11/04/2014 05:20 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

EcoFiscal group seeks a way to tax pollution, not jobs

Put a price on pollution and stop taxing income, employment and profits.

That’s the idea behind a new high-profile commission that hopes to restructure the tools Canada uses to guide its economy.

The Ecofiscal Commission will count former Reform party leader Preston Manning, former prime minister Paul Martin and former Quebec premier Jean Charest, as well as 10 prominent economists, among its members.

The chair is McGill University economist and former Bank of Canada advisor Chris Ragan, who insists the idea of taxing things that are bad for the economy like pollution, instead of things that are good like jobs, is not so far-fetched.

"We're here to say, 'Hey, not only is this doable, it's smart,"' Ragan said. "I actually think this is the next great policy opportunity."

Restructuring fiscal policies is an ambitious plan, but Ragan believes having high-profile names on the roster may draw attention to suggestions by the commission.

They come from across political spectrum but have “a shared conviction that Canada can do better,” he said in an interview with CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

"Canada can do better in terms of environmental performance, we can do better in terms of economic performance and those two things absolutely travel together and by looking at our fiscal structure, we can offer a path forward," Ragan said.

"If you look at the fiscal structures across this country, you’ll see they have evolved to the point where they are encouraging environmental destruction and degradation, and we are discouraging the things we actually want such as investment and innovation and better jobs," he added.

In addition to  Manning, Martin and Charest, the cross-partisan advisory board includes former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, tax specialist Jack Mintz, former Alberta finance minister Jim Dinning, Suncor CEO Steve Williams and Dominic Barton, the global managing director of McKinsey and Co.

Financially independent

The idea is to meet over a five or six-year period and deliver a series of reports on issues such as carbon, municipal waste, traffic congestion, air and water quality.

"Our job is to really do the hard work and identify effective, practical saleable policy options for governments across Canada," Ragan said.

Ragan has raised $1 million from a group of family foundations, so the commission’s work will be fully privately funded.

That should protect it from the fate of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, a research group that recommended more environmentally benign approach to the economy that was axed in the 2012 budget by the Harper government.

While the official line was that the roundtable's research was duplicated elsewhere, senior cabinet minister John Baird acknowledged the government pulled the plug because the research kept pointing to politically unwelcome carbon taxes.

The EcoFiscal Commission will also have to avoid the stigma connected to Stephane Dion’s proposed 2009 Green Shift, which would have taxed carbon fuels, but lightened payroll and income taxes.

Ragan argues that helping the environment is good for the economy.

"Our goal is to lay out practical, sensible, good policy options. What we will not do is simply be critical," Ragan said.