Under the lush green grass of a promising election harvest on climate change is a carbon tax minefield that could cost Stéphane Dion the next federal campaign if it is not navigated carefully.
First the good news: There is a wide audience that crosses party, age, gender and regional lines for the concept of punishing poor environmental behaviour while rewarding sound practices. Even in Alberta, where there is bad history associated with energy-related taxes, there is solid majority support for the full range of carbon tax options.
But the fine print of the poll also hints at potential trouble to come.
Hebert points to British Columbia, where support for the carbon tax scenarios is below the national average, a fact which is noteworthy, given the province's practical application.
There is opportunity on the environmental front, but it is true, Dion must walk a fine line for it too pay dividends, failure to accurately read the electorate, could cause more harm than good. However, I view it as a positive, that everyone is debating the Liberal "plan" before it is even articulated, because it provides more feedback, allowing for "tweaking", without the burden of total commitment. Dion has been vague enough to date, that nothing is written in stone, there is time to ensure the policy is sound. Once you jump, there is no going back.
A further tax on gasoline, or home heating, does bring the risk of political suicide. With the increase in gasoline, coupled with the just announced 20% increase in natural gas, the appetite for more "add-on" just isn't there. However, I think there is a way around this, a way to ensure we reduce emissions, without a universal tax.
Hebert mentions that 61% show some approval for a carbon tax, but she doesn't mention that on the question of a surcharge on over-consumption, the number jumps into the seventies. Canadians approve of the concept, wherein those that contribute more than the "average" are penalized, while those that demonstrate greater efficiency are rewarded. This ideal should be at the heart of the Liberal framework, the classic carrot and stick, punishing gluttony, celebrating responsibility.
I've heard mention of a system where everyone is alloted a certain threshold, based on a reading of what is required for normal household operation, what is considered reasonable fuel mileage, water usage. A system that offers an electrical rate for pre-determined "average" need, but then rises incrementally for excess use, is something that could easily fly. There could also be a "bonus" rate, for those that are able to trim their usage a certain percent. Such a system maintains an element of free choice, it doesn't disallow any behavior, but it puts a price on excess, it rewards constraint. Such a system is also less likely to hit lower income people hard, as well as the middle class, a criticism we have heard on the carbon tax front. If your usage is below average, or at average, you could benefit or maintain, there is little punishment, merely incentive. If you want to live in a 4000 square foot home, with an air conditioner the size of a garden shed, then you can do so, but the rest of society frowns on your disporportionate contribution to the problem, and that comes at a cost, which is re-introduced to offset your lavish lifestyle. Same should apply to the Hummer driver, or the person who waters their lawn for two hours everyday. This type of approach gives the individual the power of choice, and the consequence is entirely their doing, any additional "tax" is voluntary.
I believe the above is the best path to navigate Hebert's "minefield". Toss in a grace period to allow for changed habits, rebates to encourage the proper route, and the "minefield" might look like a a sea of electoral roses for the Liberals.