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The Environment and the Conservative Party Must Go Hand-In-Hand | Op-Ed

After watching both of the Conservative leadership debates last week, it was clear that there is a gaping hole among candidates – and no, it is not their quality of French – but rather a clear plan on environmental issues.

In Short: The candidates missed an opportunity to outline an actual plan that could do things like address rising emissions, preserve Canada’s beautiful land, and clean up our waterways.

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The candidates focused on bashing the carbon tax and talking about their tax credits. This is partially understandable as Conservatives have spent a better part of a decade attacking the carbon tax, often using criticism against it as an easy way to appeal to members. 

While the leadership race is now, for the winning candidate, a much more important race is looming in their future: the next federal election.

  • In opposition, a leader can do everything right, but if they fail to defeat the government, then the knives come out.
  • Ask Andrew Scheer or Tom Mulcair about that one.

Under the Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper governments, Canada made many great strides to better protect and preserve our planet.

The Mulroney government had an ambitious environmental agenda that saw the signing of the acid rain accord, brought in the Environmental Protection Act and created eight new national parks. In 2006, Mulroney was named Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister.

The Harper government agreed to the Copenhagen Accord and introduced the Turning The Corner Plan which was a sound climate plan that was put on hold because of the 2008 financial crisis. Just last week Ontario Premier Doug Ford stated “one of the highest priorities is to protect the environment and we will continue to do that,” and commit to preserving the Green Belt. 

So, what changed? How did the Conservative Party go from championing the environment to lagging behind? Could it be that the Liberals did what they do best and made this an overtly partisan issue or have the Conservatives simply lost their way? 

Since he was elected in 2015, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have been clear that the environment and the economy must go hand-in-hand.

During the 2019 election campaign, the Conservatives presented an environmental plan that would:

  • Fight climate change by lowering global emissions,
  • Introduce a wide range of tax credits for homeowners and businesses to improve their environmental impact, and
  • Most importantly repeal the carbon tax.

Despite the plan’s attention to detail and two years of work, it ultimately fell flat. Some environmental groups found that cancelling the carbon tax and replacing it with tax credits would leave the average household with $295 less by 2022.

Those born between 1980 and 2000 made up the largest segment of voters in the last election and all millennials were eligible to vote for the first time.

  • According to a poll by Abacus Data, what was top-of-mind for that demographic is affordability, taxes and the environment & climate change.
  • While the Conservatives were able to campaign well on two of the three items, they failed on the third.

The Leadership Debate Question: One question that stood out from Thursday’s debate was from a young boy named Max, who asked candidates why they would like to be the next Prime Minister of Canada. Not only did Max steal the show, but also represented a key demographic that the Conservatives will need to court in the next election to win and keep winning: future voters, like Max, and millennial voters, like myself. 

Timestamp: 45:08

In response to this question, Leslyn Lewis explained that she wanted to work to sustain the environment for future generations.

  • Her response was particularly interesting as she also a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, with a Concentration in Business and Environment from the Schulich School of Business and a Juris Doctorate from Osgoode Hall Law School and a Ph.D. in Law from Osgoode Hall Law School.
  • Considering her educational background, her policies on the environment were quite disappointing. 

The policies put forward by Lewis are very similar to most of the other candidates vying for the top job.

  • Her plan is to cancel the carbon tax, repeal C-48 and C-69 and use tax credits to spur innovation or encourage homeowners to invest in green technology.
  • A central theme for many in this leadership race is to use tax credits to save the environment. 

The problem with tax credits: Not everyone files yearly tax returns and a large number of Canadians are living paycheck to paycheck. So waiting until the tax season to receive some money for new window installation is not an option.

  • Conservatives need to step away from tax credits and look at ways to ensure Canadians have money in their pockets when they need it for things that matter like energy-efficient windows or new insulation. 

Conservatives understand that life needs to be more affordable for Canadians, so they can live a life that is not paycheck to paycheck. Focusing on the environment is a way this can be done.

  • A carbon pricing system would allow Canadians to pay less in tax while still maintaining a level of services that are required. 

In the lead up to the 2018 Ontario election, the Ontario PC Party released a platform that included carbon pricing and a variety of additional spending measures while still lowering taxes for the middle class by 22.5%. This was done through a carbon price that funded many of the new programs, including one that would have seen the largest investment in mental health.

  • Mind you, the Ontario PCs ended up scrapping the leader that introduced this carbon pricing model and the platform before the election, but it can still serve as a model to federal conservatives on how to protect the environment while making life more affordable for everyone. 

Conservative candidates know that they need a plan to address the environment in order to win the next election.

  • When asked during the debate on how they would expand the party’s base, all four candidates noted the importance of a strong environmental plan to attract voters, especially millennials and those in urban areas.
  • Yet, many of them praised the platform that was used during the 2019 campaign. 

Peter MacKay, one of the front runners, said in the French debate that the 2019 campaign had a good plan on the environment but lacked passion when being presented. In his remarks, he highlighted his 8 point plan that is strong on technology but misses the mark on carbon pricing. If he does win the leadership race, he will have to take a serious look at what millennials are calling for and his plan. 

Erin O’Toole, the other front runner, to his credit has been the most active on the environmental front with his plan to tackle emissions, get Canadians back to work and to win the next election. He is open to the idea of expanding Canada’s nuclear power capabilities, working with industries to achieve net-zero and allow the provinces to implement a carbon pricing system. Of all the candidates, O’Toole seems to get the environment the most and help the Conservative Party get back on track. 

The Bottom Line: For a party that is concerned about the fiscal future, there seems to be a lack of consideration for the environment that our grandchildren will inherit. If the Conservative Party wants to win in the next election, then there needs to be an actual conversation about carbon pricing and the environment. There is no better opportunity for this conversation than this leadership race and all candidates should step up to the plate and swing for the fences.