The premier says he was elected to kill the carbon tax. Was he?

ANALYSIS: New research suggests that opposition to carbon pricing may not have been the primary motivator behind Doug Ford’s political success. We look at what really drove PC support in Ontario
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 11, 2019
Ontario premier Doug Ford
The premier has said numerous times that the Progressive Conservatives were elected to end the cap-and-trade system. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

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Doug Ford was elected by the people of Ontario on the strength of a promise to kill the carbon tax. Just ask him — he’ll tell you: a search of the legislature’s transcripts turns up numerous examples of the premier saying that the Tories were elected to end the cap-and-trade system implemented by their Liberal predecessors. And, indeed, their campaign platform included a clear commitment to scrapping cap and trade.

Given that the Tories won the 2018 election handily, it may seem logical to conclude that voters supported that commitment. But a new paper by two Canadian researchers finds that any connection between the Tory win and the party’s crusade against carbon taxes is tenuous, at best.

“The question was on a lot of people’s minds — certainly on our minds — to what extent was Ford right?” says Erick Lachapelle, a political scientist at Université de Montréal. “We were really just interested in testing that: To what extent is that actually in tune with Ontario public opinion?”

In the article, published in the most recent issue of Environmental Politics, Lachapelle and co-author Simon Kiss of Wilfrid Laurier University analyze the responses to the Ontario Provincial Election Survey, an online panel conducted during the 2018 election and funded by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy. Their findings are striking: opposition to cap and trade is a weak predictor of Tory votes. A dislike of Kathleen Wynne, previous support for the PCs, and opposition to immigration were far stronger predictors.

“[Cap and trade had] a small impact, but it’s nowhere near the impact that conventional wisdom suggests it was,” says Lachapelle.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that opposition to the carbon tax implemented by the Liberals under Justin Trudeau is going to be a major part of the 2019 federal election, in large part because of that conventional wisdom. Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has said that repealing the tax would be “job number one” if his party were to form government.

But Kiss says that making this a core part of the Conservative platform might be a mistake, considering how weakly tied the issue actually was to Tory support.

“It was a lot less than Doug Ford might claim … I wouldn’t say it’s clear at all,” he says. “Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t put money on the Conservatives in the federal election, and if they’re banking on winning over the carbon tax, they’re being overconfident.”

Lachapelle says that the results should inform the broader debate about the rise of conservative, right-wing populism across the developed world: “Is that something we should be worried about? Is this being fuelled by economic uncertainty in the population that some politicians are using as an instrument to get elected? And what are the implications of that for climate policy?”

One thing that Ford’s win has in common with other populist electoral successes is his supporters’ concerns about immigration — a topic Ford didn’t broach much during the election. (One notable exception: his confusing remarks at the northern issues debate.) Lachapelle and Kiss find that people who were skeptical of or opposed to immigration — respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “Many people claiming to be refugees are not refugees” or “Canada is doing a good job keeping criminals and suspected criminals out of the country” — were much more likely to vote for the PCs.

Another notable finding in the paper involves voters’ views on electricity prices. By the 2018 election, the Liberal Fair Hydro Plan had already taken effect, reducing hydro rates and freezing them well below 2016 and 2017 rates. Yet 60 per cent of Tory voters said their bills had increased over the previous 12 months, while only 26 per cent of Liberals said the same.

“It’s possible we’re not being fair to respondents,” cautions Kiss. “Maybe what they were trying to express was that prices had been too high for too long. I don’t want to be too hard on voters.”

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