A new coalition, a different politics

Did Gordon Campbell win because of his carbon tax?

A new coalition, a different politicsIt would be a stretch to claim that Gordon Campbell received much of a “mandate” in last week’s British Columbia election. With 46 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw turnout fall, for the first time, to less than 50 per cent, Campbell is the choice of barely one in five electors.

Still, it is triumph enough that he was not defeated. Not only were Campbell’s Liberals seeking a third term, an honour voters have historically proved unwilling to bestow, but as the incumbents in a recession-year election, they were fighting daunting odds. His win ought to make opposition parties in other parts of the country sit up straight: if they were under any illusion that they had only to show up, and the economy would carry them to power, they can think again.

If anything, the economy seemed to be a plus for Campbell: voters gave him credit as a competent economic manager who had slashed taxes and balanced the books. Even the lapse into deficit in the February budget did not provoke a backlash, his own balanced-budget legislation notwithstanding. No doubt this reflected a greater public tolerance for red ink, given the state of the economy. But as important was the way he handled it. If he did not make any drastic shifts in fiscal policy to avert a deficit, neither did he deliberately expand it, or try to pretend that deficits were now a virtue.

And, to signal that his principles remained intact—that the exception was not about to become the rule—Campbell made no attempt to rescind the legislation, or to evade its penalties: he and his cabinet took the prescribed 10 per cent cut in pay. Compare that to Dalton McGuinty’s consequence-free overturning of similar legislation in Ontario.

This is, I think, the real message of Campbell’s victory: conviction politics is back. Big ideas, taking risks, sticking to your guns—all those things that had seemed so passé, in this season of incrementalism, may not be so politically fatal as all that. You can run on major change, and win.

I’m talking, of course, about Campbell’s carbon tax: the first such tax of any heft in North America (Quebec’s is barely noticeable), and among the most comprehensive in the world. Wildly unpopular at first, and hardly beloved today, it may not have been the centrepiece of his campaign, but it certainly was the NDP’s. Yet it did not, in the end, seal his defeat. It may even have helped him win.

Let’s just pause on that first point. In recent Canadian elections, it seemed, bold was out. Whether it was John Tory’s promise to fund religious schools in Ontario, or Stéphane Dion’s “green shift,” or (alas) electoral reform, the public’s answer in every case was no. You can just imagine the advice the political pros were offering their clients: don’t do it. Don’t say anything. Just sit tight, and hope the other guys defeat themselves.

Against this background, Campbell’s victory is hugely significant. It isn’t just that he won: it’s how he won. On the surface, after all, Campbell’s signature policy was something very like what Dion proposed: a shift from taxing income to taxing carbon, with no net increase in taxes. But whereas Dion’s plan was weighted down with exceptions, subsidies, and unrelated redistribution programs, Campbell’s “green shift” was the real deal. Every dollar in carbon-tax revenues was returned in cuts to personal and corporate income taxes.

But it’s the latter possibility that is the most intriguing: that Campbell may have won, not in spite of the carbon tax, but because of it. If this election comes in time to be seen as the watershed event in Canadian politics I think it is, it will be for this: that a right-leaning politician could claim ownership of the environmental issue; that he could stake out a leadership position, rather than simply following along the route established by convention; and, critically, that he could do so in ways that did not compromise or contradict his free-market principles, but enhanced them.

Others have noted the discomfort Campbell’s embrace of the carbon tax caused the NDP, under attack throughout the campaign by its traditional environmentalist allies. Less commented upon was the degree to which he was able to draw those kinds of voters to his own party. Simply put, Campbell has reinvented the conservative coalition. The old coalition, between economic liberals (in the free-market sense) and social conservatives, was always an uneasy one: their interests and values were too often at odds. But a coalition of free marketers and environmentalists is a more natural fit—if only conservatives would realize it.

A whole generation of environmentalists have grown up who “get” the market: who understand its uses as an instrument for promoting social goals through individual choices. That, after all, is what the market does every day. Conventionally, this is understood in terms of efficiency: price signals lead each of us to economize in his use of scarce resources in such a way as to maximize the output of society. But it’s just as applicable to environmental concerns like global warming. Indeed, the two problems—economic and ecologic—are essentially the same. It’s all about minimizing waste.

