“So-Called” Experts? Is Pierre Poilievre Heading for Another Cultural Revolution?

, , Comments Off on “So-Called” Experts? Is Pierre Poilievre Heading for Another Cultural Revolution?

A few days ago some 200 economists across Canada signed an open letter indicating that in their expert opinion the Trudeau government’s carbon pricing plan is the least costly and most effective way to reduce emissions and fight climate change. Period.

Recognizing that they were venturing into what has become dangerously political territory these days, given the implacable opposition to the plan by the federal Conservative Party (“Axe the Tax”) and several provincial premiers, the economists quite sensibly began with the following: “There is plenty of discussion about carbon pricing in Canada today… Healthy public debate is good, but it should be based on sound evidence and facts.” Or, as Chris Ragan, an economist and head of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University tactfully said, “The quality of the current debate is not quite as good, I think, as it should be.” [i]

And then they laid out the facts.  Noting that “other methods, such as direct regulation, tend to be more intrusive and inflexible, and cost more,” they emphasized that the Canadian carbon pricing plan is much less costly for consumers, contrary to statements made repeatedly by political opponents. Some 90% of the money the plan takes in, they point out, is given back to consumers in the form of rebates, thus protecting their purchasing power. Meanwhile the Parliamentary Budget Officer has issued a report noting that some 80% of Canadian families will actually be better off because of those rebates, with only the highest income earners failing to recoup the cost entirely. The economists also note that the principal opponents of the Liberals’ plan have yet to propose any type of alternative, so that the cost of inaction must also be considered and it, too, is far higher than the cost of the Liberals’ plan, not only financially but in terms of the future environmental threats all Canadians will face.  

The Canadian economists’ initiative comes long after a similar move by experts in the United States, who published an open letter on the merits of carbon pricing in the Wall Street Journal in January 2019. The delay in Canada was primarily because there originally did not appear to be a problem that the economists needed to address. The Liberals’ plan initially enjoyed widespread political and popular support. It is only with the selection of Pierre Poilievre as leader of the federal Conservative Party and the opposition of several right-wing conservative premiers, such as Danielle Smith of Alberta, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan and Doug Ford in Ontario, that the plan has become the target of increasingly virulent attacks. By contrast opposition to climate change measures in the U.S. had become a serious threat as soon as Donald Trump became president in 2017, leading economists there to conclude such a dramatic intervention was necessary. Their letter, signed by hundreds of prominent academics including 28 Nobel Laureates, 4 former Chairs of the Federal Reserve and 15 former Chairs of the (President’s) Council of Economic Advisers, stressed the “Carbon Dividends” of a carbon pricing plan. In particular they noted that “a carbon tax offers the most tax effective lever to reduce carbon emissions” and argued “to maximize the fairness and political viability of a rising carbon tax, all the revenue should be returned directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump sum rebates.”[ii]

In short, the American experts recommended the plan the Liberals had adopted in 2016. Meanwhile, similar plans had already been adopted or were in the process of being adopted throughout the European Union. This point was brought home starkly only a few months ago when Poilievre’s Opposition Conservatives controversially voted against a free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine, allegedly because it would “force” Ukraine to adopt a carbon pricing plan. This ludicrous claim was quickly exposed as nonsense since Ukraine has already had such a plan in place since 2011.[iii]

One might have expected Mr. Poilievre, and those premiers who oppose the Liberals’ plan, to respond to the Canadian economists’ recent initiative with measured, well thought out arguments of their own as to why they continue to oppose the plan, and to back up their position with their own expert analysis. Instead, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe merely said the plan is not good for his province, avoiding any discussion of the plan’s merits for the country as a whole. Nor did he offer any evidence to prove his narrow point about his province.  Other Conservative premiers talked about the cost of living, food and housing shortages, and then simply claimed now was not the time for another increase (slated for April 1, 2024) in this pricing plan.

But federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre went much further. True, the man once referred to as “Harper’s pitbull” has already appalled many with his reckless abandon of civil discourse in politics and his endless negative references to elites, ‘gatekeepers’ and, most ominously, the ‘biased’ mainstream media. Nevertheless even for him it was a shocking move to attack the credibility of the authors of the letter rather than addressing its contents. His response was to bluntly state that he had no intention of listening to the views of “so-called experts” even if there were hundreds of them. Oh no, he said, he planned to listen to “the common sense views of the common people.”[iv] This is beyond frightening. We have already seen what happens when expert medical opinion is ignored during a pandemic. While Stephen Harper may have had an aversion to evidence-based decision-making, he never came close to denying facts as blatantly as Mr. Poilievre has done. This is clearly a new low in Canadian politics, and it forces us to consider where this type of thinking may lead.

One of the most horrifying examples of what can happen when a government rejects “so-called” expert opinion is, of course, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Schools and universities were closed, and virtually anyone with any kind of academic degree or professional expertise was sent to the rural hinterland of China to work as an agricultural labourer. The result was more than a decade of societal decline, growing chaos and violence as “ordinary” Chinese workers took charge. Eventually Mao was forced to recognize that what he had started was out of control. This in turn led him to call in the army to impose order, essentially turning China into a military dictatorship. Interestingly, historical analyses of the era have concluded that Mao’s plan was not driven by ideological principles, as he had claimed, but was actually politically motivated — a blatant but misguided attempt to retain power and preserve his leadership at all costs in the face of growing discontent, especially on the part of an educated middle class.[v] While the Cultural Revolution is clearly an extreme example of what can happen with the rejection of expert opinion and evidence-based decision-making, it is also a cautionary tale. Moreover Mr. Poilievre’s opposition to the carbon pricing plan has every appearance of being politically motivated. It also appears to be taking Canada down the same road the United States has already taken with its MAGA politics unfolding under Donald Trump. Winning at all costs, with the sacrifice of truth and evidence-based decision-making, could come with huge costs here are well.

[i] L. Osman. Canadian Press. “Economists Defend Liberals’ carbon price as political rhetoric heats up.” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-economists-defend-liberals-carbon-price-as-political-rhetoric-heats-up/

[ii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/economists-statement-on-carbon-dividends-11547682910

[iii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/conservative-ukraine-poilievre-free-trade-carbon-tax-1.7038249

[iv] https://ottawa.citynews.ca/2024/03/27/conservatives-blast-pro-carbon-price-economists-as-so-called-experts/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/11/the-cultural-revolution-50-years-on-all-you-need-to-know-bout-chinas-political-convulsion