Knowing he had little chance of changing the national conversation as an economics professor, Christopher Ragan of McGill University recruited some of Canada’s highest profile statesmen to stand behind his new Ecofiscal Commission. His list included former prime minister Paul Martin, former opposition leader Preston Manning, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former B.C. premier Michael Harcourt.
“I aimed high,” Ragan said. “I approached them one-on-one. I explained the guiding principles. Nobody said no.”
He used the same technique to assemble a team of “A-list” economists: Don Drummond at Queen’s, Richard Lipsey at Simon Fraser, Mel Cappe at the University of Toronto and France St-Hilaire at the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He told them the commission’s objective was to modernize Canada’s tax and spending system to create both a stronger economy and a healthier environment. He challenged them to come up with smart, practical policies. “We’ve never had a group of economists talking the economy and the environment. They all said yes.”
Creating a new think-tank wasn’t quite as easy as the plain-speaking economist made it sound in an interview last week. It took Ragan approximately three years to pull together his team, find non-government sponsors, ensure he had voices from all regions of the country and draft the commission’s first report, which was released on Nov. 4.
It made the case that a fairer, more productive, greener economy was not only possible; it was critical. “The sustained well-being of Canadians requires new policies that align our aspirations thriving economy and a clean environment. Current evidence suggests we can achieve this by using ecofiscal policies.”
Most of these policies are well-known: Pricing carbon consumption; charging polluters for the toxins they release into the atmosphere, waterways and soil; taxing road congestion, phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies and creating better incentives for companies to reduce their fossil fuel emissions.
But they haven’t been implemented. Those who have tried have been stymied or undermined.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney created a National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy to advise policy-makers on the costs of unsustainable growth. It was axed by the current Conservative government on the grounds that there were plenty of environmental groups doing the same research at no cost to taxpayers.
Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion built his 2008 election platform, Green Shift, on many of the same principles Ragan and his associates are now advancing: putting a price on pollution, taxing carbon consumption while reducing personal and corporate incomes taxes, offering incentives for the development of clean fuels. Conservative attack ads portrayed him as addled amateur bent on twisting the economy out of shape and driving up the price of energy. Dion was annihilated at the polls.
Environmental organizations have been threatened with loss of their charitable status. Federal scientists have been muzzled.
The beauty of Ragan’s Ecofiscal Commission is that it is immune to government interference. It is financed entirely by private and non-profit donors.
Nor can it be silenced with scorn. Its line-up of senior economists and political heavyweights makes it virtually ridicule-proof.
The third factor working in its favour is its timing. Canadians finally appear ready for leadership on climate change, road congestion, resource extraction and water pollution. Poll after poll shows the public is ahead of the politicians on the environment.
“This is our next great policy opportunity,” Ragan said, comparing the re-engineering of Canada’s fiscal system to medicare, public pensions, continental free trade and the elimination of the deficit (twice).
The primary obstacle is “a mindset that Canada can’t have both a healthy environment and a strong economy,” he said. “That view is fundamentally wrong.”
But it is deeply entrenched. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent eight years inculcating it in the public consciousness.
Ragan estimates it will take six years to dismantle and replace it, policy by policy. The commission will start by identifying measures that encourage businesses and consumers to “treat the environment as a free garburator.” It will put forward tax and pricing policies that send the right economic signals. It will take its message across the country, speaking out at public forums. It will communicate “in language everybody understands,” Ragan promises.
Its objective is not to shame or alienate politicians. The commission will need them to carry out its reforms.
Its aim is to convince Canadians there are better ways of raising — and using — public funds to build the kind of country they want.