Premier Brian Pallister is raising the possibility of imposing a carbon tax in Manitoba as he tries to fashion a green plan that will meet with the federal government’s approval.
But he’s simultaneously warning that Ottawa will have to show some flexibility if it wants him to continue playing the role of bridge-builder to the other two Prairie provinces, where talk of western alienation and outright separation has escalated since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won re-election on Oct. 21.
“The prime minister has said and numerous of his colleagues have said that they are seeking to build a stronger country. To do that, Manitoba is the bridge,” Pallister said after a 30-minute meeting with Trudeau, who is in Winnipeg for a federal cabinet retreat.
“If you can’t get along with friendly Manitobans, there’s a lot of other Canadians you can’t get along with.”
Pallister’s government initially came up with a green plan that included a carbon tax that was below the national standard set by the Trudeau government. He scrapped the plan when it was rejected by Ottawa and joined his fellow conservative premiers in challenging the federal carbon tax backstop in court.
Ottawa is imposing its tax on provinces that have refused to meet the national standard for pricing carbon emissions: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. The national tax was initially imposed in New Brunswick as well but that province came up with its own tax after the election, which has since been approved by the feds.
Pallister said he’ll unveil a new green plan and discuss it with the federal government “in the not too distant future.” That dialogue, he added, “will include a carbon price of some kind.”
Whereas the national carbon tax is structured to escalate over time, Pallister indicated that he believes any tax should be “flat and low like the Prairie horizon.”
Moreover, he said Ottawa must give Manitoba credit for steps it’s already taken to reduce carbon emissions, such as investing in clean hydro electricity.
“We’ve put billions of dollars at risk to green up the environment and we deserve respect for that,” Pallister said.
“We deserve to be respected for our green record. We do not deserve to be called climate-change deniers by anybody … We want acceptance of our made-in-Manitoba green strategies.”
However, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was not enthusiastic about crediting the province for past measures.
“We have to be forward-looking with climate change,” he said after making an announcement elsewhere in Winnipeg.
“At the end of the day, the challenge that we are facing is one of the emissions that exist today. We need to … have plans as to how we’re going to reduce the emissions that exist today.”
Trudeau’s tete-a-tete with Pallister came on the second day of a three-day federal cabinet retreat, being held in Winnipeg in a bid to reach out to a region that spurned Trudeau’s Liberals in the Oct. 21 election.
The election reduced the Liberals to a minority. They were entirely shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where Liberal environmental and climate policies are widely blamed for gutting the energy industry.
Manitoba, where the Liberals lost three of seven seats, is somewhat friendlier turf.
Pallister has signalled his willingness to work with Ottawa, in stark contrast to the other openly hostile Prairie premiers, Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe.
While the cabinet retreat is an exercise in outreach to the discontented region, Wilkinson signalled Sunday that the federal climate plan, including the centrepiece national carbon tax, isn’t likely to be modified to mollify westerners.
“We need to ensure that as we develop climate policy that we are being sensitive to the concerns and aspirations of all regions of the country,” said Wilkinson, who grew up in Saskatchewan and represents a British Columbia riding.
But while he said the government is “always open” to conversations about improving public policy, Wilkinson added: “I would tell you that we just came through an election campaign where the price on pollution was a key part of the discussion and two-thirds of Canadians voted for parties that support a price on pollution.
“It is the most effective and efficient way to reduce emissions.”
At the same time, the government is hoping that western tempers will cool off now that construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is underway and the Supreme Court last week cleared away another legal hurdle.
Ministers were given an update on the project Sunday by Trans Mountain Corp. CEO Ian Anderson, who later estimated the project will be completed by mid to late 2022.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan argued that expanding the pipeline – which is to carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to B.C.’s coast for export overseas – is not incompatible with the government’s long-term objective to wean the country off fossil fuels and attain zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
“I know that there are a number of people who have questioned whether or not we were sincere in our objectives (to expand the pipeline) and now it’s happening,” O’Regan said.
“And I hope it does … change the temperature somewhat because we are going to need all of us, every part of this country is going to need to be involved in achieving ‘net zero.’ There’s no two ways about it.”
-With files from Steve Lambert