Whoever talked Justin Trudeau into sugar-coating the carbon tax with rebates in the four holdout provinces probably reminded him of some of his father’s election campaigns.
In the 1974 campaign, Robert Stanfield, then leader of the federal Conservatives, told the voters his government would introduce wage and price controls to deal with the double-digit inflation of the day.
Pierre Trudeau ridiculed Stanfield’s position with the line “Zap, you’re frozen!” – and won a majority government. Less than two years later, Trudeau introduced – you guessed it – wage and price controls.
The elder Trudeau had learned a harsh lesson from the 1972 election. He campaigned like a university professor and came within two seats of losing after just one term as prime minister. In 1974, he campaigned like most professional politicians. He obviously had learned that you can be a prophet or a politician, but you cannot be both.
He had gone from philosopher king to Mackenzie King, to paraphrase an observation by the late commentator Larry Zolf.
In the 1980 campaign, Joe Clark, the short-tenured Conservative prime minister, told the voters his government would impose a gasoline tax. (Remember “short-term pain for long-term gain?”)
Well, Pierre Trudeau got the gain by saying he wouldn’t tax gasoline at the pump – which, of course, he would wind up doing after winning the election. Clark got the pain for telling the truth and eventually was bounced as party leader.
Quit tut-tutting. Voters won’t tolerate anything they don’t want to hear at election time.
As the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper noted in 2014: “Politicians must choose to either stand up for what they believe or maximize their vote. To put it bluntly: they either lie or they lose.”
So, when a Tory posse against the carbon tax, led by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, began to show traction in Canadian public opinion polls, alarm bells began to go off in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Hence, the joyous news in October from Justin Trudeau – announced in Ford’s riding, no less – that the households who must suffer in the provinces that don’t have a carbon plan would be receiving rebates from a federally imposed carbon tax six months before the next election.
The so-called “climate action incentive” payments would range from $248 in New Brunswick to $598 in Saskatchewan.
Conservatives were quick to accuse Trudeau of buying off the voters. But the rebates appear to have worked.
Pre-rebate, the polls were showing a slim majority of Canadians opposed to the tax. Post-rebate, polls showed Canadians had resumed their support of the carbon tax, albeit by a slim margin.
The next federal election still is Trudeau’s to lose, thanks to his telegenic presence, a befuddled Opposition and a commanding lead in the polls.
But someone in the PMO no doubt reminded him that his father went into the 1972 election with a commanding lead in the polls before unleashing the dreadful “The Land is Strong” campaign.
Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau’s government – with the help of former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and former Ontario Opposition leader Patrick Brown – owned the climate change issue with its “price on carbon” program.
But in a very short time, the current Ontario premier, other premiers and one wannabe premier (Jason Kenney) – by using fear and fudging truth – have been able to rebrand the program as a dreaded carbon tax.
Trudeau will want the brand back. The Business Council of Canada’s recent endorsement of his party’s carbon policy will help. And there’s overpowering evidence, including a United Nations report, of the need for carbon reduction.
But voters react to political branding in the same way as they react to consumer branding – with emotion.
A classic case study would be the Quebec referendum of 1995. There was an enormous evidence-based case for Quebec to stay in Confederation. But the federalist side prevailed only after it got emotional, hosting huge rallies.
Justin Trudeau needs to get emotional about climate change if he wants the public to support his carbon plan.
Meantime, Ford and his naysayers are running the risk of being on the wrong side of history.