Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The hard part is coming for Campbell on climate change

This whole climate-change issue will be tricky for the Liberals, practically and politically.
The controversy about a new carbon tax on gasoline is a good illustration of how complex the issues will get.
It's one thing for Premier Gordon Campbell to declare global warming a threat to the Earth and commit the province to a major effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Actually doing something about it is trickier. Since Campbell's conversion a year ago, there hasn't been a lot of action. The government knows that without some concrete measures in the budget, it faces a credibility problem. If you've declared war on a global warming, you better follow through.
So the government needs to show something significant - beyond targets plucked from the air and a plan to buy carbon credits to offset ministers' plane travel - in the budget.
But there is a cost to most of the measures that would help. An affordable, reasonable cost, I'd say. But not everyone sees it that way.
The gas tax expected in the budget is a good example. The plan is apparently to introduce the tax at 3.5 cents a litre and raise it progressively in coming years.
It's a sensible measure that works in two ways. Higher gasoline prices would encourage people and companies to use less. That's a basic law of economics. People might cut travel or bus or buy fuel-efficient cars when the time comes. Companies would look for ways to deliver goods twice a week, instead of daily.
And the money from a gas tax could fund efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions - for transit or research or green power production.
But a lot of people think of this as a tax grab, especially the people more likely to vote Liberal than NDP. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation - which, in B.C, has become a credible voice - is opposed.
It's a balancing act for the Liberals. This week, Campbell announced a 12-year, $14-billion transit plan. You might have expected that to be the kind of thing that could be funded by a gas tax. But the premier was emphatic that there was no connection.
One reason could be found in criticism from Maureen Bader of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation. Almost all of the transit money will be spent in the Lower Mainland; the gas tax will hit all British Columbians.
It's an interesting challenge for a politician like Campbell, who after a reckless first term seems intent on staking a solid claim to the political centre. It has worked; despite some big problems last year the Liberals still have a comfortable lead in the polls.
Given good judgment and reasonable luck Campbell can steer a course that leaves the NDP with almost no room to make gains. Unless the worst happens, from the Liberals' perspective, and there's some sort of splinter party on the right.
There's no sign of that. But Campbell's careful separation of the transit plan and the gas tax suggests an effort to manage this all very closely.
That makes the handling of the gas tax revenues - assuming the tax is introduced with the budget - interesting. Financed Minister Carole Taylor has been unclear what would happen to the money, expected to start at $200 million and rise to $2 billion a year.
One option would be to make the tax truly revenue neutral, with offsetting cuts elsewhere. The government could impose a 3.5-cent a litre gas tax and take in about $200 million in revenue and cut the sales tax by one-half per cent, returning the same amount to taxpayers.
Taylor is leaving the door to a sort-of neutrality, where the money would go to new climate-change measures.
It's all going to be interesting. Campbell has made a major commitment, an important one. But delivering remains a big challenge. The first real test will come Feb. 19, with the budget.
Footnote: Campbell got caught in wildly misleading spin on the transit announcement. The $14-billion plan would result in a cumulative reduction of 4.7 million tonnes of emissions, he said. But that's the total over the next 12 years. By 2020 the transit plan will reduce emissions by 650,000 tonnes a year - 1.6 per cent of the reductions needed to meet the province's commitment.


Anonymous said...

Once again its all about the Lower Mainland, Kelowna and Victoria while the rest of the province gets to pay. While what is being done about our Highways that are falling apart and the lack of transit in so many communities. Oh well you cater to the Elite and where the votes are. Once again Split BC into three. Take the revenue from the rest of BC away from the lower mainland and listen to them Scream. A highway from Powell river to Lillooet would work wonders.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, the political risk to the Premier is overstated. A lot of Greens and centre-left voters would reward him politically for doing something real about climate change, compensating for any loss on the extreme right, especially as the NDP is not exactly capturing anyone's imagination at present.

And if a far right splinter party emerges, then it only confirms the BC's Liberals as a more typical centrist party consistent with the nickname "natural governing party", ensuring the support of a lot of moderate folks who would otherwise vote NDP, Green or not at all.

Anonymous said...

Another one of Gordo's visions.How many have we had so far that actually works? SUV owners will object to a extra tax and it would appear that his supporters tend to drive those gas guzzlers.The Reaside cartoon of a couple of days ago was good. It showed a transit system that is built to support the lower mainland and nowhere else. The island needs LRT but not on his list. Folks will complain about gas increased costs but there are no options. Every try to catch a bus in the Victoria area that gets you anywhere quickly. My God there isn't evena rapid connector from downtown to the ferry. So the folks will keep riding their cars and grumbling, but as long as Gordo holds the reins of power the costs will continue to rise as services go down.

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