A new poll of Ontario voters shows that if the Progressive Conservatives want to win with swing voters in the coming election, they'll need a policy that tackles climate change and prices carbon emissions. Leaving aside Patrick Brown's on again, off again bid to succeed himself, the other four candidates in the PC leadership contest rushed to distance themselves from the "People's Guarantee" platform, and in particular its promise to implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax. But the new Forum Research survey commissioned by Canadians for Clean Prosperity shows that that might have been the wrong move.
The most committed PC voters, who likely resemble the party's membership base, oppose a carbon tax and are more skeptical of action on climate change. However, this does not reflect opinion in the province as a whole. More importantly, this inaction on climate change does not appeal to voters who are undecided or merely leaning conservative — the voters the party needs to attract and keep to win the election.
The survey shows that the PCs have a comfortable lead with 46 per cent of the decided vote, compared to the New Democrats at 24 per cent and the beleaguered Liberals at 21 per cent. There is, however, a crucial split between the 34 per cent of the electorate who are solidly PC and the 16 per cent who are only "somewhat likely" to vote for them.
When it comes to climate change and carbon pricing, the PC base is out of step with the provincial electorate as a whole.
The votes of that 16 per cent of Ontarians that will determine whether the PCs are able to win the next election. It is roughly the same gap as the one between the 31 to 35 per cent of the vote that the PCs captured in the last four elections, and the 45 per cent vote that gave them their last election win under Mike Harris in 1999.
When it comes to climate change and carbon pricing, the PC base is out of step with the provincial electorate as a whole, and with the 16 per cent they need to win a majority. Ontarians as a whole believe the province should either being doing more (51 per cent) or about the same as now (26 per cent) to limit climate change. Only 17 per cent say the province should do less. Inaction may be popular among the PC base, but those who are only somewhat likely to vote Progressive Conservative look like the rest of the province: 55 per cent of them say Ontario should do more on climate change.
When we ask specifically about carbon pricing, the same pattern emerges. Even when told it will make some things more expensive, 46 per cent of Ontarians support a price on carbon, compared to 28 per cent who are opposed. Once again, the PC base shows more resistance with 48 per cent opposed to a carbon price, while that crucial segment of "somewhat likely" voters favours a carbon price by a two-to-one margin.
As to what form of carbon pricing Ontarians prefer, it seems that the People's Guarantee was on the right track. The survey asked respondents about the three realistic policy options for Ontario: keep the existing cap-and-trade system, replace it with a revenue-neutral carbon tax where the dollars raised are used to reduce other taxes, or allow the federal government to impose its own carbon price. The most popular option (33 per cent support) was a made-in-Ontario, revenue-neutral carbon tax, followed by the existing provincial cap-and-trade system. Only 15 per cent of respondents wanted an Ottawa-imposed carbon tax. It's worth noting that New Democrat and Green Party voters favoured the revenue-neutral option, with only Liberal voters narrowly preferring to keep the existing cap-and-trade regime in place.
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The message to whoever becomes the next PC leader is clear. If she or he wants to capture 34 per cent of the vote and lead the opposition, then they should continue to oppose any form of carbon pricing and make the party look out of touch on climate change. But to win over those voters who are only leaning PC, and to avoid a repeat of past election failures, it's necessary to move into the mainstream of Ontario public opinion on these issues and support putting a price on carbon.
Mark Cameron is the executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity.
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