Erin O'Toole faces backlash from 'surprised and frustrated' Conservatives over carbon pricing plan

Critics argue O'Toole has yet again abruptly contradicted his own leadership campaign, and is now playing word games about what constitutes a 'carbon tax'

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OTTAWA — When Conservative leader Erin O’Toole announced on Thursday that his party will include a carbon price on consumer fuels as part of their election platform, internal backlash was inevitable.

Scrapping “Trudeau’s carbon tax” is a core promise the Conservative Party has made to its supporters for years. O’Toole won the Conservative leadership race last year while repeatedly promising to get rid of it, even signing a pledge that he would never introduce a carbon tax of his own.

Now, he’s committed the party to putting a carbon levy on fuel, while insisting it can’t be called a tax because the money doesn’t go into government accounts. The blowback was bound to happen; the big question is how O’Toole manages the dissent from the party’s caucus and grassroots, and whether it grows more organized or gradually fades away.

Speaking to the Post confidentially, some Conservatives say the climate plan is an awkward but necessary compromise, given how the environment issue hurts the party every federal election. But others argue O’Toole has yet again abruptly contradicted his own leadership campaign, and is now playing word games about what constitutes a “carbon tax” — the kind of word games the Conservatives would never let the Liberals get away with trying.

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Ahead of Thursday’s announcement, O’Toole only briefed a few people in caucus, sources say. The vast majority of MPs only learned about the new fuel charge from the media.

Sources close to O’Toole had tried to prepare the message ahead of time by telling the National Post that the climate plan would “be implemented without a consumer-based carbon tax” and that they would “repeal Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax.” But they deliberately omitted the fact they were still imposing a new $20-per-tonne carbon charge on consumers.

Despite that effort, the details were revealed before the announcement in a document leaked to CBC — a leak that caught O’Toole’s staff off guard and left them scrambling to control the fallout.

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Late Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the news conference, O’Toole joined a virtual caucus meeting where he was grilled by MPs about why they weren’t better prepared for what was coming.

“We all first heard about this from the CBC article,” one Conservative MP told the Post. The MP said most of the caucus is still deciding what to make of the new policy, as they weren’t expecting it.

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Liberals enacted a minimum federal carbon price that kicks in when provinces don’t have their own equivalent program. The revenue collected by the federal program is redistributed through tax rebates. The price is set to rise from $50 per tonne in 2022 to $170 per tonne by 2030.

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O’Toole claims his own fuel charge — which would stop rising at $50 per tonne — isn’t a carbon tax because the money goes into a personalized savings account that consumers can spend on government-approved, environmentally-friendly purchases.

Climate policy experts largely welcomed O’Toole’s overall climate plan as credible and serious, and celebrated the fact that all major political parties now endorse carbon pricing. But they derided the carbon savings account as a bizarre, administratively-complex mechanism concocted for purely political reasons.

“They’ve made a mockery of what carbon pricing is,” said Blake Shaffer, a climate policy expert at the University of Calgary, noting that you get more money to spend if you burn more fossil fuels — the opposite of a low-carbon incentive. He said the lion’s share of the emissions reductions in O’Toole’s plan will come from the proposed regulations around zero-emission vehicles, a low carbon fuel standard, and renewable natural gas.

O’Toole will have a tough sell with his party’s base that he’s not implementing a carbon tax. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is already gearing up for a campaign against it, citing this pledge signed during the leadership race: “I, Erin O’Toole promise that, if elected Prime Minister of Canada, I will: Immediately repeal the Trudeau carbon tax; and, reject any future national carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme.”

The Post Millennial, a right-wing media outlet that had close ties to O’Toole’s leadership campaign, is now filled with headlines opposing the climate plan. “O’Toole’s ‘government-knows-best’ carbon tax scheme is anti-Conservative Party,” says one. “Trudeau Environment Minister calls new Tory climate plan the ‘O’Toole carbon tax,'” says another.

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Normally after a splashy announcement of a major election plank, MPs post links and reaction on their social media accounts — often prompted by the leader’s office. In this case, however, the Twitter feeds of Conservative MPs were highly telling about the mixed views within caucus.

While nearly all of the party’s ten Quebec MPs boasted about the news on Twitter, just seven of 33 Alberta MPs and one of 14 Saskatchewan MPs mentioned the climate plan on their accounts.

Some of the party’s most high-profile Twitter users were dead silent about the climate plan in the 24 hours after its release. Pierre Poilievre, with 134,500 followers, made no mention of it. Nor did Michelle Rempel Garner, with 129,5000 followers, or Candice Bergen, with 52,600 followers.

The party’s youngest MPs — nearly all of whom endorsed O’Toole in the leadership race — were more likely to post about the plan, including Eric Duncan, Raquel Dancho, Dane Lloyd, Eric Melillo and Garnett Genuis.

It’s possible that the Conservatives MPs opposed to the carbon price decide to just live with it without talking much about it, and the issue doesn’t create any serious threat to O’Toole. But the ominous example hanging over O’Toole is former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown, who was badly damaged by grassroots revolt over his surprise endorsement of carbon pricing in 2016.

“I think a lot of people are surprised and frustrated,” said one MP who wasn’t sure where things would go next internally.

A former Conservative organizer who is sympathetic to the climate plan said O’Toole is still going to face a very tough battle defending this to the party’s more hardline, right-wing base — the very voters who O’Toole courted during the leadership race.

“The (carbon price) isn’t just about dollars and cents,” this person said. “It’s become a culture war thing.”

• Email: bplatt@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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