The Commons: The joke is on you, Canada

Aaron Wherry on the first day back
Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, Sept.17,2012 .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Scene. John Baird pointed at Thomas Mulcair and laughed.

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton was on his feet a couple rows back, claiming that the leader of the opposition had spent the summer promoting the idea of a tax on carbon. Mr. Baird apparently thought this was funny. Mr. Saxton had been preceded by Shelly Glover. And Mr. Saxton and Ms. Glover would be followed by Conservative MP John Williamson, all rising in the moments before Question Period to recite their assigned talking points.

Peter Van Loan had accused Mr. Mulcair of favouring a carbon tax this morning at a news conference to mark the start of the fall sitting. Two hours later, the Conservative party press office had then issued a “fact check” repeating the claim. Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney posted the talking point to Facebook. Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform, tweeted it. Minister of International Co-operation Julian Fantino tweeted it too.

Last week it was Conservative MPs Phil McColeman, Susan Truppe, Joe Preston and Ed Holder. The week before that it was Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. Back in June, the Conservatives launched television attack ads that repeated the claim.

All of this, each and every missive and every single individual willing to put their name to this claim, is part of a remarkable farce.

Let us review the basics.

During the 2008 and 2011 elections, the NDP proposed the introduction of a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And during his run for the NDP leader, Mr. Mulcair offered his own cap-and-trade proposal.

It is on this basis that the Conservatives now accuse the New Democrats of seeking to impose a carbon tax.

You might remember a carbon tax as what Stephane Dion’s Liberals proposed in 2008. Mr. Harper said Mr. Dion’s proposal would “screw everybody.” Thing is, while the Conservatives were damning a carbon tax, they were proposing to pursue a North American cap-and-trade system. The Conservatives put it in their platform. And the Harper government put it in its Throne Speech. Jim Prentice lobbied the Alberta government to join the Harper government’s initiative. As late as December 2009, the Harper government claimed to be “working in collaboration with the provinces and territories to develop a cap-and-trade system that will ultimately be aligned with the emerging cap-and-trade program in the United States.”

But during the 2011 federal campaign, the Conservatives decided that cap-and-trade and a carbon tax were the same thing. So never mind what they proposed in 2008 and pursued through 2009. And never mind that, whatever they say now, they still won’t rule out pursuing a cap-and-trade system in the future if the United States is prepared to do likewise.

“Canadians and people across the globe know,” Mr. Harper declared this afternoon, challenged by Mr. Mulcair to explain what he was doing to safeguard the economy, “we have a government smart enough to reject dumb ideas like a $20 billion carbon tax.”

The Conservatives stood to applaud.

Awhile later, the NDP’s Linda Duncan asked the Harper government about its spending on advertising. Tony Clement stood and asked that Ms. Duncan apologize for wanting to impose a carbon tax scheme.

The NDP’s Malcolm Allen stood and demanded the Harper government do something for farmers impacted by this summer’s drought. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz stood and accused the NDP of “fanning” a carbon tax.

Ed Holder was sent up by his own side to ask the Government House leader about the government’s legislative agenda. Mr. Van Loan stood and fumed about a carbon tax.

Conservative MP Blake Richards was sent up by the Conservatives to ask the Trade Minister a question. Ed Fast stood and lamented for a carbon tax.

Maybe the Conservatives think you’re stupid. Maybe, more charitably, they just think they’re smarter than you. Or maybe they assume that you’re cynical enough—or enough of you are cynical—about this stuff that they can safely carry on like this. Or maybe they’re terribly confused themselves.

But sitting at home you probably shouldn’t be joining in the laughter. Because ultimately the joke is on you.