Finance Minister Bill Morneau arrives for a news conference after touring the Brain Behaviour Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver March 8. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The Liberals’ obsession with secrecy is undermining their own agenda

If carbon pricing fails, the Liberals will have nobody to blame but themselves

Whether you support carbon pricing or not, you probably still would like to know how it’s going to affect your pocketbook.

How much is gas or furnace oil going up? What’s that going to do to the price of groceries? How much will my rebate be? How often will I get it? Quarterly? Monthly?

If you were rolling out a controversial new policy that is going to fundamentally change the way we value fossil fuels, you might want to consider starting early with the process of explaining to people how it is going to affect their lives.

So far, however, the response from the federal Liberal government to such questions has been to invite the public to kindly get bent and wait until we feel like answering.

The Tories would dearly love to stop the carbon tax, or at least stir up enough anger about it that it hurts the Liberals at the polls. I think they’re wrong on this: economists largely agree carbon pricing is the simplest, and believe it or not, most efficient way to bring down carbon emissions.

Even so, the Conservatives deserve credit for demanding the government show the public its studies and models for carbon pricing. The Canadian Press reported this week that Tory MP Pierre Poilievre even had to ask the House of Commons to force the government to release its studies on the impact of carbon pricing on median households. Poilievre got a copy of the studies though Access To Information, but the figures are blacked out.

It’s grimly amusing that Poilievre, an enthusiastic footsoldier in Stephen Harper’s scrutiny-averse government, would find himself burned by the same absurd, bureaucratic tangle of Access To Information rules he once relied on. Still, he’s right to demand the release of this information.

This is a major policy change, and the Liberals, if for no other reason than pure political self-preservation, should be walking the general public through this change with as much detail as possible. In short, carbon pricing is the right policy, but the Trudeau Liberals are being so pig-headed about the whole thing it’s no wonder their opponents are having a field day at the government’s expense.

Last week, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau declared that Canadians will have to wait until September, when the provinces that are implementing their own carbon taxes announce details of their programs.

But this makes little sense. Provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec already have carbon taxes or equivalent schemes like cap-and-trade. The impacts of the B.C. carbon tax have been studied at length.

The federal government is implementing what it calls a backstop — a basic carbon price system for jurisdictions unwilling or unable to implement one on their own. It built an entire carbon tax from scratch, so it clearly has models predicting impacts. The Trudeau government has simply decided it doesn’t want to share all of its work.

This is breathtakingly dumb politics that has allowed the Conservatives to build up carbon pricing as an economic apocalypse, despite the fact B.C. is getting along alright and Alberta’s economy grew nearly five per cent last year.

If the Liberals had a clue, they would have started at day one with charts, graphs, bullet-point lists, Schoolhouse Rock-style cartoons, anything really, to break down how carbon pricing is going to work, the best guesses for what it’s going to do to the cost of living, and ways your province or territory will distribute rebates.

The Liberals are apparently content letting the Conservatives kick the absolute stuffing out of them instead of throwing open the policy process and helping people understand what the government is trying to accomplish.

This unwelcome tendency extends north to Sandy Silver’s government, which has been unable to lift even a finger to press for more transparency from Ottawa. This matters, because the Yukon is not implementing its own carbon pricing regime, opting instead for the backstop.

So Ottawa holds the answers to many of the specifics of Yukon’s coming carbon tax. During the recent Northern Premiers’ Forum — the substantial bits of which are always conducted in secret — Silver said he broached the topic with federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

That’s good! So, what did the premier ask McKenna? Well, he would not offer specifics. But McKenna, the premier assures us, “gets it.” What a relief. Who could possibly have any further questions?

It is also somewhat rich that the territorial government is begging Ottawa for answers when it’s taking its sweet time to answer questions from Yukon municipalities. Back in April, when interim Yukon Party leader Stacey Hassard asked about exemptions for municipalities, the government said it had a plan but refused to offer any details because it had an announcement planned for this weekend’s annual meeting of the Association of Yukon Municipalities.

Community Services Minister John Streicker was scheduled to speak today, presumably to offer details to communities, for whom this is a hugely important budgeting question. But why details could not be offered sooner is never explained. Public policy is, after all, the exclusive private domain of the government. The rest of us get to know only when the government deigns to explain itself.

This paranoid obsession with secrecy is an in-built feature of the system in this country. Every government is guilty of it — even the non-partisan consensus systems of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

It’s a shame. Carbon pricing is — or could be — good policy. It’s too bad the Liberal Party’s congenital arrogance means it would rather shoot itself in the political foot than be honest and straightforward with citizens.

If carbon pricing fails, or if their conservative rivals are successful in using it to sway voters at the polls, the Liberals will have nobody to blame but themselves. Not that they’d ever admit it.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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