Eco-Fees and the Death of Deference

July 23 2010

Did the Ontario government throw the baby out with the bathwater by backing down on Eco-fees or was it just bad implementation of a perfectly good idea?

On July 1st, Ontarians began noticing an extra fee – and this was not the HST. It was only applied to products deemed potentially hazardous to the environment. This eco fee was intended to generate funds to help pay for recycling and/or disposal of these products instead of dumping them in a landfill.

But it was not a new fee. The eco fee was first introduced in 2008. However, after the recent extension of the fee to thousands of new products – including household cleaners and fire extinguishers – public outrage resulted in the withdrawal of the fee altogether.

The Eco Fee was meant to implement the polluter-pays principle. Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (June, 1992) states that “National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment”.

In layman’s terms, this is known as the “polluter pays principle”. It is the principle behind “eco taxes” on greenhouse gases including the carbon tax proposed by the former Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion in the last federal election.

So what happened in Ontario?

The new items affected by the fee rolled out on top of the controversial HST. Many groups already reeling from that new tax were alert to any more burdens. And seniors in particular would be hard hit. Older Canadians want to do their part for the environment too, even if it will only benefit their children and grandchildren. But those on a lower fixed income could not take on another fee. Just like the Smart Meter which will double home electricity costs in peak hours – which severely hurts house bound seniors – the Eco Fee program needed retooling – such as to exempt non-discretionary items. Batteries are discretionary purchases for computer gamers but not for medical equipment.

According to national and local news reports, this was less an issue of environmental values and more an issue of transparency in government decision-making.

“Stewardship Ontario could have done a better job of rolling out the changes, but we — the ministry of the environment, the government, I as minister — could have done a better job of helping them communicate those changes,” admitted Minister of the Environment, John Gerretsen.

The Angus Reid (Global Monitor) reported on July 12, 2010 that “Many adults in Canada believe their federal administration is not dealing properly with environment” (66%). That 66% appear to be in good company — 53 % of American respondents and 40% of Britons also believe that their respective federal administrations are not paying enough attention to the environment.

Does the withdrawal of the Eco Fee indicate that Ontarians are less green than other provinces? Recent public opinion research suggests that the answer is no. A consulting firm recently contracted by the Federal government to do opinion research stated that “the Canada population [including Ontario]…tends to hold values consistently found to be PEB” – pro-environment behaviour.

According to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion published in the Toronto Star (January 2010), the majority of Canadians believe the Harper government was wrong to prorogue Parliament (53 % of respondents). When CARP ActionOnline polled its readers, it too found that most disapproved of the Conservatives’ prorogation maneuver.

Retracting the Eco Fee adds to a growing list of decisions by governments that meet strong public resistance. On the list already is the national securities regulator facing constitutional challenge from Alberta and Quebec and public, and G20 policing.

In a 1980 book, author Edgar Z. Friedenberg observed that Canadians are generally deferential to authority. In 2005, this began to change – or at least authors began to notice the change. In the 2005 book, “Recent Social Trends in Canada, 1960-2000”, the authors noted that: “the traditional stereotype of Canadians as people who place a high value on deference to authority is changing…support for the general principle…has declined.”.
Fast forward to 2010 – the Ontario government is withdrawing a fee, that in principle, is quite a noteworthy and positive step forward; a policy that is generally in line with pro-environment public opinion. Politicians, it would seem, must learn that Canadians not only care about policy outcomes but also how they are implemented. Rather than being deferential to McGunity’s HST and Eco Fees, Ontarians, like the rest of their compatriots, appear to feel that legitimacy and transparency go hand in hand. They need to be convinced that a policy change is not only a good idea but also implemented fairly.