Carbon taxes and the British Columbia election: another experiment in the green policy laboratory

In last October’s federal election, Canadians, and especially British Columbians, were unequivocal about their dislike for a carbon tax. But let’s not forget the context. The election came three and a half months after BC introduced its carbon tax. Gasoline prices were exceptionally high at that time—$1.40 a litre when I filled up outside of Parksville on Canada Day (see article)—and stayed high for the rest of the summer. That experience was still fresh in voters’ minds on October 14. No wonder the federal Liberals lost big in BC: their Green Shift, a policy platform which called for a federal-level carbon tax, looked and sounded too much like the provincial one.

A month after the federal election, gasoline prices had plummeted to the 60–70 cent range, half what they were the preceding summer. They have stayed relatively low since then.

This may be why the provincial carbon tax has been just one issue among many in the current BC election campaign. The two main parties, the incumbent Liberals and the New Democrats, were neck and neck in the most recent poll (done in late April). The zinger lines in yesterday’s leaders debate were about crime and health care, not the carbon tax.

The incumbent Liberals started the campaign with a strong lead, and the NDP, which opposes the carbon tax, managed to close the gap by last week. If the Dippers end up winning, will it have been because of that? I think the answer will lie more in how the Greens do. They want a higher carbon tax.

And what lessons will other observers draw from the result? One thing is clear: most voters’ opinions about a carbon tax have much to do with the current prices of fossil fuels. Prices today are relatively low, and will likely still be low on May 12. 

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