Doug Ford will axe the tax — except his own stealth carbon tax

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TheStar.com – Politics/Opinion
March 27, 2019.   By

Climate change is no joke, but Ontario will mark April Fools’ Day with a few strange stunts.

That’s the day the Progressive Conservatives are shuttering the office of Ontario’s environmental commissioner, ending a quarter-century of independent oversight. Because if you don’t like people speaking truth to power, you power them down.

It’s also the day a federal carbon tax takes effect in Ontario, which is prompting Premier Doug Ford to plunge ahead with a costly court battle against Ottawa. Because if you don’t like the decision, you sue the duly elected decision-maker.

Ford never backs down from a fight, even if it means paying more than $30 million in legal bills out of the pockets of Ontario taxpayers to fight the federal government that also represents them. By withdrawing the province from its partnership in a proven cap and trade system — pioneered by Republicans in California and propounded by a right-leaning premier in Quebec — Ford forced Ottawa to act to pick up the slack.

Now, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, after giving Ford ample time to comply, have invoked their federal backstop against provincial backsliders, free-riders, outliers, deniers and non-compliers. Over the past year, our premier has raged against carbon pricing, falsely claiming it would trigger a so-called “carbon tax recession.”

Now, after savaging the economists who dismissed his false predictions, Ford has silenced Dianne Saxe, the environmental commissioner who spoke “without fear or favour” no matter which party was in power. But she has not gone quietly.

At her farewell news conference Wednesday, she warned of storm clouds amid global warming and a provincial chill.

Ford’s Tories tried to shoehorn the environmental watchdog role into the office of auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, but Saxe wouldn’t bite. Like many policy experts, Saxe has read Lysyk’s bizarre public critiques of energy conservation, in which she claimed it doesn’t deliver value for money.

“I do not think she will be an advocate for the environment the way I was,” Saxe told reporters Wednesday.

In an interview, the outgoing environmental commissioner said she met Lysyk to discuss the transition plan dictated by the premier, and came away disheartened by the auditor general’s narrow approach.

“I came back very shaken from that meeting,” Saxe told me. “It was really clear that we don’t understand the science the same way, and our views on climate policy are not compatible.”

(Asked for comment by the Star’s Robert Benzie, Lysyk said she had no idea what Saxe was referring to.)

One of Ontario’s foremost environmental lawyers, Saxe has long argued that cap and trade harnessed free market forces to set a flexible price for carbon so that pollution would no longer be free. By dismantling it, Ford paved the way for the more rigid and costly federal carbon tax, while depriving Ontario of billions of dollars in revenues raised at auction to subsidize conservation (retrofitting buildings and bankrolling mass transit to reduce vehicle pollution — the two biggest sources of emissions).

Despite the irony of a right-wing government rejecting a right-wing remedy for global warming, the contradictions from Ford’s government are even more glaring. For all of Ford’s public attacks on carbon pricing, his government has quietly proposed to impose a carbon tax of its own on industrial polluters (who will of course pass on the cost to consumers, not leave it in their pockets, as the premier likes to say).

The only difference is that Ottawa will rebate most of the revenues to consumers at tax time (an average of $300 a year per household), while Ontario’s Tories will funnel the money into a fund for industrial polluters. Ford loves to attack the federal tax as a “cash grab,” yet never acknowledges that it is at least revenue neutral (or even cash-positive for people who reduce fossil fuel consumption, leaving more money in their pockets).

Which is why Ford isn’t truly axing the tax, merely sacking Saxe. But his zigzags come at at a cost.

Ford’s irrationality and inconsistency have made life utterly unpredictable for the private sector, which seeks only certainty from the province: Ontario businesses have been forced to sign up for cap and trade, then wind it down, then comply with a federal carbon tax, and now prepare for Ford’s alternative industrial tax — while Ford rips up signed energy contracts and proclaims fidelity to free enterprise principles in the same breath.

Our premier is waging a loud battle against the federal carbon tax in court, while simultaneously proposing his own stealth carbon tax at home. Ford can get away with having it both ways because he is convinced no one is watching closely — least of all the environmental watchdog who will be muzzled as of Monday.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics.

https://www.thestar.com/politics/political-opinion/2019/03/27/doug-ford-will-axe-the-tax-except-his-own-stealth-carbon-tax.html

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