Cheap talk, the Green Shift, and Dion’s moment of truth: Kyoto electoral test part II, continued

For the longest time, Canadian federal party numbers were stuck in minority-government territory. But here we are today, barely over two months after Dion introduced the Green Shift, and pollsters have just announced majority numbers for the Harper Conservatives. What has happened in the last two months?

Well, gasoline prices, in the midst of an unprecedented spike at just the time the Liberals announced the Green Shift, have stayed high. Two weeks after the announcement, the British Columbia carbon tax kicked in (see article). While the elite applauded, working people—commuters, farmers, fishermen, truckers, and anybody living in a remote community who uses diesel (i.e., all of them)—suffered through a brutal summer. They complained, to anyone who would listen. Their counterparts in other provinces, facing a bleak winter of extra-high energy costs, view with skepticism any calls to further increase energy costs.

I have no doubt that elite opinion still favours the carbon tax. But politicians advocating such a tax know, or should know, that in an election the elite vote is not that significant.

This is not unique to Canada. Kyoto-friendly governments all over the western world are beginning to learn some interesting things about the public love for the environment. Numerous polls feature respondent claims that they are willing to pay to help the environment. (See my analysis of one of these polls.) So what. Talk is cheap. Is it possible that the Green Shift advocates, many of them professional politicians from an established party that held power in Canada through most of the Twentieth Century, have misread all this talk?

I would chalk this alleged love-for-environment up to media and elite agenda setting. But let’s not forget about cognitive dissonance, which says people don’t like to overtly hold contradictory views. Now the rubber has hit the road. People are starting to realize that, while they love the environment, they also hate high gas prices. Politicians have to figure out which of these passions is strongest.

The UK government has been considering a windfall tax on profitable energy companies. This could be a clever way to reconcile public lip service to the environment with public anger over rising energy prices. They call it a windfall tax, but it would really be a back-door carbon tax on big emitters (see article). Though UK energy companies strongly oppose such a tax (as do prominent cabinet members), the BBC reports that a lot of government backbenchers support it. However, it appears that this support is driven by something other than concern for the environment. Well over 5 million UK households now spend more than 10 percent of their income on energy, and it’s not even winter. Proceeds from any such tax would likely address fuel poverty (see article).

It is probably too late for the Canadian Liberals to re-package their Green Shift in this way. The Harper Conservatives have, so far, been able to frame the Green Shift as a straight-out tax grab. And never mind that the federal Liberal plan wouldn’t immediately start taxing gasoline. In BC, where the carbon tax began affecting gasoline on July 1, the phrase “gas tax” comes with “Liberal” attached. The polls also suggest a possible Conservative breakthrough in the Lower Mainland.

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