A carbon tax simply expands the range of information those price signals convey, incorporating into prices costs that had previously been sloughed off on the rest of society. There’s no contradiction with “free-market ideology” in such a policy. It’s the fulfillment of it. Indeed, having established the market’s bona fides when it comes to the environment, Campbell may get a better hearing for market solutions to other problems.

Campbell may well have pointed the way forward for conservative politics. He has broadened his base, not by going back on his conservative principles, but by deepening his commitment to them.




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A new coalition, a different politics

  1. Campbell's win was certainly due in part to the carbon tax. But I'd not say that he won, so much that the NDP lost what should have been a fairly easy win for them.

    Among the people the NDP purportedly representative are those on the lowest income. But many of us were shaking our heads at Carole James' claims that the carbon tax hurt that target group the most.

    It didn't. It doesn't; even more so for those of us without cars and without our own homes.

  2. " … conviction politics is back."

    Hope springs eternal, eh Andrew ?

  3. With 46 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw turnout fall, for the first time, to less than 50 per cent, Campbell is the choice of barely one in five electors.

    I will get through the entire essay at some point, but this canard cannot go unchallenged.

    "THE MAJORITY of registered British Columbia voters felt comfortable enough with the prospect of a Campbell victory that they decided to withold their dissent. And ALMOST A QUARTER of registered voters (sounds better than barely-one-in-five, so play along) actually voted for them. THIS BRINGS THE APPROVAL RATING TO SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT!" Absurd, eh? Well, think again about your attack on the legitimacy of these election results.

  4. Agreed. This knee-jerk assumption that passive citizens who sit on their couches instead of voting can be presumed thereby to choose someone other than the incumbent is baseless. 100% of British Columbians were offered a free and democratic chance to change their government. Less than a quarter did.

  5. I would say Gordo won in spite of the carbon tax – the tell will bewhen it starts to increase rapidly which according to the design it will be – I will be waiting for my cheque and that you can take to the bank (a canadian one goes without saying)

  6. I've always been mystified why Conservatives are opposed to the Carbon tax but supportive of direct regulation (oh let's say, intensity targets for the sake of argument). It will help incite markets to solve the problem.

    If you don't think Carbon emissions should be regulated at all, fine, that's a pure argument.

    But if you think carbon should be regulated but you don't think Carbon Tax and Cap and Trade (these are effectively the same thing by the way although I get why Cap and Trade is politically better) is the way to go, how can you call yourself a conservative?

    I think the carbon tax could've flown but Dion was the wrong guy to sell it. The benefits are numerous. With a little intelligent thinking, there could've been upside for the Oil Sands (say with an energy security deal with the US).

    Ah well – thank you BC.

  7. I think the carbon tax could've flown but Dion was the wrong guy to sell it.

    Bingo. The socialist wet-dream "income redistribution and extra spending for things lefties like" pile-on was dumb, dumb, dumb.

  8. Campbell’s win was certainly due in part to the carbon tax. But I’d not say that he won, so much that the NDP lost what should have been a fairly easy win for them.

    Among the people the NDP purportedly representative are those on the lowest income. But many of us were shaking our heads at Carole James’ claims that the carbon tax hurt that target group the most.

    It didn’t. It doesn’t; even more so for those of us without cars and without our own homes.

  9. ” … conviction politics is back.”

    Hope springs eternal, eh Andrew ?

  10. Conservatives, please read this article.

    Conviction politics from you would be nice given you have abandoned all your party's principles.

    A real green shift would be a great conservative idea. Imagine, you can reduce your tax load by lowering energy consumption. Giving people legal ways to seriously reduce their taxes is a great conservative idea. Please don't default the environmental voters to Liberals and NDP.

  11. With 46 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw turnout fall, for the first time, to less than 50 per cent, Campbell is the choice of barely one in five electors.

    I will get through the entire essay at some point, but this canard cannot go unchallenged.

    “THE MAJORITY of registered British Columbia voters felt comfortable enough with the prospect of a Campbell victory that they decided to withold their dissent. And ALMOST A QUARTER of registered voters (sounds better than barely-one-in-five, so play along) actually voted for them. THIS BRINGS THE APPROVAL RATING TO SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT!” Absurd, eh? Well, think again about your attack on the legitimacy of these election results.

