

After framing carbon pricing as social licence for pipelines, federal Liberals appear caught off guard by the extent of the right-wing backlash, but they shouldn’t have been: Australia’s experience with carbon pricing would have shown them exactly what they’d be up against.

Over the past ten years, Australia cycled through five prime ministers, with a sixth likely to take office after the May 18 election. Throughout it all, climate policy debate has fostered significant political turmoil.

Australia’s lower house is elected every three years through preferential ballot (the system favoured by Trudeau) and its Senate is elected proportionally through single transferable vote. Its economy, like Canada’s, is service-dominated with a large resource industry. Mining companies have a lot of clout, similar to oil companies in Canada, as a mining boom fuelled by Asian demand has kept Australia out of recession since July 1991.

Julia Gillard introduced carbon pricing in 2011 as part of a larger plan to reduce emissions. (Andrew Taylor, Reuters)

After the 2010 election, the centre-left Labor Party under Julia Gillard returned to power with the support of the Greens and three independents. Gillard introduced carbon pricing in 2011 as part of a larger plan to reduce emissions, taking effect on July 1, 2012 and starting at $23 AUD per tonne.

However, the right-wing opposition stoked fear over what the tax would do to the economy, as conservative parties have done in Canada. Opposition leader Tony Abbott, an open climate denier, declared the 2013 election would be a referendum on the carbon tax, and fearing defeat, Labor replaced Gillard with former leader Kevin Rudd and proposed swapping the tax for a cap-and-trade system.

But that wasn’t enough to stop Abbott and the right-wing coalition, made up of the Liberal and National parties, from winning the election and following through on his promise to “axe the tax” in 2014.

National Energy Guarantee

And it still wasn’t smooth sailing from there. The Liberals ditched Abbott in 2015 for the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull, who was then turfed in August 2018 after the party’s hard-right fringe refused to back his weak National Energy Guarantee, which scrapped renewable subsidies, maintained coal, and didn’t legislate an emissions-reduction target. They would prefer to abandon the Paris agreement altogether, and further support the coal industry. 

Scott Morrison, the former treasurer who famously brought a lump of coal to Parliament in 2017, is leading the Liberals in the election, but Australians — including traditional Coalition supporters — seem fed up with their lack of action because the effects of climate change have become undeniable. 

The summer of 2018-2019 smashed Australia’s climate records with mean temperatures 2.14ºC above average and sustained heat in the mid- to high-40s. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, bushfire season now starts in the winter, and winter itself could be a thing of the past in Australia by 2050. Extreme weather events, including flooding and drought, are becoming more common and that has a lot of people worried.

Labor looks set to return to power, promising a 45 per cent emissions cut by 2030 with 50 per cent renewable energy to be accomplished by investing in clean energy and updating transmission infrastructure, subsidizing electric vehicles, and setting emissions limits on industry. It won’t implement a carbon price, though that hasn’t stopped the Liberals from trying to frame their policy as one because of its negative connotations. Campaigning against a carbon price works, whether the policy is or is not, in fact, a carbon price.

Canada must learn from Australia if we want to avoid losing an election cycle or two before taking real action to reduce emissions. Canadian conservatives are using the carbon price just as the Australian right did — as an economic boogeyman — and its unpopularity with a vocal minority of the population is all they need to return to power and halt necessary climate action.

Canadians want climate action, but carbon pricing is a tough sell. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Carbon taxes may be the most efficient way to reduce emissions, but they’re not politically popular, and would have to be much higher to meet our targets. Canada’s Liberals and NDP would be wise to take heed of Australia’s experience and back proposals like the Green New Deal with major investments in energy, infrastructure, and services for a just transition with tangible benefits.

The plan emerged from the United States, but it’s quickly gone international: Spain’s centre-left Socialists were re-elected on Sunday after campaigning on a Spanish Green New Deal, and the UK Labour Party put forward its own Green New Deal to decarbonize its economy within a decade.

In Canada, a recent poll found 66 per cent of people in favour of Green New Deal, including a majority of Albertans and right-wing voters, if it includes higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. That may just be one poll, but Canadian politicians could make a case for such an ambitious policy by outlining the social and economic benefits, like politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have done south of the border, instead of telling people they need to pay a new tax.

Canadians want climate action, but carbon pricing is a much tougher sell than simply making the necessary investments to create good-paying clean jobs, build sustainable communities, and meet our climate targets. Hopefully it won’t take another Conservative majority for the Liberals and NDP to wake up to that reality — as Australian Labor learned the hard way.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

This story originally appeared on CBC

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