During the life of this current Parliament there have been a few things that have hung over the political players in Ottawa, awaiting resolution that would have a big impact on the direction of not only Canadian law, but invariably our political discourse. Even as the pandemic has raged on, these issues have been out there, hanging like the sword of Damocles over the political heads of federal and provincial leaders. Well today one of those swords finally came down, in what might be one of the most consequential Supreme Court of Canada decisions of this century so far. And folks, the result was interesting:
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled the federal Liberal carbon pricing regime is constitutional, with a solid 6-3 decision backing Ottawa’s case. For those that have followed the issue, this result felt relatively certain to come, but not guaranteed. The law passed by the Trudeau government was solid and it always felt like a waste of money by provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario that was much more about politics than actual jurisprudence. That’s because that’s what it was.
The justices made it clear the importance and historical nature of this legislation in their ruling. Chief Justice Wagner wrote that the federal government is completely within its rights and jurisdiction to impose minimum pricing standards because the threat of climate change is so great that it demands a coordinated national approach. Her pointed out that it’s constitutional for Ottawa to take the lead on this issue, as it crosses provincial boundaries. He went to pains to point out that climate change knows no boundaries, writing that “A failure to include one province in the scheme would jeopardize its success in the rest of Canada”. In a line that speaks directly to the importance of this moment, Wagner wrote something that really jumped out:
“Climate change is real. It is caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities, and it poses a grave threat to humanity’s future.”Source: CBC.ca
You’d think that in 2021 it wouldn’t be so shocking to see such a simple, factual statement be made in such a decision, but after what we saw happen at the Conservative convention last weekend, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. Those are the stakes here, and Wagner made that clear. He made it clear that Canada could take the action it did under the “Peace, Order and Good Government” clause of the Constitution, upholding the legislation in the process. Wagner drove that home when it wrote that “this matter is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life … As a result, it passes the threshold test and warrants consideration as a possible matter of national concern”. Surely something that’s an existential threat to human life would be a threat to “Peace, Order and Good Government”, right?
When it comes to the political calculus of climate change, carbon pricing and environmental policy, this ruling is a game changer. For the Liberals, it’s an affirmation of their policy and approach. That affirmation carries over to the New Democrats and Greens, who also support similar polices and approaches. It’s clear that Ottawa is within its right to act as the government did here, and that question is now settled.
But for the O’Toole Conservatives and his provincial colleagues in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, this is a serious blow. The courts answered a question that really only existed because of attempts to fearmonger about federal legislation. While it wasn’t a certainty that the Supreme Court would rule this way, it was the most likely outcome of this case. Ever since these challenge cases were launched by these provinces and supported by the federal Conservatives, it was clear that there were motived less by legal issues and more by pure partisan interest. It was another waste of taxpayers’ dollars towards tilting at political windmills, only to end up exactly where they started.
These Conservative leaders were all banking on the courts undoing this legislation rather than having to do the hard work of coming up with an actual alternative to deal with the actual problem at hand. You know that matter which is an “existential threat to human life”, as the majority put it. The Conservative movement has spent the last 15 years fighting any attempt to tackle this issue with real action. In the process, they’ve fallen out of step with the vast majority of Canadians on this matter. They have fallen out of step with the majority of leaders in the natural resources sector and in the energy industry as well. On the weekend the Conservatives failed to pass a basic motion that not only stated the truth, but is exactly the kind of thing that energy sector CEO’s have been saying for a decade, which tells you just how far the Conservatives have fallen in this regard.
To borrow a line from a tweet by Bruce Anderson this morning, Conservatives have tried court challenges, advertising, war rooms, misleading stickers, mistruths about carbon pricing & rebates and still most Canadians think that carbon pricing is a necessary idea. They have done everything short of actually burying their heads in the sand of facing the truth and doing the hard work to come up with a solution of their own. As a result, this is where they find themselves today. The Conservative Party of Canada and many (but not all) of their provincial counterparts have become the equivalent of the Wile E. Coyote of Canadian political life. They have tried every trick in the book and every shortcut they could take to try to catch that darned Roadrunner, only to predictably fail. In trying to use the courts to do their work for them, it was like that Coyote calling on the Acme Corporation for their latest contraption to shortcut things. And as usually happens with those products from Acme, this one blew up in their face.
So after this latest episode, will the Conservatives actually learn their lesson? Will they ever propose a serious alternative to what the Liberals, New Democrats and others propose? Will they put in the time and effort that it will take to try to agree on one within their own ranks? Or will they turn again to the latest edition of the Acme catalogue looking for salvation? We’ll see what O’Toole and team will do but if they decide to do the same that they’ve done for the past decade, they’re in for a world of political pain. They should have learned before now that the flimsy umbrella the Coyote used to protect himself from falling Acme anvils never worked. The Supreme Court of Canada told them as much today. Now we’ll see if they get the true protection of a real plan on climate change, or if they’ll keep standing on that rocky cliff with that umbrella in hand, waiting for the next anvil of reality to drop out of the sky.