What are your thoughts on the public response to energy prices in Canada?
How Canadians look at energy prices is as naturalist Henry David Thoreau described, “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Thoreau could not be more right when it comes to the public’s take on energy discourse in this country.
Politicians from coast to coast frame the debate around what their citizens see now in terms of bills and prices at the pump versus future action on matters such as climate change or the need for pipelines. What you see is also different from where you sit. In places like Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador price is synonymous with employment. What you can afford to buy or pay for is heavily influenced by whether or not you have a job and the means to pay for it.
For example, the recent provincial election in Alberta was waged on who will more effectively get pipelines built. The pipeline symbolizes opportunity and the pace at which construction can happen represents the difference between a family’s employment or potential unemployment. Food on the table or not; certainly that is how the debate is cast.
An Angus Reid poll released in January captured well the notion of what you see depends on your perspective. The headline that came with the research screamed, “Nearly 6 in 10 Canadians polled call lack of new pipeline capacity a crisis.” Yet a paragraph in the media statement from the Angus Reid group captured the Canadian mosaic nicely. It read:
The latest polling finds Canadian polarized along regional lines, with residents of Alberta overwhelmingly taking the view that the situation is a crisis. Where British Columbians are divided, Quebecers take an opposite view.
In the recent Ontario provincial election the public was asked to see energy pricing through the prism of corporate executives getting wealthy, bad power distribution arrangements being struck while average Joe and Janes were just paying more to get by. They were also reminded that an energy price was really a carbon tax and the cost of everything in their lives was going up. Of course these are not homogenous views but the party that promoted them now governs Ontario and is driving its energy policy accordingly.
But Canadians are not lemmings and well communicated verifiable evidence changes what they see. For example, when it comes to that same Carbon Tax debate in Ontario levels of support or opposition vary with information available. In a February 8, 2019 poll done by our research company Abacus data found that in Ontario, 34 per cent support, 37 per cent are open to, and 30 per cent oppose the federal carbon tax. When told of the idea that revenues would be rebated to affected households support jumps to 42 per cent and opposition drops to 22 per cent.
There is no one Canadian view on energy prices. It’s a wide lens with lots of angles and different sightlines.
Tim Powers, is the Vice-Chairman of Summa Strategies Canada and the managing partner of Abacus Data, both headquarters are in Ottawa. Mr. Powers appears regularly on CBC’s Power and Politics program as well as on VOCM in his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Canadians have a lot of opinions when it comes to energy prices and they are not always polite when expressing them. I believe their strong opinions are the result of financial insecurities and frustrations and some politicians are capitalizing on this.
A 2018 year-end Ipsos poll showed that the percentage of Canadians who feel ‘good’ about their finances is at its lowest in 3 years. The picture looks even bleaker in Alberta where the energy sector and the thousands of livelihoods that depend on it continue to struggle. Conservatives in Canada are capitalizing on these insecurities and we don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of this. In Ontario, the Ford government continues to focus on doing everything in its power to fight the federal carbon tax and lower gasoline prices. Federally, the conservatives have sent robo text messages to Canadians in provinces where the carbon tax came into effect.What politicians fail to mention is that energy price fluctuations are the result of open markets and mostly beyond their control, by trying to artificially lower gasoline prices politicians are sacrificing the government’s future revenue. Government revenue from gasoline matters because it helps provincial and municipal governments build much needed infrastructure through the federal Gas Tax Fund.
It is human nature to complain about rising costs, whether it’s rising energy prices, food prices or the increasingly high cost of housing in Canada’s urban centres. It’s not difficult to see why energy prices have become a target for people’s frustrations. Prices fluctuate without “explanation”, almost arbitrarily, making it hard for Canadians, especially those with tight budgets and fixed incomes to adapt. While the sector is a major driver of Canada’s economy, it is a complex industry that is often misunderstood and the subject of ideological vitriol.
“No one likes uncertainty, especially when it comes to energy prices and how they fit into the budgets of Canadians.”
I propose that we look at the energy prices in Canada in a different light. When we think about the prices going up or down, instead of complaining about them, we should think about the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the sector, their livelihoods and ability or lack thereof – to provide for their families and in turn keep those towns and cities alive.
We should also think twice about the impact of government measures to lower energy prices. Saving you and me five cents per litre at the pump will result in the government having less revenue to fund the programs and services that we all rely on.
No one likes uncertainty, especially when it comes to energy prices and how they fit into the budgets of Canadians. Before politicians come up with yet another criticism of the federal carbon tax or a way to artificially lower energy prices, they should be honest with Canadians about the opportunity cost of their actions. If conservatives want to be fiscally responsible, they should focus on those who need the most help, like low incomes households, instead of trying to save everyone five cents, even those who are not bothered by the energy price fluctuations.
Gabriela Gonzalez is Consultant at Crestview Strategy. Prior to this, Gabriela worked at Queen’s Park and is a long-time Liberal organizer. Most recently, she worked as a Senior Communications and Operations Advisor to Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development and Growth. Gabriela holds an Honours Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Psychology from York University and Master’s degree from the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.
For environmentalists, the survival of our planet depends on our society reducing the use of fossil fuels, starting with putting a price on carbon dioxide and higher energy costs. For everyday families struggling to make ends meet, energy costs are a major monthly expense – and a major irritant. In less urban areas, say without public transit, the high cost of gasoline impacts and irritates even more.
So, for many, someone promising relief from rising energy costs is certainly worth listening to.
In the lead-up to the last election in Ontario, parties on the left and the right made proposals to address the impact of energy prices on everyday people. In fact, both the Liberals and Conservatives proposed putting a price on carbon while offering strong measures to provide relief from high energy prices.
There was a reason for this. The new federal Carbon Pricing plan meant a price had to be put on carbon dioxide, but a provincial government could direct revenues almost anywhere they wanted – including giving it back directly to taxpayers.
But in the aftermath of Patrick Brown’s resignation, these facts didn’t stop the entire field of PC leadership candidates from declaring war on the very notion of a Carbon Tax.
Doug Ford led the pack, taking rhetorical aim at the Carbon Tax already in the PC platform. The rest of the field – even those who had previously supported the PC version of a Carbon Tax – found Ford’s rhetoric too popular among PC members and all fell into line. But with just weeks until election day having a bumper sticker slogan became more important, no matter how many billions it cost the government. Right-wing populist bumper stickers are very expensive.
In October we will see the federal election take place and sadly we will likely witness more campaigns heavy on right-wing populist slogans but light on facts, policies or reasoned debate.
High energy prices are a reality and hurt families in the pocketbook. While I believe we must take urgent action to fight climate change, including putting a price on carbon dioxide, we cannot simply leave lower income families to fend for themselves.
But the problem isn’t populism vs pragmatism. The real issue here is honest, factual debate about a real problem vs misleading, dishonest and divisive rhetoric.
New Democrats come from a proud populist tradition, but not a dishonest one. When Tommy Douglas acted to establish Medicare, it was a populist idea. But it was also a practical solution to a problem everyday people were facing. A solution that made so much sense that even the elites of the Liberal Party in a few short years went from scare tactics and demonizing Douglas’ ideas to co-opting them.
Any energy policy that ignores the public’s response when it comes to energy prices is doomed. But an energy plan based on divisive rhetoric and bumper sticker slogans dooms the entire country.
Kathleen Monk is a Principal at Earnscliffe, where she is trusted by Canadian leaders to navigate complex public strategy issues, design strategy and bring together diverse stakeholders to tell authentic stories that deliver results. She appears regularly on CBC The National’s pre-eminent political panel, The Insiders, and provides analysis for CBC News Network’s Power and Politics.