    • Agreed. This knee-jerk assumption that passive citizens who sit on their couches instead of voting can be presumed thereby to choose someone other than the incumbent is baseless. 100% of British Columbians were offered a free and democratic chance to change their government. Less than a quarter did.

    • Who are you quoting?

      • No one. I am proposing an absurd alternate interpretation of the BC results using Andrew Coyne’s own logic.

        • Yeah, that’s the key. The party in power just has to get voter turnout below 50% – then they can stay on, in perpetuity.

          • Nope. Major logic fail. Thirty percent turnout and 85% vote against the incumbent leads to what, please, Chief Returning Officer Dot?

            The opposition might like to try, oh let’s think radically here, offering a compelling alternative that people would willingly arse their way over to the school gym to SUPPORT. If we want to get REALLY radical, maybe all parties would try it.

            But to tut-tut over the turnout to de-legitimize the victor is just plain dumb. And hence, unbecoming a leading commentator like Andrew Coyne. The events get determined by those who show up.

          • In Somalia, 0% voter turnout means status quo. I thought you were just there.

          • Helpful hint for Dot: it’s more fun having a conversation with you when you have something useful to say.

    • I cannot agree with the logic of the previous comment.

      If registered voters don’t show up to vote, it DOES NOT necessarily reflect their content for the current gov’t/candidate nor their foresee that they will win the election regardless.

      Besides policies, citizen’s turnout decisions are influenced by measured factors not tied to the candidates’ positions in the current campaign. These non-policy include the voter’s political efficacy; sociodemographic characteristics such as education, income, and race; candidate images; and party identification.

      So, adding the non-voters to the “approval rating” numbers is not correct.

      • Did you see the “Absurd, eh?” after that absurd argument?

        Adding the non-voters to the “approval rating” numbers is as absurd as adding them all to the “non-approval rating” numbers.

  12. I would say Gordo won in spite of the carbon tax – the tell will bewhen it starts to increase rapidly which according to the design it will be – I will be waiting for my cheque and that you can take to the bank (a canadian one goes without saying)

  13. I’ve always been mystified why Conservatives are opposed to the Carbon tax but supportive of direct regulation (oh let’s say, intensity targets for the sake of argument). It will help incite markets to solve the problem.

    If you don’t think Carbon emissions should be regulated at all, fine, that’s a pure argument.

    But if you think carbon should be regulated but you don’t think Carbon Tax and Cap and Trade (these are effectively the same thing by the way although I get why Cap and Trade is politically better) is the way to go, how can you call yourself a conservative?

    I think the carbon tax could’ve flown but Dion was the wrong guy to sell it. The benefits are numerous. With a little intelligent thinking, there could’ve been upside for the Oil Sands (say with an energy security deal with the US).

    Ah well – thank you BC.

    • I think the carbon tax could’ve flown but Dion was the wrong guy to sell it.

      Bingo. The socialist wet-dream “income redistribution and extra spending for things lefties like” pile-on was dumb, dumb, dumb.

      • Conservatives, please read this article.

        Conviction politics from you would be nice given you have abandoned all your party’s principles.

        A real green shift would be a great conservative idea. Imagine, you can reduce your tax load by lowering energy consumption. Giving people legal ways to seriously reduce their taxes is a great conservative idea. Please don’t default the environmental voters to Liberals and NDP.

    • I’ve always been mystified why the Left are opposed to intensity targets, but supportive of imposing tougher vehicle mileage standards. Hello?

      For the record, I vote Conservative, but I would rather see a carbon tax than cap & trade.

  14. My vote was against the NDP, not FOR the Liberals in this election. Campbell won in spite of the carbon tax, because there was no viable option. If there was a Conservative candidate in my riding, my X would have been placed beside his/her name.

    Campbell should in no way consider this election win an endorsement of his carbon tax. It was the electorate rising up against the NDP and saying, Hell No. Campbell is bad enough, Carole James would have been much much worse.

    He'll be run out of town when gas prices rise again and his carbon tax is in excess of 7 cents a litre.

  15. My vote was against the NDP, not FOR the Liberals in this election. Campbell won in spite of the carbon tax, because there was no viable option. If there was a Conservative candidate in my riding, my X would have been placed beside his/her name.

