Is Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe risking it all in his high-stakes standoff with Ottawa over the carbon tax?

Doug Firby: Scott Moe's carbon tax tactics threaten democracy's foundationsIn a game of political poker, a player can hang onto his cards too long and lose it all.

That’s the gamble Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is taking with Ottawa in the high-stakes standoff over the federal carbon tax. And it’s not clear he realizes how tenuous his hand is.

Moe and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith are the dynamic duo – the knockout tag team of western Trudeau-haters who have discovered the political power of tossing the federal government under the bus at every opportunity.

It’s an effective, if not terribly novel, technique that has the added benefit of distracting voters from their own provincial government’s faults and failures. It also helps that our prime minister’s popularity is diving faster than a Boeing 747 Max. These days, it seems you simply cannot go wrong taking potshots at the federal Liberals. (Heck, I enjoy doing it myself.)

It also affirms the time-tested truth that politics is as much about theatrics as it is about serving the people. There are times – too often, sadly – when it’s more the former than the latter.

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This bit of insight is helpful when trying to make sense of Moe’s theatrical defiance of federal authority. The pugilistic premier of Saskatchewan has drawn a line in the sand, refusing to remit the much-hated carbon tax to the federal government.

Moe’s government isn’t stopping there; it has also passed Bill 151, which aims to shield SaskEnergy executives from legal action for not remitting the money to the feds. The law, which some writers argue is in itself unconstitutional, potentially sets up Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan’s minister of Crown Investments, to face prosecution and, in the most extreme, jail time, thus theoretically at least putting his freedom on the line on behalf of the people.

As defiant martyrs go, Duncan is no Alexei Navalny, but he’ll have to do.

All the drama is expected to unfold around the end of February when January’s carbon tax collections are due to be sent to Ottawa.

So, why? And why now? The first question can be answered in part by the usual suspect – polls. Although Moe remains one of the most popular premiers in the country, his 54 percent approval rating at the end of 2023 is down from his high water mark of 57 percent in June 2023, according to the most recent Angus Reid poll. (As an aside, Doug Ford, Ontario’s embattled premier, is languishing at 34 percent and trending into Trudeauland.)

There is no shortage of issues in Saskatchewan. And we’re not even talking about the grief brought on by the recent cold spell. Voters, it appears, are disappointed Moe’s Saskatchewan Party hasn’t made more progress at addressing the cost of living and are unhappy with ongoing healthcare chaos, resulting in long surgical wait times and surgery cancellations.

It’s not hard to see how axing the evil carbon tax could be played as an attempt to help out the little guy, even though doing so would not address the core drivers of inflation. Ironically, in many cases, people who pay the carbon tax will receive more money back than they contribute, but they don’t seem to know that fact, or perhaps they don’t care.

But there is another important factor driving Moe’s elevated rhetoric. Saskatchewan’s fixed four-year term expires this year, meaning a provincial election must be held no later than Oct. 28. At times like these, it is highly convenient to have a federal boogie man to battle – and blame for perceived misfortunes.

“It’s never bad politics in the prairies to run against big, bad Ottawa,” says Eric Adams, an authority on constitutional law at the University of Alberta.

Let’s not forget the federal Liberals created this mess for themselves by granting a three-year carbon tax exemption to homeowners in the Atlantic provinces who use very expensive and dirty heating oil, and then said no similar breaks would be given to the prairie provinces which heat mostly with much cleaner natural gas.

From a perception standpoint, it’s tough luck for the feds that temperatures out West have hovered around -40 for the past few days – driving up heating bills. Guess that’s the price of not voting Liberal.

The question creeping into pundits’ minds is where this will all lead. Trudeau and his team have carefully avoided overreacting to the provocations from the leaders of Alberta and Saskatchewan because they know a confrontation with the big, bad federal government is exactly what Smith and Moe covet. As an election campaign rallying point, you can’t beat it.

But how much provocation will it take before the feds respond?

Adams questions whether Moe has overplayed his hand in this standoff. With support for the federal Liberals in the Atlantic provinces weakening, the ruling party needed to make a high-visibility move to keep that region in the Liberal fold. Voila, carbon tax break. The Moe government clearly smelled Liberal weakness and may have concluded the feds would give the West a break, too. It’s looking more and more like that was a miscalculation.

“I think that will not come to pass,” said Adams. “The federal government will likely double down.”

And he says there’s good reason for the feds not to give in to Moe’s ultimatum – because it has to enforce the law. “The minute you accept a province can absolve itself of legislation, then the game is up,” Adams said.

As for Bill 151, Adams could not offer a definitive opinion on whether it is unconstitutional, but said it is likely “inoperative.” That means the provincial law would not be implemented because it would be trumped by federal rules. In any event, Adams does not see this dispute going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada because he sees this dustup as one of politics rather than legal or constitutional questions.

In this case, Saskatchewan might find it has no choice but to quietly back down, Adams said.

So, unless the feds blink first and fold their cards, Moe’s gamble on defying the law will fail. This could be an object lesson for Smith, who no doubt would find purchase in a Saskatchewan victory to push her own agenda against alleged federal “intrusion” into provincial matters.

Adams is rightly concerned that the threat to defy federal law is part of a larger trend in society to think we can break the law with impunity whenever we disagree with a policy.

“All of us should be concerned about the erosion of the rule of law,” he said. “This (the Saskatchewan challenge) is an example of it.”

It makes me wonder how our leaders can expect citizens not to occupy Ottawa or set up border protests if the leaders themselves are so willing to defy rules they don’t like.

What is self-evident is that the federal government granted the heating oil carveout for political reasons.

That was unfair to other regions of Canada, and it throws the whole rationale for the carbon tax into question. Westerners are right to cry foul over this blatant favouritism. The opportunity for revenge, however, rightly belongs at the ballot box – not in trying to undermine Canada’s system of law and order.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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