This past week in Nova Scotia politics has been notable in revealing how opposition to carbon pricing has become a multi-purpose cudgel for Conservatives – even the nominally progressive Nova Scotia variety.

For Pierre Poilievre, who rolled into town a week ago yesterday to preach his “Axe the Tax” sermon, it’s all about forcing a carbon tax election, which he expects to win. Congregants who gathered in the hundreds to greet Poilievre at the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront had more fuel for their fervour – the tax is going up by 3.3 cents to 17 cents on a litre of gas on April 1. Although only a couple of elected provincial Conservatives showed up at the rally, it became clear throughout last week that the Tim Houston-led provincial party is all-in with the plan to use the carbon tax to beat the Trudeau Liberals at the next election.

As the Poilieivre party was for an umpteenth time putting forward an anti-tax motion in the House of Commons, provincial Tories were playing a supporting role in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. On Tuesday a motion from Finance Minister Allan McMaster calling on Members of Parliament from Nova Scotia to “stand up” against the coming increase was passed without opposition or debate. But that wasn’t enough of a show.

On Wednesday came a motion from a Conservative backbencher calling on MLAs to “condemn Nova Scotia MPs who choose the Liberal carbon tax increase over the interests of hard-working Nova Scotians.” In keeping with House of Assembly rules, that motion never came to a vote. But it showed not only solidarity with the Poilievre party but a doubling-down on the anti-tax rhetoric the Conservatives employed in wresting the Preston riding from the Liberals in a provincial by-election last summer.

Ducking Questions

Besides using the carbon tax as a club to beat on the federal Liberals, PC cabinet members such as Environment and Climate Change Minister Timothy Halman employed the truncheon to defend the indefensible – to wit, the government’s refusal to enact laws to protect our coasts. 

The coastal protection issue took on new urgency last week when the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year yet, with records broken for sea level rise and Antarctic sea ice loss. But Halman brushed off a question about coastal protection from an NDP MLA, saying it was more important the NDP send “a clear signal to Nova Scotians that they are against the Liberal carbon tax.” He insisted the tax is not needed to deal with climate change because Nova Scotia has other legislation and policies – although none specifically address transportation, the Province’s fastest growing source of emissions.   

In the same vein, Community Services Minister Brendan Maguire used the carbon tax cudgel  to defend the government’s decision to freeze social assistance rates for non-disabled recipients. 

This years’s budget froze the standard household rate for the third year in a row, although 60 per cent of income assistance clients will begin getting $300 more each month because of a new disability supplement. Although badly needed the increase will still leave people with disabilities about $11,500 below the poverty line with rates that remain among the lowest in the country, well behind both Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. But the other 40 per cent of clients get only a one-time payment of $150, and for the first time in three years, there is no increase in the Nova Scotia Child Benefit.

Before he bolted the Liberal caucus last month to join the Houston cabinet, Brendan Maguire was in favour of indexing assistance payments to the rate of inflation. When asked about his change of heart by the NDP’s Kendra Coombes, the Conservative convert showed he has imbibed heartily of his new party’s anti-tax Kool-ade. Instead of answering the question, he complained about the federal and provincial NDP’s stance on carbon pricing and claimed that the tax would be going up not 3.3 cents, but 17 cents a litre, hurting people on social assistance.

Rebates helping poor

The size of the increase wasn’t the only thing Maguire got wrong. He also failed to acknowledge that the rebates which are part of the carbon pricing regime will leave many social assistance recipients better off. Indeed, in a budget briefing note on social assistance rates, presented to the legislature’s Law Amendments Committee, human rights and poverty lawyer Vince Calderhead argues that the only reason non-disabled assistance recipients will see any real improvement in income this year is because of the carbon rebates.

For example, assuming a 2.7 per cent rise in the cost of living in 2024, the freeze in provincial benefits would see the purchasing power of a couple with two children drop by about $22 a month. However, Calderhead’s figures show that with a carbon rebate of nearly $69 a month, the family’s income will go up almost $47 a month. As another example, for a single adult, the carbon rebate turns an inflation adjusted loss of $20 a month into a modest $15 per month gain.

The headline – Carbon tax rebates offset Conservative government’s assistance freeze – needs some qualification. Although the overall inflation rate has been factored into the calculation, some social assistance recipients may see increases in fuel costs that exceed the inflation rate. However, the mere suggestion that the poorest of the poor are benefitting from the carbon tax while the rate-freezing Conservative government rails against it is evidence that politics, not concern for the poor, is the driving force behind the Conservative obsession with the carbon tax. 

As the spring session of the legislature was winding down, opposition MLAs were showing frustration at the Conservatives use of anti-tax rhetoric to avoid answering questions about important issues like coastal protection, social assistance rates or unaccountable spending practices. As NDP leader Claudia Chender put it:

“…every time we stand up and say anything that the government is uncomfortable about, this is the Tories’ favourite political partisan ploy: What about the carbon tax? If it weren’t so tiresome, it would be entertaining.”