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How not to sell a carbon tax

You don’t win votes by promising a new tax. And calling the tax “revenue neutral” just gets a laugh from cynical voters.

Stéphane Dion learned these lessons tonight. Gordon Campbell might be taking notes.

Dion would have been better off if he had listened to Bruce Anderson.

Back in May, the Liberal leader was making noises about favouring a carbon tax. Anderson, the president of Harris/Decima, told The Tyee at the time that a carbon tax could help revive the federal Liberal party – if it was presented properly.

However, Anderson said, making a carbon tax the “leading edge” of a political campaign was not a great idea.

Dion went ahead and made the carbon-tax based Green Shift the leading edge of his campaign.

He got thumped.

True, Dion had a lot going against him in this campaign and his poor performance can’t be blamed entirely on the Green Shift. But arguing for a carbon tax obviously didn’t do him much good.

Economists tell us a carbon tax is good way to cut climate-changing greenhouse gases. Voters have been, to put it mildly, unconvinced.

They sent some clear messages about the tax tonight.

1) A carbon tax is hard to understand, especially when the guy who is trying to sell it is less than proficient in one of the official languages.

2) A carbon tax is easy to distort. The Conservatives successfully sold the Green Shift as a “tax on everything,” which it wasn’t. And they never mentioned the promised tax cuts that would offset the carbon tax.

3) Few people understand – and even fewer believe – promises that the tax will be revenue neutral.

The Green Shift plan was spelled out in thorough detail. Perhaps overwhelmingly so. “A tax on everything” is so much easier to understand.

It didn’t help that Dion was trying to sell the Green Shift during a period of high taxes and a plunging stock market. But the problems with the carbon tax as a potential vote-getter go deeper than that.

Back in May, Anderson said Canadians will accept a carbon tax if it’s presented as part of a broad package of environmental policies.

But the phrase “carbon tax” is a hard sell, he said.

“Carbon is a technical term that is associated directly with a symptom of the broader environmental problem and that limits its effectiveness from a communications standpoint,” Anderson said.

“Tax is a term that everybody knows and understands and not too many people feel all that good about.”

As Anderson’s comments suggest, the Green Shift was in deep trouble when the Conservatives framed the debate as being about taxes, rather than the environment.

As pollster Conrad Winn told The Tyee, “No politician has ever been able to thrive by talking about taxes.”

Winn, the founder of COMPAS Public Opinion, said the Liberals’ reliance on the Green Shift as the centrepiece of their campaign gave too much credence to voters’ willingness to say they care about fighting climate change.

“It greatly overstates public opinion to put too much into respondents’ apparently pro-environmental attitudes,” Winn said. “We all know that politicians suffer from hypocrisy, but voters are human too.”

Winn said voters don’t understand how a carbon tax works and simply don’t trust promises that the money collected by the carbon tax will be returned in income tax cuts.

“Voters have too much experience being promised one thing and experiencing another,” Winn said.

“The only part of the carbon tax that’s clear is the word tax.”

Will B.C.’s carbon tax drag down Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberals? Based on the federal results, Campbell should be worried.

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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