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Conservatives were once champions for the environment. Will they be again?

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Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. President Ronald Reagan hold their first round of free trade talks on March 17, 1985 in Quebec City. Scott Applewhite/The Canadian Press/AP

A ‘topsy-turvy’ state of affairs

If there can be said to be a single policy responsible for Pierre Poilievre’s ascendancy in the Conservative Party and his continued rise in polls it would be his opposition to the carbon tax.

“Axe the Tax” has become a memorable and effective message for Canadians eager for a clear-cut solution to a tangled web of problems making their lives more expensive. When Poilievre was running for the leadership of the party in 2022, his two most prominent opponents—Patrick Brown and Jean Charest—either were supportive of a carbon tax (Brown) or were premier of the first government in the country to introduce a price on carbon (Charest). While none of the candidates were enthusiastically in favour of such a tax, no one was as fierce in their opposition to it as Poilievre. He won the leadership on the first ballot with nearly 70 percent of the votes.

Today the carbon tax has become an anchor around the ankles of Trudeau’s government, thanks in large part to the messaging from Poilievre and the Conservatives. The overwhelming majority of provincial premiers oppose the policy, and even the NDP have backed Conservative calls for Trudeau to hear their objections. Several progressive would-be premiers are now crafting their climate change policies under the assumption that the tax won’t be around much longer. Depending on which poll you read, opposition among Canadians against the carbon tax increase is as high as 69 percent.

The extent to which the consumer carbon tax (as distinct from industrial pricing) is, in fact, responsible for making life more expensive for Canadians is a huge question that is, unfortunately, beyond the purview of this essay.One Abacus poll of over 2,000 Canadians across the country found that 61 percent said it was “false” that most people will get more money back in a rebate than they pay for the tax; the same poll found that half of Canadians eligible for the Climate Action Incentive Payment (CAIP; i.e., the rebate) didn’t know what the payment was for, and 44 percent had never heard of it at all. What is indisputably true is that the popularity of the current Conservative Party’s leader has been built in large part on his opposition to what is essentially a conservative idea.

“There is an irony in all this,” said Christopher Ragan, an economist, former head of the EcoFiscal Commission, and now founding director of McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. Not only was it a Conservative government that first introduced a price on carbon in Canada, but it is a hands-off, market-based measure; in theory, it operates in place of sector-based regulations which tend to be more intrusive and economically costly.

“Traditionally, conservatives wouldn’t like that,” Ragan said. “But we’re living in a topsy-turvy world here.” The fact that the Liberals have adopted carbon pricing has led the Conservatives to oppose it. Not only have the Conservatives yet to propose an alternative, but the policy measures that have been floated are, according to Ragan, “more interventionist than a carbon price.”

The irony runs deeper. Canadian conservatives have a track record of some of the most impressive environmental policy achievements in the nation’s history. The Montreal Protocol was the most widely ratified treaty in United Nations history and the single most effective piece of policy in halting the depletion of the ozone layer—the closest historical precedent for the current crisis of climate change.

That conference was assembled and chaired by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government. That same government also pioneered the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to systematically assess and manage chemical contaminants in the environment. They enhanced emission standards for vehicles, improved international cooperation against acid rain, and spearheaded the creation of five new national parks.

The modern environmental imperative is arguably more pressing today than it was during the Mulroney years. But the Conservative Party today is a totally different one, operating in a different world. During a 2021 policy convention, a riding association introduced an amendment to its policy book that included wording indicating the party believes “climate change is real” and is “willing to act.” It was voted down by convention delegates by a margin of 54 percent.

The man who fixed the hole in the sky

The primacy of environmental stewardship goes back to the beginnings of conservative philosophy. It’s right there in the word, after all—conservatives have a duty to “conserve” the environment for future generations. Edmund Burke, one of the founding fathers of conservative thought, said that we are “temporary possessors or life renters” of the natural world and argued that we need to be on guard against the risk that we might leave to future generations “a ruin instead of a habitation.”

Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, argued that conservatism underpins the most effective forms of environmentalism; that oikophilia, a love of home, among regular people tends to lead to better solutions than shifting accountability to centralized bureaucracies that have “confiscated the duties of citizens.”

Canada must more than double the average number of homes built annually to meet the federal housing plan

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, and Housing Minister Sean Fraser, right, overlook the construction of new housing in Brampton, Ont., Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

Annual residential construction starts across Canada, from condos to bungalows, would need to more than double the average of the past 23 years to meet Ottawa’s ambitious target of 3.87 million new homes by 2031, ramping up extensively from previous years of stagnant construction.

Last month, the federal government announced Canada’s most recent Housing Plan. It seeks to build two million net residential units by 2031, in addition to the 1.87 million units that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation forecasts will be built regardless during the same time. A mix of loan and tax measures for developers, administered by the federal and provincial governments, have been enacted to boost housing construction.

To build 3.87 million new homes by 2031, Canada would need to see an average of 483,740 new residences each year for the next eight years. But the annual average between 2000 and 2023 was only 208,939.

Since 2000, the average growth of new construction on residential units has been 2.7 percent. If Canada maintained that current pace over the coming years, only 2.1 million additional homes would be built from 2023 to 2031.

To meet this 3.87 million housing goal described as “adjacent to impossible,” Canada would need to buck years of stagnant housing construction starts, shown in the chart below. As housing starts have failed to match Canada’s growing population, home prices have soared, while personal disposable income has been unable to keep up.

Canada could be building between 130,000 and 225,000 additional homes each year, or a total average of around 400,000, according to a report by CMHC, released this month. The hurdle is less to do with a lack of workers and materials, and more to do with municipal regulations and construction industry fragmentation, said the CMHC.

Delays in city permits being delivered, development charges, and density regulations are delaying developments and investment.

Nearly 69 percent of Canadian construction businesses have less than five employees. Their consolidation could generate a better economy for construction at scale, passing savings onto Canadians, explained the CMHC.

On Tuesday, the housing ministers for both the federal and Ontario governments, Sean Fraser and Paul Calandra, announced Ottawa would provide Ontario $357 million to meet its housing goals.

The deal requires Ontario to provide more data on how previous  provincial investment supported housing projects, and how future investment will support the housing industry and data collection at the city-level. Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada which provides  government housing funds through municipal leaders.

The agreement also means an end to months of disagreement over additional federal funding to Ontario. The federal government had said Queen’s Park didn’t provide enough detail for their planned use of $5.8 billion to create 19,660 rent-assisted residences by 2028. During the dispute, the federal government threatened to by-pass Queen’s Park by providing National Housing Strategy funding directly to Ontario municipalities.

London and Guelph, Ont., have already received $74 million and $21.4 million from Ottawa’s separate Housing Accelerator Fund, specifically for municipal governments.

London said it will help finance over 2,000 affordable homes in the next three years and incentivize office tower conversions. Guelph promised an additional 739 homes above its annual average. Windsor, Ont. was denied the same direct federal cash.

“Only the most ambitious communities will receive funding,” wrote minister Fraser in his letter to Windsor denying their application.

Further West, the government of Alberta has been critical of the federal government’s National Housing Strategy for provinces for its perceived lack of consultation.

“No information has been provided about whether funding will be provided per capita, to ensure it is not used for political gain,” said Alberta Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver and Minister of Seniors, Community, and Social Service Community Jason Nixon in a statement.

“We reject the idea that the provinces and territories should not be involved in this decision, as we are best positioned to understand the local housing needs and concerns of our communities,” they said.