Saturday, 16 February 2013

Was the carbon tax smart politics? Or the cause of a “near run thing” election?

By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun May 20, 2009

During BC’s election campaign and in post-election analysis, media commentators have lauded Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax as a “political masterstoke” while panning Carol James’ anti-tax campaign as “not so bright.” I think the evidence says otherwise. I think Campbell won the election in spite of the carbon tax not because of it and that James almost rode a brilliant strategy to an upset victory in an election that would otherwise not have been close.

Media pundits seem to forget that throughout 2007 the Liberals were a popular government in cruise-control, with a polling lead ranging from 12 to 18 percent over the NDP. With the election just over a year away, NDP prospects looked dismal – until the Liberals launched the carbon tax in February 2008.

Although earlier statements suggested they would support a carbon tax, the NDP quickly recognized this political gift from Campbell. Within months they launched their axe-the-tax campaign, focusing on its so-called unfairness to rural, northern, suburban and coastal residents and linking the policy to Campbell’s so-called “arrogant and uncaring personality.” By November, in an amazing reversal of fortune, polls placed the NDP at parity with the Liberals.

But in late 2008, Campbell got lucky – doubly-lucky. First, the global economic crisis refocused voters on who should govern during tough economic times, which rightly or wrongly favoured Campbell. Second, the economic collapse precipitated falling oil prices, in turn dropping gasoline prices by 30 percent. With the focus shifted from the carbon tax to the economy, the Liberals rebounded to a 5 to 10 point lead in polls prior to the election campaign.

Although we cannot run history twice, it is interesting to ask what the polling numbers would have been if there had never been a carbon tax and the NDP response. My guess is that the Liberals would have had at least a 12 and perhaps a 20 point lead over the NDP by April of this year – a popular government in 2007, with the additional benefit of growing voter support during the global economic crisis of 2008-2009.

Instead, the carbon tax gave the NDP a fighting chance. But to win the election, it still needed votes from a wide ideological spectrum (especially without the split of right and centre voters between two political parties, as occurred in 1973, 1991 and 1996 – the only elections the NDP has won). This explains why Carol James started the campaign by promising voters she would still axe the tax. Her target was key swing ridings in the interior (such as Prince George) and greater Vancouver’s outer suburbs (such as Surrey). Then, in mid-campaign, James shifted her environmental focus to attacking private hydropower development. Her goal in this case was to pull enough voters away from the Liberals and especially the Greens to win key seats in Vancouver and adjacent suburbs. The message that only an NDP victory would stop hydropower development probably contributed to the last minute Green decline to only 8 percent.

Pundits are now concluding that because James lost the election and because it cost her some votes, her anti-tax campaign was dumb politics. This is faulty logic. They should be asking whether or not her strategy provided a net gain or loss of votes in the critical swing ridings she needed to win the election. My guess is that it provided a significant net gain relative to where the NDP stood in 2007 and where they were likely to stand in the 2009 election, given the unfavourable external developments beyond their control – global recession, falling oil prices.

It will be some time before political scientists assess the likelihood of my argument. So why care now? The NDP lost. The tax remains.

I feel differently. I believe Gordon Campbell, and other politicians like him who sincerely want to reduce greenhouse gases, must understand that – as the Duke of Wellington said after barely defeating Napoleon at Waterloo – this election was “a near run thing.” And the main reason was the carbon tax.

Effective climate policy is extremely difficult to implement and sustain. Only via some mix of emissions pricing (carbon tax and/or cap and trade), regulations (vehicle standards, building codes), and public investment (public transit) will we reduce emissions. All of these policies have costs. All cause winners and losers. At the same time, most people tell pollsters they are already doing all they can to reduce emissions. They also say any government policy that increases their cost of living is unfair.

This arena remains deadly dangerous for the well-intentioned politician. As he goes forward with climate policy over the next four years, Gordon Campbell might well reflect on the political lessons from his own near run thing.

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