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Libs losing Green Shift battle in the media

Posted by padams under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy, Election 2008 Media commentary

Paul Adams

The Liberals are losing their battle to define their own Green Shift plan in the media. The plan aims at cutting greenhouse gas emissions through carbon taxes, but a critical element in the architecture of the plan is the offsetting tax cuts to individuals and businesses. The Liberals even promise the Auditor-General will be brought in to certify that the Green Shift is “revenue neutral” — i.e., gives every cent it takes in carbon taxes back in tax relief of some kind.

On CBC’s World Report this morning, the Green Shift was twice described as a “carbon tax” — once in the intro and once more in the item. Although the story dealt with a “calculator” on the Liberals’ website that supposedly allows an individual to figure out how the tax and offsets would affect them, the plan was never clearly explained. If you didn’t already know about the offsets, this item would not have enlightened you.

The Ottawa Citizen ran a story today about Stephen Harper’s attack on the plan that, although sympathetic in tone to the Green Shift, refers to it as “Mr. Dion’s proposal for a carbon tax”. Nowhere in the story is there any mention of the tax offsets.

In its front page story today,Dion’s Green Plan Would “Wreak Havoc”, the Globe does a better job. The offsets are mentioned only in the last few graphs (after the turn), but there is a large graphic that clearly spells out the taxes as well as the offsets.

One supposes that the Liberals hoped the name “Green Shift” name itself would convey the message, but it doesn’t. A “tax” is a tax — everyone understands that. A “shift” can mean anything. The “Green Shift” name will only convey the full meaning of the plan once people already understand it, which most still do not do. 

There are, of course, examples of reporters struggling to be fair to a complex plan, but Green Shift is falling foul of three intersecting forces:


  • The media’s desire for a “shorthand” reference to the plan 
  • The Conservatives’ attempt to define the Green Shift as a tax pure and simple
  • And the Liberals’ inability to communicate the features of the plan simply and clearly  


In a survey last week, EKOS found that 63% of Canadians supported the carbon-tax-plus-offsets plan when it was clearly explained to them. But so far it hasn’t been, by the Liberals — or by the media. 

Paul Adams is a former political reporter with CBC and the Globe and Mail, and is now a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty, and executive director of EKOS Research Associates.

Reader's Comments

  1. Ann D |

    This week, The Peterborough Examiner cited this definition of GreenShift: “Tax what we burn, not what we earn. The polluter pays.”
    “Make polluters pay, McGregor says: Liberals stage town hall meeting to explain Green Shift carbon tax policy,” Peterborough Examiner, Sept. 11, 2008

  2. Transcanada |

    Here’s a clip of Elizabeth May, who should be the Liberal spokesperson explain the differences in “Cap and Trade” vs “Green shifting” as a method to reduce greenhouse gases.

    Elizabeth May on Dion’s carbon tax plan

    Side note: No wonder Stephen Harper and Jack Layton don’t want her in the debate.

    Anyway, I’ve looked at two calculators on trying to figure out the Greenshift thing.

    My impression is they both tell half the story and ignore the other half.

    The NS Conservative website has this one.

    Surprise! The calculator only show the downside, the tax itself being imposed on the buyer/producer of the carbon based fuel.

    And the Liberal calculator of course only shows the refund, it’s unclear if this calculator takes into account the fuel a voter will buy thru the tax year.

    I’d like to see a calculator that shows both sides, both the taxation and the refund side.

    This should be easy to implement, and take the wind out of the rhetoric that is polluting the airwaves right now.

  3. Skinny Dipper |

    The problem with using a CO2 calculator is that for me, it doesn’t matter if I use 1, 10, or 100 tonnes of CO2 per year. I don’t have the concept of what a tonne of CO2 looks like.

    Ask a kindergarten kid which glass contains more water (if each contains exactly one litre): the tall skinny glass or the short wider glass. That kid will probably pick the tall skinny glass. The kid doesn’t understand the concept of equal volume.

  4. DB |

    “Libs losing Green Shift battle in the media” is one way of looking at it. Another might be: “Media misrepresents Green Shift plan.” I don’t think the Liberals have ever failed to mention the offsetting income tax cuts. It is mentioned in the second sentence of the high-level introduction to the plan on the Liberal website. Moreover, I don’t think the Conservatives deny the existence of offsetting tax cut proposals in the Green Shift plan — they dispute whether the plan will actually reduce emissions and suggest that the income tax offset will be insufficient to ward off revenue increases.

    If the media fails to acknowledge a clear, fundamental component of the plan, that is not the fault of Stephane Dion. It is the fault of the media. It is also not biased to point out that income tax cuts are part of the plan — this is a fact. Any Conservative would agree that it is a fact, though they would certainly offer a perfectly legitimate disagreement with the expected outcome described by Dion.

    Stephane Dion should be in the business of telling people how he would govern, not telling Susan Riley how he thinks she should descibe how he would govern. If Dion’s speeches, written materials, debate statements and personal communications do not convince the electorate of his ability to govern, he has not succeeded in doing his job. If the media cannot report simple facts on public policy proposals, it has not succeeded in doing its job properly. To be perfectly cynical, I think the media on both sides of the border has decided that it enjoys covering itself much more than it enjoys covering policies, which involve the unpleasantness of reading, analysis, and writing substantive stories.

  5. Two Hats |

    You describe the plan as complex, as do many commentators. In principle, it’s not. Raise tax A, reduce tax B to compensate. There are details, but it boils down to that.
    Too often, journalists say “complex” when they’re just to lazy to summarise.