Top Conservative leadership hopefuls target carbon tax

Candidates commit to supporting agricultural innovation

Removing the carbon tax is the main priority for the two top Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates, according to a recent survey.

Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, considered the front-runners in a small field of leadership hopefuls, listed eliminating the environmental policy in response to a series of questions posed by the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.

In his response to a query on top priorities for farmers and industry across the prairies, MacKay, a Harper-era cabinet minister, spent the first two paragraphs lambasting policies of the current Liberal government, declaring “Canada’s agriculture producers feel betrayed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.”

He then proposed removing the carbon pricing plan unpopularly imposed on producers by the Liberals in 2019, and then working to “reduce regulatory burden on our agricultural sector.”

The former Attorney General and Minister of National Defence went on to mention removing barriers to young farmers and ensuring “policy decisions are based on science, not activism.”

He also stated he would protect Canada’s food supply from illegal blockades and ensure industry “doesn’t suffer unfair competition.” As well, he committed to investing in the delivery of broadband internet capabilities.

O’Toole’s response listed ending the carbon tax as the first priority, before committing to defending and expanding foreign markets.

The Ontario MP from Durham also proposed expanding rural transportation and communication infrastructure to “help get products to market and allow farmers to adopt new digital farming technologies.”

Like, MacKay, he also spoke to tax reforms, pledging to reduce and simplify them.

In listing their priorities, the two hopefuls offered slight differences on some specifics, but largely spoke to the same big picture ideas.

Leslyn Lewis, who is courting the social conservative vote and considered to be running a distant third, differed in her priorities. Like the others, she cited reforming tax rules to better allow for intergenerational transfers; but she also pledged to restore the AgriStability program to cover 85 per cent of losses.

Soon after the Harper Conservative government reduced AgriStability support in 2012, Canadian farmers started pushing to restore it to previous levels. They continue to argue the program doesn’t provide the level of income stability farmers need.

Lewis was the only candidate to definitively say restoring the program to previous levels would be a priority, or mention it at all, even though the concept is frequently requested by producer groups.

The Toronto-based lawyer who has never served in parliament said she would also be, “Applying a national security lens to Canada’s agricultural sector to make sure we are prepared for the next global crisis.”

Like her running mates, Lewis spoke of strengthening existing trade relationships and opening new ones.

In a question specific to the topic of international trade, MacKay said he would “bring in pro-employment trade policies” and “tear-down artificial trade barriers that inhibit agri-businesses from exporting their products.”

Exporters and producers continue to raise concern with non-tariff measures hampering the competitiveness of Canadian businesses in international markets.

Artificial trade barriers have dampened enthusiasm for recent trade deals. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada, is often cited as an example of liberalized trade failing to meet expectations.

While the complexity of non-tariff measures makes it difficult to quantify the amount of money lost by producers as a result of such barriers, a 2017 parliamentary report found the sum effect of non-tariff measures for agrifood exporters is equivalent to a tariff of 25 to 30 percent in Asia and 30 to 40 percent for the European market.

MacKay said his trade-policies would put Canadian businesses first, while protecting them from “hostile nations, like China, that do not share our interests.”

Under the current Liberal government, Canada is currently leading an effort to reform the World Trade Organization, an organization that has been thrown into turmoil as countries flout its authority.

The United States has halted the WTO’s ability to resolve trade disputes between nations, while China continues to frustrate free traders by making arbitrary, and often politically-based decisions that slow the free-flow of goods.

In his response to the question, MacKay turned his response away from international matters to domestic ones by stating a need to “fix our own backyard first.” To that end, he included a pledge to work with premiers to tear down inter-provincial trade barriers that inhibit market access to Canadian agribusinesses.

O’Toole took the question as an opportunity to cite his experiences as Parliamentary Secretary for International Trade under the previous Conservative government, stating he “worked closely with Canadian farmers in negotiating and completing ground-breaking trade agreements with dozens of countries in Europe and Asia.”

Those deals he helped negotiate are, in some instances, the same ones that have failed to live up their initial billing to producers; but from January to May 2020, Canadian agri-food and seafood exports did increase by 6.1 percent compared to the previous year, reaching $29 billion compared with $27.1 billion for the same period last year.

Despite international volatility and trade tensions, the U.S. (52.7 percent), China (12.1 percent) and the EU (5.7 percent) continue to make up a significant portion of Canada’s export destinations.

Lewis stated her support for new and expanded trading relationships.

“I would however do so in a responsible manner that ensures Canada maintains its own supportive frameworks, particularly supply management,” she wrote.

WCWGA also asked candidates about rural infrastructure investments, as well as how they would ensure an accountable and efficient grain transportation system.

Here, MacKay and O’Toole gave distinct answers.

“I will prioritize long-term investments to modernize and improve transportation infrastructure. I will also remove artificial barriers to stimulate private sector investments in infrastructure and will prioritize national infrastructure programs to help deliver Canadian agricultural goods faster and more efficiently,” MacKay said in his written response. “Finally, I will end any further disruptions from un-lawful protesters who threaten the delivery of agricultural inputs and exports.”

The resiliency of Canada’s rail transportation system has been tested throughout the years, but particularly over 2019-20. A late harvest caused problems for producers, which wasn’t helped when Canadian National Railway workers when on strike in November.

Then, an early winter snap forced rail companies to shorten trains only weeks before a January rockslide blocked CN’s main line through the Fraser Canyon, followed by a washout that kept the line inoperable until February.

Federal government orders to “go slow” were prompted by a derailed train carrying crude oil through Saskatchewan, and anti-pipeline blockages disrupted rail traffic at several lines and container terminals.

Since then, the pandemic has caused periods where container availability is a concern. In all, since November there have been more than 13,000 rail car orders cancelled.

O’Toole called for improved services through competition, writing too many of Canada’s big corporations “are coddled and protected by a government that serves them more than it serves the people.”

“Just like how I’ve promised to help consumers by opening our airlines and wireless services to more foreign competition, I would make sure that we have enough competitive pressure on our railroads to incent them to invest and provide affordable and timely service to farmers and shippers,” he said. “If markets remain underserved, I would be supportive of the federal government earmarking infrastructure funds to help build out further rail connections.”

In her response to the question, Lewis said Canada cannot be reliant on foreign governments.

“My promise to Canadians is that I will use every tool at my disposal to increase investment in Canada, and revitalize our energy, farming and other resource sectors,” she said.

Each of the three candidates committed to supporting agricultural innovation, with Lewis and MacKay highlighting a need to further invest in research and development. O’Toole and Mackay proposed eliminating red tape to allow for further innovation.

All three candidates pledged to support the delivery of internet connectivity in rural areas.

As of press time, the remaining leadership hopeful, Ontario MP Derek Sloan, had not responded to the questions.

The Conservative party reported 269,469 members are eligible to cast a mail-in ballot before the Aug. 21 deadline.

Members are faced with selecting a new leader after Regina-based MP Andrew Scheer, who was chosen in 2017, announced in December he was resigning from the role.

About the author

explore

Stories from our other publications