Premier Doug Ford is being attacked from the right over his government's environmental plan, with a prominent conservative activist calling the scheme for industrial polluters a "carbon copy" of the plan from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Through his "Axe the Carbon Tax" group, conservative activist Jim Karahalios, whose wife Belinda is a member of the PC caucus, will air an ad on news channel CP24 blasting the premier for what he says is a broken promise on carbon pricing. The ad will run on the TV channel — a favourite of the premier's — for one week, and a billboard with the message will be posted on the high-traffic Gardiner Expressway in Toronto for two weeks.
"He made a carbon tax plan by a different name," says text across a one-minute ad spot, invoking a Shakespearean message that may not smell so sweet.
"He made a carbon copy of Trudeau's carbon tax," the ad continues next to an image of the prime minister and premier shaking hands.
"Tell Doug Ford to axe the carbon tax," the ad concludes with its call to action.
In an interview with QP Briefing, Karahalios explained what he hopes to achieve. "It's the summer, and Phillips' plan is supposed to go into place in the summer," he said of the environment minister, and urged the government to halt a significant component of its plan.
Part of the government's plan includes rules that would require industrial facilities to pay a provincial tax to meet new standards. The intensity targets would aim to limit the growth in pollution outputs, and would provide "flexible compliance mechanisms" to incentivize industrial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
This proposal comes after Ford, as a leadership candidate, made scrapping the previous government's cap-and-trade framework a key promise. He did so when the PCs formed government, which subsequently caused the federal carbon backstop to take effect. The Ontario government is battling that program in court, arguing it's unconstitutional. The premier has also employed heated rhetoric on the issue, arguing the carbon backstop is a "tax on everything" that invites the risk of a recession. The government has also launched ad campaigns to oppose the federal policy, including passing legislation that would fine gas stations for not posting stickers related to the issue.
But Karahalios, who ran for PC Party president in late 2017, sees the government introducing carbon pricing by stealth.
"It's clear that this is carbon pricing," he told QP Briefing, pointing to comments from economists and environmental advocates.
And he argued that like the premier says of the Trudeau plan, everyday Ontarians will pay a price even though the plan targets industry. "That's money that will be paid for by consumers through higher goods and services," he added.
Emily Hogeveen, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Rod Phillips, responded to Karahalios' campaign. "Ontario’s proposed new emissions performance standards take into account the unique circumstances of industry and Ontario’s economy, and will reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the biggest emitters, while allowing for economic growth," she stated, without addressing whether the program could reasonably be considered carbon pricing.
"The system is tough but fair; ensuring polluters are held accountable for their emissions yet flexible to the needs and circumstances of our province," she added. The minister's office did not address the added complication of Karahalios' spouse being a member of the PC caucus.
Karahalios has demonstrated a willingness to take on the PC establishment before. He frequently butted heads with Patrick Brown's leadership over his decision to opt into the federal carbon backstop. Karahalios was booted from the party in late 2017, and a war of words resulted in a lawsuit brought against the activist. As interim PC Leader, Vic Fedeli apologized to Karahalios, withdrew the lawsuit and reinstated his PC membership.
But that was before his wife became an MPP, with Belinda, the parliamentary assistant to the minister of children, community, and social services, representing Cambridge. He dismissed the idea that his campaign to pressure the premier on carbon pricing could cause issues for his spouse. "I don't control my wife and she doesn't control me," he said.
He added that if she faced any consequences because of his campaign that would be "appalling," adding that not only would the premier be copying Trudeau on carbon pricing, but also on caucus relations.
Karahalios pointed out that his understanding was that the premier wanted him to focus on his issue-based advocacy, saying, "I'm pretty sure this is what the premier wanted me to do." And he found a silver lining for Ford, saying that his pushback on carbon pricing might have the effect of making the premier look more moderate as a result.
NDP MPP Taras Natyshak said that the ads attacking the premier from the right are proof that the government doesn't have what it takes to build supportive coalitions for its policies. "It's evident that folks from the left, the right and the centre hate Doug Ford enough to launch attack ads," he told QP Briefing.
He speculated that the campaign from Jim Karahalios could put his wife Belinda's standing within the PC caucus at risk. "I wonder if this will translate at some point in her ouster," he said, noting that three MPPs elected as Tories are no longer with the caucus, in part because "they try to quell any dissent" at every turn. "I think that specific member is next on the radar," he said without evidence.
Belinda Karahalios' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but we will update the story when they get in touch.
Clarification: We updated this article to reflect that Jim Karahalios was sued by the Ontario PCs, and that it was not an exchange of lawsuits. Karahalios later sought damages and legal costs related to the original lawsuit brought against him by the Brown-led PCs, which thrown out on the basis that it was a "strategic lawsuit against public participation."