    Campbell should in no way consider this election win an endorsement of his carbon tax. It was the electorate rising up against the NDP and saying, Hell No. Campbell is bad enough, Carole James would have been much much worse.

    He’ll be run out of town when gas prices rise again and his carbon tax is in excess of 7 cents a litre.

    • have to agree – as I did the same thing. I wish we had 3 parties here in BC as after all the Liberals are anything but and the NDP, though Carol has done better than I thought she would, still lack a coherent forward direction they seem to be much like the present day LPC in Ottawa relying on their past and only a new leader to carry them into the future rather than stake out firm territory forward I think their high point was Axe – The – Tax awhile back.!

  16. Who are you quoting?

  17. We know already that his improved access to health care was a big lie.

  18. No one. I am proposing an absurd alternate interpretation of the BC results using Andrew Coyne's own logic.

  19. Yeah, that's the key. The party in power just has to get voter turnout below 50% – then they can stay on, in perpetuity.

  20. For an energy-rich nation, we are pretty poorly served by both media professionals and politicians on this topic. Back in January, The CEO of Exxon Mobil — Rex Tillerson — announced he supports a Carbon Tax, not a Cap and Trade system (the preferred path of Harper, Layton and Obama).

    The Canadian media and our elected officials couldn't have been quieter about it.

    Tillerson said, “A carbon tax strikes us as a more direct, transparent and effective approach … It is easier to apply globally, avoids the establishment of new markets for trading emissions and new regulators to monitor them, can be implemented through the existing tax infrastructure and made revenue neutral to mitigate the impact on the economy.” In contrast, a cap and trade system would present a patchwork of national (and provincial/state) regulators and markets, would advantage polluters with deep enough pockets to continue polluting, would not necessarily result in a reduction of emissions, and could disadvantage businesses that invest in cleaner technologies. A cap and trade system would, in Tillerson's words create "a Wall Street of emission brokers”.

    How is this not part of our debate? The CEO of the biggest energy company in the world expresses a preference for carbon tax (five months ago) and we continue to yammer on about Dion and socialism?

    Pardon my acronym, but WTF?

  21. We know already that his improved access to health care was a big lie.

  22. Nope. Major logic fail. Thirty percent turnout and 85% vote against the incumbent leads to what, please, Chief Returning Officer Dot?

    The opposition might like to try, oh let's think radically here, offering a compelling alternative that people would willingly arse their way over to the school gym to SUPPORT. If we want to get REALLY radical, maybe all parties would try it.

    But to tut-tut over the turnout to de-legitimize the victor is just plain dumb. And hence, unbecoming a leading commentator like Andrew Coyne. The events get determined by those who show up.

  23. In Somalia, 0% voter turnout means status quo. I thought you were just there.

  24. Helpful hint for Dot: it's more fun having a conversation with you when you have something useful to say.

  25. I've always been mystified why the Left are opposed to intensity targets, but supportive of imposing tougher vehicle mileage standards. Hello?

    For the record, I vote Conservative, but I would rather see a carbon tax than cap & trade.

  26. I cannot agree with the logic of the previous comment.

    If registered voters don't show up to vote, it DOES NOT necessarily reflect their content for the current gov't/candidate nor their foresee that they will win the election regardless.

    Besides policies, citizen's turnout decisions are influenced by measured factors not tied to the candidates' positions in the current campaign. These non-policy include the voter's political efficacy; sociodemographic characteristics such as education, income, and race; candidate images; and party identification.

    So, adding the non-voters to the "approval rating" numbers is not correct.

  27. For an energy-rich nation, we are pretty poorly served by both media professionals and politicians on this topic. Back in January, The CEO of Exxon Mobil — Rex Tillerson — announced he supports a Carbon Tax, not a Cap and Trade system (the preferred path of Harper, Layton and Obama).

    The Canadian media and our elected officials couldn’t have been quieter about it.

