British Columbia Election 2009: The Role of the Carbon Tax

Alex Etchell and George Hoberg

(with research by Matthew Landry and Gordon McCullough)


            British Columbia’s provincial election this May was supposed to be an election about the economy. Jobs, fiscal responsibility, and economic recovery should have dominated debates, media coverage, and public discourse. ‘Good times’ issues like environmental protection and climate change policy ought to have fallen by the wayside. Instead, they remained salient. In particular, BC’s carbon tax played a central role from the first days of the campaign to Campbell’s election night victory speech and media post-mortems.


            The carbon tax became a highly politicized issue well in advance of this campaign. Premier Gordon Campbell of the BC Liberal Party introduced a carbon tax that took effect in July 2008 to accolades from many in the environmental community. Subsequently, as gas prices soared in the summer of 2008, Carole James and her BC New Democratic Party launched an aggressive “axe the tax” campaign. When the writ dropped on April 14, the two main parties remained diametrically opposed in their stances on the carbon tax.


The NDP gave the issue significant profile by leading with it in their platform, but media interest in the issue was also fueled by criticisms of the NDP by prominent BC environmentalists. On the first day of the campaign, a group of environmentalists released a media backgrounder criticizing the NDP’s axe the tax position and giving Campbell credit for climate leadership. Several high profile environmental activists denounced the NDP position in front page articles in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. On April 17, the lead story in the Vancouver Sun was “Key supporter quits NDP over carbon tax.” The story picked up a statement by environmentalist Tzeporah Berman who accused the NDP of putting “politicking before the planet in the most hypocritical fashion.” On April 18th, the front page of the BC edition of the Globe and Mail featured environmentalist David Suzuki’s call for the NDP to rewrite its election platform to drop their plan to eliminate the carbon tax.  Suzuki argued that an NDP victory following its ‘axe the gas tax’ campaign would set back political efforts to adopt effective climate change policies in other jurisdictions.

Given the historical connections between the NDP and the environmental movement, these developments were newsworthy. The controversy was further fueled when the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy released a report recommending Canada pursue a cap and trade approach rather than a carbon tax, which was initially interpreted as bolstering the NDP position.

Surprisingly, even after this initial burst, the carbon tax issue continued to play a prominent role in the campaign. From the writ drop on April 14 to the election on May 12th, the Vancouver Sun ran 16 articles or letters that focused on the carbon tax. Three of these made the front page. The Province featured 10 carbon tax articles or letters, the Times Colonist ran 15, and CBC’s online BC news site featured 5. Compared to a traditional mainstream issue like health care, this level of coverage was significant. During the same period, the Vancouver Sun ran 11 health care articles or letters, the Province ran 3, the Times Colonist ran just 2, and CBC’s online BC news section ran none.  This is particularly significant, given that an Angus Reid Poll on April 29 found ‘the environment’ in a tie with health care for the 3rd most important issue for B.C. voters, behind ‘the economy’ and ‘crime/public safety.’

This media attention is particularly noteworthy given that neither party emphasized the issue during most of the campaign. While the NDP led with the issue, they quickly downplayed after the backlash from prominent environmentalists.  A review of the news updates on the NDP website shows that the carbon or gas tax was mentioned prominently in 12 of the 40 stories posted from April 14 to the end of April, but only twice in the 30 stories posted in May through the 12th of that month (election day). The carbon tax was not a core part of the BC Liberal message. On their website, it was not mentioned by name in their news releases, and only three releases spoke about “pricing carbon emissions.”

            Even before the results came in, some commentators began to speculate on the likely electoral effects of the carbon tax. For the Globe and Mail, Dirk Meissner reported on speculations that the NDP’s stance on the carbon tax might hurt it on election day. In particular, he emphasized the views of Harris Decima’s Senior VP Jeff Walker who suggested that “traditional soft environment voters in British Columbia who usually go into every election vowing to vote Green, but end up going with the NDP are now considering staying Green to punish the NDP.”


Further, on election day Gary Mason noted that the NDP may have “picked the wrong fight” with the carbon tax. Specifically, he argued that, “had it not been for their position on the carbon tax, New Democrats might have been able to count on green supporters throwing their votes behind them. Not only did Axe the Tax cost the NDP those votes, but the votes of many traditional party supporters as well.” The Tyee reported on April 22nd  the carbon tax was one of a handful of environmental policies deliberately designed by the Liberals to pull a sizeable chunk of environmentally-minded Green and NDP voters to the Liberal party.


These opinions are particularly noteworthy because it has often been assumed that any party that introduces, or proposes to introduce a carbon tax will pay a hefty electoral price. Jeffrey Simpson has recently argued that “taxing carbon has become the third rail of Canadian politics:  touch it and you die.”* However, what hard data is available seems to suggest that, in this provincial election, the net electoral effect of the carbon tax may have been relatively neutral. In fact, a recent Harris Decima poll conducted for the Canadian Press found that carbon taxation can be an equal political liability for proponents and opponents. Specifically, it determined that the number of British Columbians who were angry with Gordon Campbell for introducing the carbon tax was similar to the number of those who were angry at Carole James for opposing it.


While we have no exit polls to indicate the links between voters’ views on the carbon tax and their party choice in the election, the results of the election strongly suggest that the carbon tax issue did not hurt the BC Liberals.  As Vaughn Palmer notes, the election results in 2009 were virtually the same as they were in 2005:  the popular vote in both years was 46% for the Liberals to 42% for the New Democrats. The gap in seats was 13 in 2005, and barring changes from recounts, 13 in 2009.


[Update - subsequently to this post an exit poll was released that revealing the BC Liberals' support for the carbon tax was a negative for them, suggesting they may have won the election by even more had the not advocated it. See the next post.]


The New Democrats were using the “axe the tax” campaign as a populist wedge issue to try to appeal to rural voters. An evaluation of election results in rural ridings shows this strategy had little apparent impact. In 2005, the Liberals won 16 of 28 rural ridings (57%), with an average of 51% of the vote. In 2009, the Liberals won 21 of 34 rural ridings (62%) with an average of 51% of the vote. (There were new electoral boundaries which changed both the number and boundaries of ridings.)


Despite its low profile in his campaign, Gordon Campbell specifically alluded to carbon taxes in his first mention of policy issues in his victory speech. “They send a message to others who may have looked at this with trepidation. It says it can be done, it should be done, it must be done for our children and grandchildren.” Of course, there were a many issues in the campaign, the dominant one being the recession, followed closely by crime. But the election results suggest that Campbell did not pay any significant political price for pursuing the carbon tax.


Next on  now that the BC election is over, what’s next for climate action policies?


* The Jeffrey Simpson quote is from “Broken Hearts, Broken Policies:  The Politics of Climate Change,” in Carbon Shift, Thomas Homer-Dixon, ed., (Toronto:  Random House of Canada, 2009).

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