The Opposition is letting Pasloski frame the debate around carbon pricing

Premier Darrell Pasloski has been in a charitable mood recently. Pasloski has been pitching in and has been kind enough to roll out the Yukon Liberal and NDP platforms on carbon pricing for them.

Premier Darrell Pasloski has been in a charitable mood recently. Recognizing how difficult it can be to speak for oneself sometimes, Pasloski has been pitching in and has been kind enough to roll out the Yukon Liberal and NDP platforms on carbon pricing for them.

Yes, the premier wants everyone to know that Elizabeth Hanson and Sandy Silver want to get their grubby hands on more of your money and ruin the Yukon’s economy in the process. He mentions it just about every time he gets the opportunity.

There is only one problem with this. To my knowledge, neither opposition party has actually said that they would implement carbon pricing if they were elected to government. Neither has ruled it out, and both would seem to be tepidly leaning in forward of one. But we certainly haven’t seen any specific plans on the issue.

It is smart politics on the government’s part to go on the attack on this issue. Carbon pricing is a policy I personally support but demonizing the idea of imposing a tax on emissions has a history of success as a political strategy. Just ask former Liberal leader Stephane Dion. His elaborate “Green Shift” proposal was successfully framed by the Conservatives as a “tax on everything,” and, when combined with Dion’s charisma deficit, was a big factor in the federal Liberal Party’s sorry showing in the 2008 federal election.

Not only does the Yukon Party get to scare the public with the prospect of the government taking even more of your hard-earned money (even though Sandy Silver has said that any Liberal carbon tax would have to be revenue neutral), they get to wrap themselves in the flag by making vague references to our “northern way of life” – whatever that means.

It is also a good wedge issue for the Yukon Party because it has been a part of the national conversation lately with a very strong and vocal opposition emerging from certain corners of the country, led by Canada’s unofficial leader of the opposition, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

With all that said, I think it may be time for the opposition to show its cards and make a decision one way or another on the issue. I appreciate that the election isn’t tomorrow and there is something to be said for rolling out campaign promises closer to the election date. But an election is coming, and if Hanson and Silver allow the premier to dominate the “debate” (if it can be called such a thing) on this issue in the coming months he may succeed in irreversibly framing public perceptions on this issue.

The difficulty that proponents of carbon pricing face is that explaining the merits of the policy is difficult. It requires the use of compound sentences, and an understanding that prices influence our behaviour (i.e. we tend to avoid more expensive things). Otherwise carbon pricing is viewed as “just another tax,” rather than a targeted policy aimed at slowly shifting our consumption habits. Philosophically, carbon taxes actually have nothing to do with raising new revenue, but we tend to be cynical about governments and our money so whenever anyone talks about taxes it is a hard fear to shake.

It also takes some convincing of people that the problem of human-made climate change is of urgency and severity that it necessitates a leap of faith of sorts. It is a common view that as long as big emitters like India and China are moving slowly (or even backwards) on this file we may as well stay at the party a little longer. The belief that if we take the first steps on emissions the laggards of the world that show no interest in pitching in to this global effort will eventually come along one way or another is seen by many as naive and self-destructive. Some people clearly need to still be persuaded that even small jurisdictions like the Yukon have a role to play in this global effort, and that high per capita users like us should be playing a leadership role on this issue (and no, Mr. Premier, it is not just because its cold here and there are no subways).

That’s all a tall order in this sound-bite world we live in. All that opponents have to do is use cutesy talking points like the aforementioned “tax on everything” and “northern way of life,” while making dire (unsupported) predictions about the economic calamity, and playing on perceptions of left-leaning parties as being “tax-and-spend” liberals.

This isn’t to say that all arguments against carbon pricing are meritless catch-phrases. There have been meaningful concerns expressed. A commenter to a previous column I wrote on this subject raised the interesting question of what the administration cost of carbon pricing would be – a valid concern is this heavily bureaucratized jurisdiction we live in.

But the premier’s pronouncements on this issue hardly suggest he wants to have a meaningful debate on the merits of the policy. He’d prefer to use simple sloganeering to drive a wedge and secure electoral advantage.

At this point the premier is controlling the discussion on this issue, while the opposition is nowhere to be found. I think that it is time that Hanson and Silver join the discussion.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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