    Tillerson said, “A carbon tax strikes us as a more direct, transparent and effective approach … It is easier to apply globally, avoids the establishment of new markets for trading emissions and new regulators to monitor them, can be implemented through the existing tax infrastructure and made revenue neutral to mitigate the impact on the economy.” In contrast, a cap and trade system would present a patchwork of national (and provincial/state) regulators and markets, would advantage polluters with deep enough pockets to continue polluting, would not necessarily result in a reduction of emissions, and could disadvantage businesses that invest in cleaner technologies. A cap and trade system would, in Tillerson’s words create “a Wall Street of emission brokers”.

    How is this not part of our debate? The CEO of the biggest energy company in the world expresses a preference for carbon tax (five months ago) and we continue to yammer on about Dion and socialism?

    Pardon my acronym, but WTF?

    • I wish there was a way to just click comments like this and note “krrh liked this”

  28. This is in response to an earlier comment, that the energy industry would prefer a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade approach.

    What Exxon does not like is, in fact, the "cap" in cap-and-trade.

    This is because they do not want to have a "cap", a limit, set by anyone, on their GHG emissions.

    Instead, of course they would prefer a tax on emissions (carbon), because:

    1) they would be able to pass it on perhaps entirely to their consumers, and

    2) they would still be able to emit as much as their want, no limits!

  29. have to agree – as I did the same thing. I wish we had 3 parties here in BC as after all the Liberals are anything but and the NDP, though Carol has done better than I thought she would, still lack a coherent forward direction they seem to be much like the present day LPC in Ottawa relying on their past and only a new leader to carry them into the future rather than stake out firm territory forward I think their high point was Axe – The – Tax awhile back.!

  30. This is in response to an earlier comment, that the energy industry would prefer a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade approach.

    What Exxon does not like is, in fact, the “cap” in cap-and-trade.

    This is because they do not want to have a “cap”, a limit, set by anyone, on their GHG emissions.

    Instead, of course they would prefer a tax on emissions (carbon), because:
    1) they would be able to pass it on perhaps entirely to their consumers, and
    2) they would still be able to emit as much as their want, no limits!

    • Actually, there are limits.. limits at which people like you and me go “No way! I’m not paying that much, I’ll walk instead.” And if the money they pay on the way to those limits goes toward plans and infrastructure that will work to fix the damage done, so much the better.

      Aside from that, cap & trade does nothing to convince individuals like you and me that we need to change our habits, it just shifts which company is providing them based on which company can muster up emissions market dominance. Tax has the potential not just to change which companies prosper, but the habits of the underlying consumers, and that’s worth a hell of a lot more to the environmental cause in the long run.

  31. I wish there was a way to just click comments like this and note "krrh liked this"

  32. The carbon tax was irrelevant, as WE HAD NO CHOICE! The NDP loudly promoted ridding BC of the carbon tax, but were going to replace the Liberal plan with their own cap and trade system and add a lot of social spending that no one can afford. Campbell's government was simply the lesser of 2 evils, as they are somewhat fiscally responsible. In no way, was this vote ANY kind of endorsement for a carbon tax for most voters!

  33. Actually, there are limits.. limits at which people like you and me go "No way! I'm not paying that much, I'll walk instead." And if the money they pay on the way to those limits goes toward plans and infrastructure that will work to fix the damage done, so much the better.

    Aside from that, cap & trade does nothing to convince individuals like you and me that we need to change our habits, it just shifts which company is providing them based on which company can muster up emissions market dominance. Tax has the potential not just to change which companies prosper, but the habits of the underlying consumers, and that's worth a hell of a lot more to the environmental cause in the long run.

  34. Did you see the "Absurd, eh?" after that absurd argument?

    Adding the non-voters to the "approval rating" numbers is as absurd as adding them all to the "non-approval rating" numbers.

  35. The carbon tax was irrelevant, as WE HAD NO CHOICE! The NDP loudly promoted ridding BC of the carbon tax, but were going to replace the Liberal plan with their own cap and trade system and add a lot of social spending that no one can afford. Campbell’s government was simply the lesser of 2 evils, as they are somewhat fiscally responsible. In no way, was this vote ANY kind of endorsement for a carbon tax for most voters!

  36. The difference between Dion and Campbell? Campbell was in power, and could demonstrate that the sky wouldn't fall (any falling sky got blamed on the global crisis anyway). Dion couldn't do the same, so a campaign based on fear and uncertainty was successful.

