Dion is falling into a political trap with his carbon-tax plan

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The Gazette, Monday, May 19, 2008

Stéphane Dion is proposing a carbon tax as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change. It's a big idea, details to follow.

And that's the problem. It might well be good policy. But this is not one instance where good policy makes good politics.

Unless Dion can provide specifics, they will be provided by the Conservatives. They already are being provided.

This is a basic rule of politics. If you don't define these things yourself, your opponents will do it for you.

This has happened to Dion once before, when he became Liberal leader. He defined himself as a champion of the environment. The Conservatives, in a devastating attack ad, quoted Michael Ignatieff from a leadership debate with the refrain, "We didn't get it done, Stéphane," ending with the tagline, "Stéphane Dion, not a leader."

With a single TV spot, the Conservatives, as pollster Nik Nanos put it, "stole the honeymoon, wrote the narrative and defined his image."

And they are doing it again, because Dion has rolled out an idea before he can provide details and supporting facts, to say nothing of answers to all the questions it will raise. The Conservatives have already written the narrative and defined the issue.

Some Liberals are suggesting privately that the carbon tax would not apply on gasoline and home heating. The Conservatives are spinning that, obviously, it would. Or it wouldn't be called a carbon tax. That's part of the confusion for the Liberals and the opportunity for the Tories.

The story happens at the gasoline pump, where Canadians are already paying as much as $1.40 a litre, or about $5.60 a gallon. Canadians driving SUVs, roughly 40 per cent of the auto market, are now paying about $100 every time they gas up. And it's only the start of the driving season.

All last week in the House, Environment Minister John Baird was only to happy to provide details, with an assist from House Leader Peter Van Loan, Finance Minster Jim Flaherty and Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn. In the war room, the Tories are certainly cutting new attack ads.

Let's say Dion is talking about 50 cents a litre on top of what Canadians are already paying. So, 50 cents times 50 litres, equals $25 every time you gas up. If excise taxes and sales taxes were added on top of that, there would be a compound increase. Details, details.

So, every time Canadians went to the pump, they would think of Dion, and not very fondly

"Your wallet for the planet," Dion said at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Montreal last week. That's a great kicker. He might as well have said, "your money or your life."

Gasoline taxes are politically sensitive because they are so visible, and because they are paid up front every time. You can look this up under John Crosbie and the 18-cent gasoline tax that triggered the defeat of the Clark government's budget in the 1979. Pierre Trudeau came out of retirement and cruised across the country in the famous 18-cent election that resulted in a Liberal restoration (and ultimately, in the Charter of Rights).

Dion predicts that he's the leading edge of a movement that will "sweep the nation."

Nope. What he doesn't understand is while everyone wants to save the planet, nobody wants to pay for it out of their own pocket. When citizens are asked about climate change, they usually agree it's the great issue of our time, and then they say polluters should pay, meaning industry, not people.

Again, some Liberals insist the carbon tax wouldn't apply at the pump. Furthermore, Dion says a carbon tax would be revenue neutral, because you'd get what you paid at the pump back in tax cuts. How much? When? Again, details to follow.

In an article in Policy Options this month, Dion writes: "The concept of pricing carbon - through either a cap-and-trade system or a tax - is a work in progress." He's not wrong about that. But if he's going to plant his flag on this mountain, he'd better be prepared to die on it.

Here's the problem. He's announced a big idea, and says he's going to provide the full policy in a month's time, and then take it across the country on his summer tour. But he hasn't got to the rollout yet, and he's already being rolled over.

To put it another way, he's writing a headline, and saying I'll get back to you later with the story. Meantime, the Conservatives are already writing it.

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