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Western MP pitches Conservative carbon price with a 24-pack of Pilsner

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OTTAWA — Ron Liepert says these days, the phone calls and emails from people wanting to talk about his party’s climate plan have slowed.

One month ago, the Conservative MP for Calgary Signal Hill was answering at least a dozen or more emails a day, and another half a dozen calls.

“There’s no question I’ve had a number of constituents, and I think I’m not talking out of turn when I say so probably have every other western Conservative MP — a number of constituents say, ‘Why the flip-flop?’ Liepert told The Canadian Press.

“‘(You) said no carbon tax, now there’s a carbon tax.'”

Explaining the Titanic-sized shift in the Conservative heartland particularly on a policy championed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberals hold no seats in Saskatchewan and Alberta has been something those representing the region’s resource-rich farmlands and cities have had to figure out.

Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, along with Ontario, waged a years-long battle against the federal Liberal government’s charging of a federal carbon price on consumer goods in provinces that do not already have one. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in March that Ottawa’s backstop was constitutional.

The Canadian Press contacted each of Saskatchewan’s Conservative MPs and most of those in Alberta to discuss reception to the Conservative party’s own carbon-pricing plan. The majority declined to comment, or didn’t respond.

In fact, any mention of the climate policy — unveiled by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole as a major plank in an eventual election platform — is absent from many of their social media.

For Liepert, a veteran of Alberta politics, it’s obvious the party needs more wins in Ontario to form government and felt it was time to shed its anti-carbon price stance.

“If you start from that premise, that Canadians have grudgingly accepted a carbon tax, then how do we pivot away from having a position where we will cancel the carbon tax?”

Pitching the Conservatives’ fuel price comes down to persuading people it’s not a tax, he says. It’s also what O’Toole, who ran as the “true blue” candidate in the party’s leadership race, has rigorously maintained.

“Let me give you this analogy: When you go to the liquor store and you pick up a 24 case of Pilsner, there’s a 10 cent per can levy attached to that, correct?,” said Liepert, describing how he sells the plan.

“And they’ll all agree with that, and I say, ‘You don’t consider that a tax do you?’ And they say, ‘Well no, because I get it back when I take my cans back.’

And I say, ‘Well bingo. Same thing with this.'”

Liepert says most people tend to “grudgingly agree,” with his answer, but there are always those who will feel “a tax, is a tax is a tax.”

Besides what to call it, Conservatives say what distinguishes their party’s proposed carbon price from the Liberals’ is when people pay it, their money will be sent to a savings account that is like a rewards card. They’ll then be able to use the money in that fund to make government-approved environmentally friendly purchases.

O’Toole says people should imagine being able to use these carbon bucks to buy anything from a bike and transit pass to an electric vehicle and, according to one op-ed he penned, even locally grown produce.

“It’s certainly a creative policy,” said Michael Bernstein, executive director of Clean Prosperity, a group that has been advocating for the Tories to adopt carbon pricing since its 2019 election loss.

“It is very difficult to understand how it’s going to actually work.”

Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall also evokes the bottle levy to pitch the Conservatives’ new carbon-pricing policy in her rural riding, a policy she didn’t necessarily see coming.

“Everybody was somewhat surprised, sure, but at the same time, once I read through it, and I did take a great deal of time first just to get my own head around the whole plan, so that I could understand it,” she said.

Wagantall feels assured provincial decisions around climate will be respected, which she says is something that caucus stressed. And like Liepert, she’s had many talks with upset or confused constituents.

“I have the conversation around what the prime minister of the day is doing and it brings them to a realization that we’re in an environment where that is an expectation, it’s true, but what we are doing is very, very different.”

“The longer we talk, the more understanding they are and they simply want to have that conversation. I haven’t had a circumstance where I felt I wasn’t heard.”

But not all conversations appear to be as cordial.

During an exchange with a critic about the party’s carbon price on Regina MP Michael Kram’s Facebook page, user Amos Dowler wrote: “Even Premier (Scott) Moe agrees that O’Toole’s plan is far better than the current plan. Maybe read it or get someone to read it to you.”

A person answering the phone at Kram’s constituency office said Dowler was Kram’s chief of staff. His personal LinkedIn page also lists him in that role. An assistant for Kram declined to respond to his comments.

Liepert says he can’t tell whether he risks losing voters, even as several emails a day land in his inbox from those voicing disgust with the Conservatives and teasing their support for the fledgling Maverick Party, led by former Tory MP Jay Hill.

It brands itself as offering “true western representation” by only running candidates in the Prairies and criticizes O’Toole for having a “phoney carbon levy.”

But the Conservatives’ primary foe remains a Liberal government that is ratcheting up its promises to reduce carbon emissions.

Trudeau has pledged to further cut Canada’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by up to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. He has also committed the country to reach net-zero carbon pollution by 2050.

