Would Canadians support a carbon tax?

Maybe. But if it were that easy, Stephane Dion would be PM

Keith Neuman of Environics argues the public is willing to accept a tax on carbon emissions.

Let’s start with the B.C. carbon tax, which was introduced by then-Premier Gordon Campbell with surprisingly little advance preparation of the political or public ground. Public opinion surveys conducted just after the announcement showed a modest majority of British Columbians in support of the new policy. This support wavered later in the year when the tax came into effect at the same time gas prices spiked, but later recovered and subsequently withstood a frontal attack by the NDP in the 2009 provincial election. Today, the B.C. carbon tax is supported by a clear majority (64 per cent) of provincial residents, and unlikely to be an issue in the upcoming May election.

Does British Columbia represent an anomaly that could not be repeated in other parts of the country? In fact, research conducted by Environics Research and more recently the Environics Institute shows that a majority (59 per cent) of Canadians outside of B.C. would support the introduction of a B.C. style carbon tax in their own province, a proportion that has been slowly building over the past four years. Majority support for such a tax is expressed in all provinces except Alberta (at 43 per cent), and is most widespread in Quebec (67 per cent), followed by Manitoba (59 per cent), Saskatchewan (58 per cent), Ontario (58 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (54 per cent).

The research from Environics, which has been asking about a BC-style carbon tax since February 2008, shows that support has gradually increased and strong opposition has decreased. But its finding would seem to clash with what a survey conducted for Environment Canada found last June. In that poll, 43.5% of respondents disagreed with the idea of a federal carbon tax.

On that count, it is probably worth noting how the survey questions were phrased.

Here is what Environics asked.

As you may know, British Columbia now has a tax on all carbon-based fuels used by consumers and businesses in the province, as a way to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions generated in the province. This tax is now 7.2 cents per litre. This tax is “revenue neutral” which means the same amount raised through this tax each year is refunded – by law – to taxpayers in the form of lower personal income and corporate taxes. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose this carbon tax for B.C.?

And here is the statement that Environment Canada tested.

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The “gas and groceries” elucidation is popular with Conservatives who seek to denigrate the NDP’s cap-and-trade proposal.

This would seem to suggest that how the proposal is presented has some impact on how the proposal is received. See also this survey from 2008.

And there are at least two other complications here. First, neither the Liberal proposal of a carbon tax in 2008, nor the NDP’s proposal of cap-and-trade match the proposal presented by Environics: Stephane Dion would have used some of the revenue to assist low-income families, Thomas Mulcair would use most of the revenue for environmental initiatives.

Second, if the Conservatives can successfully turn an election into a race between those who would tax carbon and those who wouldn’t, the polling split combined with the current political split still basically favours the Conservatives: supporters of a carbon tax (59%) split between the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens, while opponents of a carbon tax (38%) would have only the Conservatives. Of course, the Conservatives can’t claim that their policies on greenhouse gas emissions won’t include costs and of course the current Conservative position on cap-and-trade is entirely at odds with their position from 2004 through 2009, but if it’s a referendum on the phrase “carbon tax,” the Conservatives seem to start with the math in their favour.

The Stephane Dion experience demonstrated that no matter how much a policy can be justified, it still needs sufficient popular support and political execution to be enacted. Polling numbers such as these should have some impact on the discussion. But they obviously don’t quite win the debate.

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