TORONTO — All three candidates vying to lead Ontario's Progressive Conservatives have distanced themselves from a party commitment to replace the governing Liberals' cap-and-trade system with a carbon tax, raising questions about their ability to deliver on some major election promises.
The carbon tax, a key pillar in the party platform introduced in November, was forecast to bring in an estimated $4 billion and fund an income tax cut, as well as mental health spending among other measures.
None of those competing to replace former Tory leader Patrick Brown, who resigned last month amid sexual misconduct allegations he denies, have so far laid out what they would put in place of the carbon tax if they officially axe it, but all have said they're opposed to the measure.
Experts say eliminating the carbon tax would require overhauling the party platform mere months ahead of a spring election.
"If the leadership candidates are saying they would eliminate the carbon tax, then they have to say which of the tax cuts they'll be eliminating along with it or they have to say they're willing to increase the deficit," said Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Stripping out other elements of the platform would be the most expedient option given the short timeframe, she said. "However, if they actually want to reshape the platform in another way, that would take longer," she said.
The governing Liberals launched a cap-and-trade system last year that brought in nearly $2 billion by the end of 2017. The revenue has been going toward green projects such as energy efficient improvements at hospitals, smart thermostats for homeowners, and bike lanes, which the Liberals hope will further help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Under Brown, the Tories had pitched the carbon tax as a replacement for cap and trade, and promised to use the revenue for an income tax cut rather than green energy programs, which they said would make their plan revenue neutral.
Only one candidate, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, has vowed to unequivocally eliminate the carbon tax without indicating he would enact another system to meet federal rules that mandate a carbon-pricing system.
"I'm not going to introduce a carbon tax and if the prime minister tries to make us, well, in the words of his father: just watch me," Ford has said in a tweet.
Former Tory legislator Christine Elliott and Toronto lawyer Caroline Mulroney have both said they oppose the carbon tax but will consult party members before bringing forward a plan of their own, which they hope to do before the March leadership vote.
Elliott also noted the need to be fiscally responsible.
"We can't just say 'let's scrap the carbon tax' and not provide an alternative because it does provide that revenue that we need in order to afford the other parts of the People's Guarantee (platform). So whatever I put forward to the members is going to be that source of revenue," Elliott said in an interview this week.
"We also need to be environmentally responsible as well so we need to look at it with eyes on a number of issues but we can do that in very short order."
A survey conducted by Elliott's campaign found 92 per cent of more than 1,500 respondents oppose the carbon tax, her team said.
Mulroney said she believes the Tories could find savings elsewhere to help offset the loss of the carbon tax revenue.
"There are a lot of things in the platform and we're looking at all of them but I can tell you that after 15 years of the Liberals at Queen's Park, no one thinks that the Wynne government isn't wasteful and so there are a lot of places that we can start to look," she said in an interview.
Experts note that while cutting the tax might win points with some voters, in the end Ontario will nonetheless have a carbon pricing system as a result of federal rules that require provinces adopt either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.
"Any political leader who suggests scrapping carbon pricing entirely (with no tax nor trading system) would do so foolishly, since it has become a national requirement under federal law in any event," said Nathalie Chalifour, co-director of Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa.
The Progressive Conservatives are set to select a new leader by March 10.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press