A new coalition, a different politics

Did Gordon Campbell win because of his carbon tax?

A new coalition, a different politicsIt would be a stretch to claim that Gordon Campbell received much of a “mandate” in last week’s British Columbia election. With 46 per cent of the vote, in an election that saw turnout fall, for the first time, to less than 50 per cent, Campbell is the choice of barely one in five electors.

Still, it is triumph enough that he was not defeated. Not only were Campbell’s Liberals seeking a third term, an honour voters have historically proved unwilling to bestow, but as the incumbents in a recession-year election, they were fighting daunting odds. His win ought to make opposition parties in other parts of the country sit up straight: if they were under any illusion that they had only to show up, and the economy would carry them to power, they can think again.

If anything, the economy seemed to be a plus for Campbell: voters gave him credit as a competent economic manager who had slashed taxes and balanced the books. Even the lapse into deficit in the February budget did not provoke a backlash, his own balanced-budget legislation notwithstanding. No doubt this reflected a greater public tolerance for red ink, given the state of the economy. But as important was the way he handled it. If he did not make any drastic shifts in fiscal policy to avert a deficit, neither did he deliberately expand it, or try to pretend that deficits were now a virtue.

And, to signal that his principles remained intact—that the exception was not about to become the rule—Campbell made no attempt to rescind the legislation, or to evade its penalties: he and his cabinet took the prescribed 10 per cent cut in pay. Compare that to Dalton McGuinty’s consequence-free overturning of similar legislation in Ontario.

This is, I think, the real message of Campbell’s victory: conviction politics is back. Big ideas, taking risks, sticking to your guns—all those things that had seemed so passé, in this season of incrementalism, may not be so politically fatal as all that. You can run on major change, and win.

I’m talking, of course, about Campbell’s carbon tax: the first such tax of any heft in North America (Quebec’s is barely noticeable), and among the most comprehensive in the world. Wildly unpopular at first, and hardly beloved today, it may not have been the centrepiece of his campaign, but it certainly was the NDP’s. Yet it did not, in the end, seal his defeat. It may even have helped him win.

Let’s just pause on that first point. In recent Canadian elections, it seemed, bold was out. Whether it was John Tory’s promise to fund religious schools in Ontario, or Stéphane Dion’s “green shift,” or (alas) electoral reform, the public’s answer in every case was no. You can just imagine the advice the political pros were offering their clients: don’t do it. Don’t say anything. Just sit tight, and hope the other guys defeat themselves.

Against this background, Campbell’s victory is hugely significant. It isn’t just that he won: it’s how he won. On the surface, after all, Campbell’s signature policy was something very like what Dion proposed: a shift from taxing income to taxing carbon, with no net increase in taxes. But whereas Dion’s plan was weighted down with exceptions, subsidies, and unrelated redistribution programs, Campbell’s “green shift” was the real deal. Every dollar in carbon-tax revenues was returned in cuts to personal and corporate income taxes.

But it’s the latter possibility that is the most intriguing: that Campbell may have won, not in spite of the carbon tax, but because of it. If this election comes in time to be seen as the watershed event in Canadian politics I think it is, it will be for this: that a right-leaning politician could claim ownership of the environmental issue; that he could stake out a leadership position, rather than simply following along the route established by convention; and, critically, that he could do so in ways that did not compromise or contradict his free-market principles, but enhanced them.

Others have noted the discomfort Campbell’s embrace of the carbon tax caused the NDP, under attack throughout the campaign by its traditional environmentalist allies. Less commented upon was the degree to which he was able to draw those kinds of voters to his own party. Simply put, Campbell has reinvented the conservative coalition. The old coalition, between economic liberals (in the free-market sense) and social conservatives, was always an uneasy one: their interests and values were too often at odds. But a coalition of free marketers and environmentalists is a more natural fit—if only conservatives would realize it.

A whole generation of environmentalists have grown up who “get” the market: who understand its uses as an instrument for promoting social goals through individual choices. That, after all, is what the market does every day. Conventionally, this is understood in terms of efficiency: price signals lead each of us to economize in his use of scarce resources in such a way as to maximize the output of society. But it’s just as applicable to environmental concerns like global warming. Indeed, the two problems—economic and ecologic—are essentially the same. It’s all about minimizing waste.

A carbon tax simply expands the range of information those price signals convey, incorporating into prices costs that had previously been sloughed off on the rest of society. There’s no contradiction with “free-market ideology” in such a policy. It’s the fulfillment of it. Indeed, having established the market’s bona fides when it comes to the environment, Campbell may get a better hearing for market solutions to other problems.

Campbell may well have pointed the way forward for conservative politics. He has broadened his base, not by going back on his conservative principles, but by deepening his commitment to them.

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