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John Ivison: How Scheer can pave the way for next Conservative leader by undoing Canada's climate Catch 22

“Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them.” Joseph Heller’s definition of Catch 22 has a Canadian political parallel in the apparently unsolvable dilemma facing Conservative leadership candidates.

To win, they have to attract the support of party members who are broadly dubious about the need to cut carbon emissions. But if they don’t put forward a credible climate change plan, they will find it hard to secure support in key seats in a general election that could come at any time.

A new poll suggests nearly two thirds of potential Conservative voters in the suburban belt around Toronto say they won’t support a party that doesn’t have a strong plan to address climate change.

The Clean Prosperity/Leger poll of voters in the 905 telephone area code around Toronto found 63 per cent of people who didn’t vote Conservative last October but said they were open to the possibility will not back the next leader unless he or she has a credible plan.

At first glance, it looks like mission impossible. But in the midst of crisis lies opportunity.

This could be the perfect excuse for the outgoing party leader, Andrew Scheer, to pivot and lay the foundations for a more consensual policy on climate change that his successor could inherit. His predecessor Stephen Harper took the healthcare issue off the electoral table by simply pledging to do whatever the Liberals committed to. Scheer could do the same on climate change.

The justification could be the anaemic economy. If Scheer can bring forward a solid climate plan without provoking the powerful anti-carbon-tax forces in the Conservative movement, his departure could leave a parting gift that sets a course for his party to victory.

The cancellation of the Teck Resources Frontier oilsands project is symptomatic of what Teck boss, Don Lindsay, said are changing global capital markets that are increasingly looking to invest in jurisdictions that have provided certainty on climate policy.

The time for a united Canadian response is long overdue

The Parliamentary Budget Officer recently reported that growth in the fourth quarter of last year slowed sharply, a slump that is expected to carry into this year thanks to coronavirus and weak business investment. Yves Giroux forecast that the deficit will be worse than the government forecast in its fiscal update last November – a time when the Liberals were already admitting their last remaining fiscal anchor – a gently declining debt-to-GDP ratio – is in jeopardy. Giroux was scathing about a government that has “repeatedly used unexpected fiscal space for new measures, while maintaining short term deficits between $18-28 billion.”

“Deficits in this range will limit fiscal flexibility in the event of an economic downturn,” he said.

There is every prospect we are already in that downturn, if not the long-overdue recession.

Scheer could use this stagnation to do something unexpected and propose a truce in the damaging domestic feuds over climate policy, in favour of a more collective approach designed to fight back against anti-oilsands rhetoric and attract foreign investment.

As noted in this space earlier in the week, there has been a stampede for the exits by multinational financial players like Black Rock, HSBC and AXA, all of whom have pulled out of the oilsands on environmental grounds.

The time for a united Canadian response is long overdue, a riposte that would point to political consensus and real progress in reducing intensity per barrel.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has made the most of his differences with Ottawa, calling for the removal of the federal carbon tax in the aftermath of the Alberta Court of Appeal decision that ruled the federal imposed backstop is unconstitutional.

This is more of a jurisdictional wrangle than a climate policy dispute. But it is costing Canada jobs.

In a less rabidly partisan world, Ottawa would pull the carbon tax and Kenney would replace it with a made-in-Alberta solution.

After all, this is what happened with the provincial scheme to tax greenhouse gas emissions from large emitters like oil and gas producers that account for around 60 per cent of Alberta’s emissions.

Scheer's departure could leave a parting gift that sets a course for his party to victory

Ottawa agreed the province’s Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction plan (TIER) will meet federal requirements.

Why can something similar not happen at the consumer level? TIER is simply a carbon tax by another name. Kenney performed his own pivot when he recognized for the first time that we are in the midst of an “energy transition”.

“I want Alberta to be considered the global leader on greening non-renewable energy,” he told the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid.

Real leadership sometimes requires politicians to do things they’d really rather not, but which they recognize needs to be done.

Twenty-five years ago to the day, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin introduced a budget that restored sound fiscal policy in this country, reducing program spending in some federal government departments by half.

Scheer’s weakness is that he’s a lame-duck leader who is being pushed out the door before he was ready to go by a party left unimpressed with his short leadership. On the other hand, he has little to lose. It’s apparent in his daily performance in question period, the relief of a man free from the tyranny of expectations.

Trying to force a carbon tax on the party that has so vehemently rejected such a thing risks setting off a party revolt. That could poison Scheer’s legacy: Instead of being remembered as a good man who tried his best to lead, he could go down in Tory history as an agent of party destruction.

But there are ways to cement a climate policy that avoid all that. It might take finding a more palatable way to package carbon pricing, as Kenney has done. But Scheer should make the case that the failing Canadian economy is his party’s priority and that settled climate policy would provide international investors with consistent and reliable rules.

Such savoir-faire would not only disarm the Liberals, it would pave the way for the next Conservative leader.

If Scheer is pushed to explain his change of heart, he could do worse than quote Heller: “They have the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

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