Hébert: Trudeau needs Tory voice for climate action

Consider this: The first federal-led attempt to put in place a pan-Canadian climate framework got off the ground a bit more than 12 months ago, almost two decades after Jean Chrétien signed off on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

To put that in perspective, it took Pierre Trudeau more than a decade to secure enough provincial support to bring the Constitution back to Canada and to complement it with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Brian Mulroney presided over the creation of the North American free-trade zone over a period of eight years. These things take time.

By comparison to free trade or the Constitution, reducing Canada’s carbon footprint should not be that divisive. And yet since 1997, there had, at least until now, never been a federal-provincial alignment that could have allowed for a wide-enough consensus on a common way forward.

On that basis Trudeau could not have wished for a provincial lineup more receptive to a proactive agenda than the current one – especially with the NDP in power in Alberta.

But his plan rests on a fragile political infrastructure that could be blown away by contrary electoral winds.

For now, it is still only Saskatchewan – a province that accounts for three per cent of Canada’s population – that stands completely offside with the federal plan. Premier Brad Wall is ready to go to court to challenge the imposition of a national floor price on carbon.

But it may be Wall, and not Trudeau, who is swimming with the tide.

The modest crack in Friday’s tentative federal-provincial consensus could widen between now and the next federal election, leaving Trudeau with a less than solid foundation for the signature policy of his first mandate.

Over the prime minister’s first year in power, time has already taken a toll on the collective provincial enthusiasm for more proactive action on climate change.

The imminent arrival in the White House of a president whose discourse is straight out of the playbook of climate-change deniers has not helped.

In Manitoba, a less amenable Conservative government has replaced the NDP. Premier Brian Pallister has more in common with Wall than with Trudeau.

With an eye to its shaky standing in voting intentions, Alberta’s New Democrat government has insisted that its signature on a federal climate framework be contingent on Trudeau advancing the province’s pipeline agenda.

Ottawa’s recent approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was timed to create the conditions for Premier Rachel Notley to support the Liberal climate framework.

But with an eye to a spring election, B.C. Premier Christy Clark is taking her distance from her federal counterpart. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Trudeau is less attractive now that he has endorsed a pipeline that a sizable number of her constituents oppose.

Clark is tepid to that decision and was reluctant to commit to increase her province’s carbon tax to meet a set federal target over the course of her next mandate. On Friday, she questioned whether provinces such as Ontario and Quebec that have elected to take part in a cap-and-trade carbon market rather than impose a carbon tax would end up carrying a lighter burden than Western Canada.

When he came to power, Trudeau almost certainly saw the absence of a Conservative heavyweight from one of the major provinces as a blessing.

This is the first time, in recent memory, that there is not at the table, a Conservative premier from Ontario and/or Alberta. That may yet turn out to be a curse.

In the past, prime ministers have been most successful at crafting national consensus on contentious issues when support was spread across not only the country’s regions, but, also, its political spectrum.

Trudeau’s father would not have succeeded in patriating the Constitution without the help of one and eventually two of Canada’s most influential Conservatives in the shape of Ontario’s William Davis and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed.

These days, the few prominent Tory politicians who see merit in a revenue-neutral carbon tax, are either in opposition, as in the case of Patrick Brown at Queen’s Park’s, or relatively isolated within their own clan, as in the case of federal leadership aspirant Michael Chong.

From a political perspective, the absence of a strong Conservative voice in support of the climate pact Trudeau is seeking to implement may be its most ominous flaw.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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