Realignment? (continued)

It isn’t only the media and expert reactions to the two main parties’ environmental plans that bespeak a strange reordering of the political universe. It’s the parties’ own rhetoric. Briefly, the Liberals have become the Conservatives, and the Conservatives have become, well, the New Democrats, circa 1975.

Here’s the sort of language the Liberals use to describe the strategy contained in the Green Shift document. “We will cut taxes,” they say, “on those things we all want more of, such as income, investment and innovation.” They promise “major personal income tax reductions,” and “broad-based corporate income tax reduction,” since “there is no doubt that taxes have a significant impact on our economy and our society.” 

The best way to reduce greenhouse gases, they say, is “to put a price on carbon.” That way, “the true cost of … pollution [will] be built into the decision-making process of every polluter.” Once that’s done, “we can let the market determine the most cost-effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The plan, then, is to “harness the power of market forces,” as much when it comes to the environment as the economy.

Now compare the Tories’ rhetoric. Listen to Jason Kenney, minister of state for multiculturalism, sent out to present the Conservative rebuttal the day the Liberal plan was released. The carbon tax, he said, will simply “force people to allow companies to pay more to pollute.” 

By contrast, the Tory plan “will effectively prohibit dirty coal fire plants from operating in the future, and we will require them to use carbon sequestration technology…. Mr. Dion’s plan doesn’t prohibit people from using dirty coal. It just puts a charge on it.

“Our plan targets major emitters whereas Mr. Dion’s plan essentially shifts the cost indirectly onto consumers. We have an absolute commitment to regulations…” And again, for emphasis: “The centrepiece of our plan in terms of carbon emissions is regulations …”

Not only that, but “we’ve announced $9 billion of investment in green programs…”

This is simply extraordinary. Where the Liberals talk of using price signals and harnessing market forces, the Tories now boast of their commitment to top-down, command-and-control regulations. It’s all prohibit this and require that, as opposed to the Liberals, who would — gasp! — allow companies to pay more to pollute!

For fifty years or more, conservatives have preached that taxes affect people’s behaviour, that incentives matter, that “if you tax something, you get less of it.” But now, suddenly, they don’t matter — not when compared to the miracle of regulation. 

For fifty years or more, conservatives have also said that prices are the vital signalling device of a market economy, informing consumers, workers, investors and businesses as to the costs of different choices. But now, suddenly, they’re irrelevant. Subsidies — sorry, investments — are the new Tory orthodoxy.

We may be witnessing one of those historic exchanges in which the parties sometimes engage, where each takes on the ideological position that the other used to occupy. Just as the Liberals were once the party of free trade, and the Tories the party of protectionism, only to see those positions reversed in the 1980s, can it be that the Liberals are about to become the party of markets and tax cuts, while the Tories embrace regulations and subsidies?