O’Toole’s plan is designed to reach the country’s current targets under the Paris Agreement of a 30 per cent reduction by 2030. He has dissed the Liberals’ tougher goal.

His MPs also voted against the government’s net-zero legislation, citing the possible influence “climate activists” on a net-zero advisory panel could have on the oil and gas industry.

But despite what progress has been made, O’Toole’s attempt to straddle the climate fence may cost him with the new voters he’s hoping to attract.

“Expectations of voters, although we’ll have to probe this in polling, are likely to continue to evolve as well in terms of what they expect from a credible plan,” said Bernstein.

“There is a chance that O’Toole is out of step with that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Biden nominates Cindy McCain to UN food and agriculture post

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President Joe Biden is nominating Cindy McCain to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, one of 17 nominations announced Wednesday that included major diplomatic and arts assignments.

McCain, the widow of Arizona Sen. John McCain, broke with Republicans and endorsed Biden for president, making her a key surrogate for the Democrat after Donald Trump spent years criticizing her husband. McCain is the chair and director of the Hensley Beverage Company, a Phoenix-based distributor of beer, wine, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks.

The president is also nominating Massachusetts state Rep. Claire Cronin to be ambassador to Ireland. Biden frequently emphasizes his Irish heritage and has stressed the U.S. support of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided for peace with Northern Ireland but has come under stress after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

Michael Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The president also announced nominations to the National Council on the Arts, including Fiona Whelan Prine, widow of the singer-songwriter John Prine and president of Oh Boy Records, the country’s second-oldest independent record label still in operation.

Josh Boak, The Associated Press

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O’Toole against cancelling Canada Day; ministers, NDP say it’s time for reflection

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OTTAWA — Federal politicians are faced with the country’s legacy of residential schools as July 1 approaches, with the Conservative leader railing against calls to cancel Canada Day, while Liberal ministers and the NDP leader say it should be a time of reflection.

Leader Erin O’Toole says Conservatives are committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, but stands firm against so-called activist efforts to “cancel” Canada, particularly on the national holiday.

O’Toole offered his insights on the moment the country finds itself in to members of his caucus and staff gathered in Ottawa before the House of Commons breaks for summer.

He called the discovery in British Columbia of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children from a former residential school “a necessary awakening for our country.”

O’Toole pledged that a government led by him would be dedicated to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, as speculation swirls that the minority Parliament may be headed toward an election.

The Conservative leader said the road to repairing the country’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples and better equality doesn’t involve attempts to destroy Canada.

“I’m concerned that injustices in our past, or in our present, are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” he said.

Standing up to cancel culture and the “radical left” was part of the platform O’Toole ran on to win the party’s leadership last summer, where he billed himself as the “true blue” candidate to the Conservative faithful.

He’s also been trying to modernize some of the party’s positions and broaden its support base to include more people, including those who are Indigenous.

Like other federal party leaders, O’Toole has in recent weeks had to respond to the discovery of the unmarked burial site in late May and renewed demands for the government to make better progress on calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Canada Day, known for its fireworks, festivities and flapping Canadian flags, has in recent years become viewed with apprehension in some quarters, as more people reckon with the country’s colonial past and the harm it caused Indigenous communities.

The focus on unmarked burial sites at residential schools has pushed those feelings further. Where before some called for Canada Day celebrations to be boycotted, some organizers decided it was best to cancel.

St. Albert, a city northwest of Edmonton, said it wouldn’t have a Canada Day fireworks show because it was to be held on the site of a former residential school.

City councillors in Victoria also announced it would forgo its holiday broadcast to instead host another event later in the summer, where people could reflect on what it means to be Canadian.

At a press conference Wednesday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he himself has mixed feelings about Canada Day. He drew on his own experience being from Quebec to say he knows the national holiday can be controversial, and is not universally celebrated.

For himself, he said, it’s a time of reflection and a chance to look at “what we are as a country.”

“The flags are still lowered to continue to commemorate the children that were stolen from their communities and taken to residential schools. Those wounds are still very much open in Indigenous communities,” Miller said.

Appearing virtually alongside Miller was Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, who agreed the holiday should be used to think about Canada’s ugly past.

She said the summer itself will be a time for people to wrestle with the country’s racist wrongdoings, as Canada prepares to mark its first statutory holiday remembering the legacy of residential schools on September 30.

“On Canada Day I will be wearing an orange shirt,” said Bennett.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh says people are looking at Canada Day differently this year.

“It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened and continue to happen,” he said.

O’Toole, for his part, spoke out against calls from some to cancel Canada Day celebrations and singled out the actions of activists and those “always seeing the bad and never the good.”

“As someone who served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day.”

O’Toole, who served in the military for 12 years, says he’s proud to be a Canadian, as are millions of others. He suggested that collectively, people use the pain felt from where Canada has failed in the past to build a better home.

“We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is not a place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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