Green shift: a loser worldwide

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Appeared in the National Post

Remember when Liberal leader Stephane Dion unveiled his carbon tax plan earlier this year? The green lobby was thrilled. It had finally found a mainstream politician ready to fight an election on a promise to implement a tax on heating fuels, diesel and other traditional sources of energy that households consume. Environmentalists were convinced voters would rally around the plan, particularly since the carbon tax and ensuing higher energy prices would be offset with tax cuts targeted to low-and modest-income earners. Canada was set to become a world leader in the climate change debate.

Dreams of a carbon tax are dashed now, although few environmentalists will publicly say so. More likely, they will soon assert the messenger failed, not the carbon tax idea. But of course, we know this is bunk. The Liberals campaigned unequivocally on a revenue-neutral carbon plan to save the planet. It was soundly rejected.

The policy itself, not Mr. Dion's egg-headed intellectualism, was the political albatross. Long before the campaign was underway, the Liberal party's own pollster was warning that the public was not buying the Green Shift. A leaked memo from Michael Marzolini on April 29 was unequivocal: It was our recommendation that if a carbon tax shift absolutely must be part of our platform -- and we do not recommend this at all -- that it only be part of a larger environmental strategy involving actual popular proposals. His forecast: Making a carbon tax shift the key plank in our appeal to the electorate is a vote loser, not a vote winner.

Midway into the campaign, Mr. Marzolini sent his Liberal colleagues a second message. It, too, emphasized the negative reaction voters had to the tax shift. Mr. Dion finally buried it and instead focused on world economic events. But it was too late, and the Liberals captured a paltry 26.2% of the popular vote. It was their worst showing since Confederation.

Mr. Dion's successor will have a simple choice. Conclude Canadians were wrong to reject the Green Shift, repackage the proposal and try selling it again. Or forget the idea and move on.

Anti-development environmentalists will no doubt press for a new carbon-tax scheme under another name, but Liberals will want the flogging to stop. The overriding priority will be to win government. As such, their next leader will pay lip service to the concept and go no further. Or at least no further than the governing Conservatives.

As the party's reversal on free trade in the early 1990s showed, Liberals learn from electoral missteps. Mr. Dion's demise has effectively removed the carbon tax from serious political debate. And because Canada's Green party failed, yet again, to win a single seat, the idea will have no champion inside Parliament.

It is unusual for a Canadian election to have much of an impact on the policies of other nations. But Mr. Dion's decision to propose a carbon tax in the clearest possible terms, and the subsequent reaction among voters to it, will be understood abroad.

At a breakfast sponsored last week by the Canadian High Commission in London to discuss the election results, one British journalist astutely observed that the rejection of the tax by voters of a G7 nation could have consequences for the climate change debate. Despite all the scare-mongering from the United Nations and hand-wringing about an alleged scientific consensus, Canadians nonetheless refused to swallow the tax. If courteous Canadians (that's how Europeans view us) are willing to say no thanks to elite opinion-makers, might not voters in other democracies?

With respect to paying more for energy, Canada found its voice in the global warming debate. It certainly wasn't the one environmentalists envisioned when the carbon tax was proposed.

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