  37. The difference between Dion and Campbell? Campbell was in power, and could demonstrate that the sky wouldn’t fall (any falling sky got blamed on the global crisis anyway). Dion couldn’t do the same, so a campaign based on fear and uncertainty was successful.

  38. Campbell's succes as to reunite economic libs and environment conservative is not a first in the canadian history. The last time this Coyne-praised approach did work in Canadian politics, the guy has a name: Mulroney !

  39. Campbell’s succes as to reunite economic libs and environment conservative is not a first in the canadian history. The last time this Coyne-praised approach did work in Canadian politics, the guy has a name: Mulroney !

  40. When our family voted in the last election in BC we pinched our nose
    ,held our breath & hoped for a minority govt just to keep Campbell in check.
    We do not like the carbon tax any more than we like Campbell.
    There just is not the quality of candidates to chose from & that is despite what Campbell says to justify the huge pay & gold plated pension plans he granted the elected members of the Prov Govt.Candidates do not represent their constituents but must follow party lines no matter what.We are in for a rough ride for a few more years.

  41. When our family voted in the last election in BC we pinched our nose
    ,held our breath & hoped for a minority govt just to keep Campbell in check.
    We do not like the carbon tax any more than we like Campbell.
    There just is not the quality of candidates to chose from & that is despite what Campbell says to justify the huge pay & gold plated pension plans he granted the elected members of the Prov Govt.Candidates do not represent their constituents but must follow party lines no matter what.We are in for a rough ride for a few more years.

  42. Coalition with environmentalists? Yah, right. So long as Campbell continues to hold the interests of land developers at heart, builds unnecessary highways and backs the idea of fish farming and off shore oil, he is no darling for environmentalists.

    Campbell's carbon tax did not get him reelected – the conservatives who allegedly support the carbon tax fundamentally disagree that a carbon tax is necessary: remember that after years of being worked over by the oil and coal lobbies, the global warming "skeptics," conservatives still do not believe that there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. For them, the carbon tax is merely pandering to the votes and sensibilities of the greenies, who have far too much sway in our society, going on about cute polar bears. The economy, and the perception that Campbell and his buddies were the best ones to manage it, had far more sway with conservatives province wide.

    Opposition to the carbon tax certainly did defeat the NDP. They were not able to articulate why it was a bad idea, and what they thought would be an appropriate response to the very real dangers of global climate change. Thus they alienated a large number of their key supporters, those same greenies. Without a very credible green party candidate, and with no real environmental platform from the NDP that they could embrace, many greens simply stayed home, part of the reason the turnout was so low.

    Make no mistake: Campbell has not staked out any green position that greens really endorse. The carbon tax has been proposed by many environmentalists for the last 20 years – Herman Daly, former economist for the World Bank has been writing about a carbon tax for at least that long, and he is only one voice. But don't suppose that a Campbell carbon tax is the whole solution. Essential to the concept is definitely reducing income tax through a carbon tax. But personal income tax, not corporate. Otherwise we do have a scenario where oil companies pass the carbon tax on to their customers, but can continue to sell oil forever. The second ingredient that is missing from Campbell's approach, but was present in Dion's, was spending on environmentally advanced technologies and infrastructure such as kitchen waste compost to energy plants, advanced biologically based sewage treatment plants, fast trains, improved urban rail, wind and solar power and etc.

    And don't forget: to make a real difference, and to actually change our economy in a way that will make a difference in reducing the impacts of global warming, the tax has to be steep enough to send a real market signal that will encourage people to begin making changes right now, not years from now when other measures will kick in. But the good news is that the investments made in the green economy would allow economic change without economic hardship that is severe enough to cripple the economy.

    Without these large investments across the board by business and government, and without taking real steps to significantly and rapidly cut CO2 and other polluting emissions, we are going to face a collapse in our economy, a breakdown of our social fabric as we attempt to deal with unpredictable harvests, weather, economic swings and military action around the world. We will be facing the very real impacts of rapid and severe global climate change with the kinds of threats that social and economic conservatives fear. Change now, in a way that we can at least contribute to making positive, or change later, in a way that will be most uncomfortable.

    Campbell really doesn't get this. Nor does any other Canadian politician with any real voice. We all wish that it weren't true, and we are gulping the last of the champagne while the ground shifts beneath our feet.

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