New Critic title is fitting for MP Hyer’s fee and dividend ambitions

Greater forms of democratic reform are required to address our climate predicament.

On February 3rd, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May designated her only other sitting MP – Bruce Hyer – as the Democratic Reform Critic for the party.  The announcement came just minutes after Pierre Poilievre, the Democratic Reform Minister, proposed major changes to election campaign rules.  No doubt, Hyer’s already-looming stack of hats is getting heavier by the day.

Since the Green Party doesn’t have enough representatives for peripheral portfolios like ethics, it’s likely Hyer will also be charged with weighing in on the lingering senate scandal and elusive, seemingly endless, robocall investigation.  Then there’s the fact that the official opposition critic for ethics, Charlie Angus, has been caught in his own controversy after his campaign failed to close its 2008 election account.  Hyer’s workload may well soon rival that of his leader’s, the ‘Hardest Working MP’ in 2013 according to her comrades’ votes in the Parliamentarian of the Year awards.

Buried in the headlines of Hyer’s new title and related issues, there’s another recent issue that deserves even more of his time.  It’s one that has barely graced a single headline in the past year, but which is relevant to this subject of democratic reform for its potential – however unlikely – to unite our parties for a universal crisis.

On January 30 – four days before his appointment of Democratic Reform Critic – Bruce Hyer introduced to Parliament the argument for fee and dividend policies as a potential measure to reign in Canada’s carbon emissions that are clearly off-target.  It would be prudent for other parties to seriously consider the proposal, and not only in the context of the sincere and dire need to take action on climate change.  Political motivations could also be argued for the widespread support of a fee and dividend policy.  Instead, it is sadly more likely to be completely ignored, if not torn to shreds amid partisan quarrels.

Simply put, fee and dividend is a revenue-neutral mechanism where the government collects penalties from greenhouse gas-emitting industries at the point of the emissions, which then redistributes the expenses equitably and directly to individuals who are impacted by any subsequent price increases on resulting products.  It has the potential to be extremely simple, fair and effective.  It can be reflected through all products and services that require fossil fuel consumption with a broader, more consumable trickle-down effects.  Unlike cap-and-trade, it’s a double-dividend with an added economic benefit.

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While Dion’s carbon tax pitch is said to have left a bad taste in the mouths of politicians and the public alike (despite its success in BC), the appetite for an alternative is growing.  The NDP’s push for a ‘cap and trade’ alternative has received a lukewarm reaction from the public and serious criticism from economists.  Meanwhile, Trudeau’s typically non-specific ‘price on carbon’ promises lack the vision to excite environmentalists, let alone economists.  A fee and dividend system, on the other hand, could be considered a fresh start.  Not only is it the preferred system for many economists, but has also gained name-brand power with the likes of the Sierra Club, James Hansen, Al Gore and the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.

Sooner or later, the Harper government is going to have to answer for the fact that it is close to 30% off-target for its own, weakened 2008-based emission targets.  Sooner or later, it’s going to have to implement long-promised regulatory policies for C02 producers.  No government, regardless of how flippantly it may disregard environmental concerns, can continue to procrastinate indefinitely on issues that are important to the majority of Canadians.  And when Harper finally has to act, he will find himself in an awkward spot if he has to back-peddle to embrace an intelligent system like fee and dividend when his last contact with it was a cold-shouldered brush-by.

The Citizens Climate Lobby, which has largely made fee and dividend its champion proposal since coming to Canada in 2010, enthusiastically declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ when Hyer introduced the concept last Thursday.  This, despite the fact that Hyer’s speech occurred in Adjournment Proceedings, where crickets would feel quite welcome.  The mention by Hyer is far from a guarantee of serious consideration by any other members of government, let alone the Canadian public, but it is a significant milestone.

Fee and dividend proposals have been kicking around the House of Representatives for almost five years in the US: not so in Canada.  That means we’re five years behind in sparking debate, analyzing potential forms of implementation and educating the public about a system that could be our best hope for serious reductions in carbon emissions.

Hyer recognizes the need for cooperation across party lines to meet and exceed our emission targets.  He recognizes that the government has to make up for lost time by using political consensus to warm Canadians to the idea of fee and dividend.  That doesn’t seem likely to happen in the fiercely partisan, pseudo-war room, election-eyeing, coalition-shunning Parliament of the day, when the Democratic Reform minister can’t even take the time to consult with the country’s own election agency before making major proposals.  Will Hyer be able to inspire democratic reform before other parties drown fee and dividend solutions in the swamp of mudslinging politics?  Greater miracles have happened, but not in Harper’s court.

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Other columns by Joseph Boutilier

Colonial Continuum: Canada’s Well Known Native Secret

Canada Post: A Contrived Controversy

Follow Joseph Boutilier on twitter: @josephboutilier

 

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