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09/18/2018 10:23 EDT | Updated 09/18/2018 10:30 EDT

Reading Between The Lines Of Doug Ford's Anti-Carbon Tax Stance

Premier Ford transforms the use of the word "tax" into his political weapon in his brand of dog-whistle politics.

Ontario does not have a carbon tax, but that doesn't stop Doug Ford from attacking what he refers to as Katherine Wynne's carbon tax. Misappropriating the word "tax," he opts to divide and conquer Ontario with his brand of dog-whistle politics.

In a news release dated July 25, 2018, Ford's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks alluded to grandiose action with a headline that read "Ontario Introduces Legislation to End Cap and Trade Carbon Tax Era in Ontario" followed by a blurb all about the pocket book: "Eliminating carbon taxes will save the average family $260 per year and help reduce gas prices by 10 cents per litre." To end the triumphant announcement in sound and fury, the Ford government asked the press to quote the following: "Ontario's carbon tax era is over. Cancelling the cap-and-trade carbon tax is the right thing to do, a good thing to do and one more example of a promise made and a promise kept."

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to reporters, in Toronto, on Sept. 10, 2018.

The declaration is right about promises, sort of. Before becoming Ontario Premier, Ford did say in a news release dated June 15, 2018 that the "first act" of his government would be to "scrap the cap-and-trade carbon tax." Aside from any quibble of what actually the first act is or what such an act is really about, something is indeed scrapped.

But there's one big problem. As pointed out by a Toronto Star editorial on March 22, 2018 entitled "Doug Ford's Position on Carbon Tax Makes No Sense, "Ontario does not actually have a carbon tax." What the Wynne government passed was a cap-and-trade system of carbon pricing. Not to belabour the point, cap-and-trade and carbon tax are not the same, as university students can learn. As a saving grace, the provincial government's "Cap and trade" page as of Sept. 17, 2018 still provides information on "Ontario's carbon market using a cap and trade program" and the subsequent cancellation of "the cap and trade regulation" rather than Ford's phantom carbon tax.

Ford's co-mingling of the two terms did manage to create confusion. For example, the UK Guardian ran a Jul 3, 2018 story with the headline: "Doug Ford Scraps Carbon Tax Plan And Sets Up Climate Fight With Trudeau." As indicated in the story, the carbon tax plan referred to in the headline was actually Ontario's cap-and-trade system. Ford came across as a Canadian clone of the bombastic U.S. President Trump as he was quoted as saying: "The carbon tax is the single worst tax anyone — not just in Ontario — Canada could ever have." Such hyperbole is classic Trumpian — just make a sweeping claim with a reckless disregard of facts and then let it rip.

To be sure, Ford is not the first Canadian politician to use taxes to incite and inflame in order to advance a trickle-down agenda. Stephen Harper did it, at least twice on the record. In a July 13, 2009 opinion piece, what then Prime Minister Harper said made its headline: "A Very Scary PM: 'I Don't Believe That Any Taxes Are Good Taxes'." Even before becoming Prime Minister, Conservative Party leader Harper said on Dec. 1, 2005: "I believe that all taxes are bad."

Engaging in his brand of dog-whistle politics, Ford first declared victory against a phantom carbon tax and then wages war against a real one.

Ford's claim that tax is something Ontarians need him to protect them from might have whipped up enough anti-tax sentiment that needs to be reckon with. In the runup to the June provincial election, Ford's Progressive Conservative Party was the only party among the four main contestants in Ontario to dangle tax cuts to lure voters. A month before the Ontario provincial election, the public opinion in the province appeared to have turned against "carbon taxes." That's a deviation from a poll earlier in the year finding Ontarian support for "a price on carbon emissions, even if it makes some things more expensive."

Ford transforms the use of the word "tax" into his political weapon in his brand of dog-whistle politics. The word "tax" as misappropriated by Ford is the code word designed to conjure up everything that's wrong with what he views as wasteful, inefficient government in the minds of voters. His weaponization of the use of the word "tax" shows he is betting that not only his base doesn't like taxation so do many other Ontarians. His move is calculated to win by tapping into the anti-tax sentiment — instead of asking voters to vote for Ford, he nudges voters to vote against "tax" as in the _________ (voters can fill in any negative adjective of their choosing) taking by the government of their money. No matter how Ontario voters are counted, in any election betting that Ontario has more anti-tax voters than pure Ford voters might appear to be a winning bet.

Engaging in his brand of dog-whistle politics, Ford first declared victory against a phantom carbon tax and then wages war against a real one. Having disposed of the Wynne provincial Liberals' environmental policy initiative, the Ford Tories are taking on the Trudeau federal Liberals' carbon tax push. In a statement dated Sept. 7, 2018, Ontario's environmental ministry said: "The recent election was a decisive referendum on carbon taxation. We heard the people loud and clear: Ontario cannot afford a carbon tax."

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Whether the election was a "referendum on carbon taxation" as "decisive" as the Ford government claims is unclear. But the word "carbon" is clearly just a stand-in. The line "Ontario cannot afford a carbon tax" could easily be "Ontario cannot afford any tax." As a poll released on August 13 showed that a majority of Canadians does support the use of carbon tax to reduce energy consumption, whether Ford's strategy of deploying his weaponized rhetoric of "tax" will net him more political victories remains to be seen.

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