Harper’s carbon tax smokescreen

Paul Wells on the Tories’ NDP smear campaign

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, September 20, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, September 20, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Harper’s carbon tax smokescreen
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The Conservatives could not possibly have made it more obvious that they were itching for a week’s worth of headlines about the NDP’s environmental policy. They could not be happier that the NDP has obliged them. Eventually the NDP will figure all of this out.

On Sept. 2, Ottawa newsrooms received copies of “a memo from Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne to the Conservative caucus.” I put that last bit in quotation marks because Byrne, like her predecessor Doug Finley, doesn’t ever “write to the caucus” unless she wants to see what she writes appear in the newspapers. Leaking a “secret memo” is cheaper than buying ad space and guarantees better play.

Byrne’s message to Canadians was that it was “important to ensure Canadian middle-class families understand the threat posed by Thomas Mulcair’s risky and dangerous economic plan.”

Ooh. Which threat? “The centrepiece of Mulcair’s economic plan is a carbon tax. Canadian families know that a tax on carbon is a tax on everything and therefore a tax on everyone,” Byrne wrote. “Mulcair’s carbon tax will kill jobs . . . increase food prices . . . increase gas prices . . . In short, it means fewer jobs, higher prices, and fewer opportunities.”

Byrne’s memo was about nothing else besides the Conservative claim that Mulcair wants a carbon tax. (He doesn’t. I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Now, Mulcair is a clever fellow, so for a few days he didn’t say anything about his environmental policy at all. So three days after Byrne’s memo, Ottawa reporters received a paragraph of quotes from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver about, well, guess what. “The NDP’s carbon tax is a direct attack on the jobs of almost one million Canadians,” Oliver was said to have said, “and we simply cannot afford it.”

Still Mulcair kept his cool. So on Sept. 6 it was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty spamming the press gallery with warnings about “the dangerous economic schemes and the higher taxes proposed by Thomas Mulcair.”

Still Mulcair didn’t bite. If there’s one sure way to keep the government on the defensive, it’s to make sure it’s the government that’s defending, not the Opposition. On Sept. 16 on the Global TV show The West Block, Tom Clark asked Mulcair the NDP’s priority for the fall. “The economy,” the NDP leader said. “Jobs.” And he did talk about that, right up until Clark asked him about this carbon tax business.

“You know, that is an ethical issue that Stephen Harper is going to have to deal with,” Mulcair said, “because he knows his MPs are lying when they say that.” If Harper has “an ounce of ethics,” he’ll call off his MPs, Mulcair said.

There is something to this. Quite a lot, in fact. Mulcair prefers a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. There is much debate over whether that would be better than a tax, but it is not a tax. Well, it does cost businesses that emit a lot of atmospheric carbon money, and the money, in most models, goes to the government. But it’s not a tax. Mulcair and the rest of the NDP opposed Stéphane Dion’s Liberal carbon-tax proposal in the 2008 election campaign, as indeed Dion opposed Michael Ignatieff’s carbon-tax plan during the 2006 Liberal leadership.

Why oppose a carbon tax? “We thought it hurt families in many regards and that it was regressive,” Mulcair told his interviewer.

It is also true, as Mulcair was eager to point out, that Harper’s Conservatives proposed a cap-and-trade scheme that more closely resembled the NDP’s plan than the Liberals’ in 2008. And reporters hurried to add that Jim Prentice, when he was Harper’s environment minister, tabled draft papers in 2009 aimed at “establishing a price for carbon in Canada—something that has never been done before in this country.”

“Lying” is, in fact, a good word for what the Conservatives have done on this file. So the government apologized and said it had been dishonest about its opponents. Just kidding! No, the government kept piling on. On Tuesday they even put out a press release quoting Mulcair to the extent that carbon taxes are regressive and saying that, “by his own admission,” Mulcair was backing a regressive tax, when in fact—in the world of truth— Mulcair had been explaining why he opposed a carbon tax.

In favour of a cap-and-trade system.

Which would increase producers’ costs while augmenting government revenues.

Perhaps by now you see what’s going on.

The Conservatives’ only goal this autumn was to mire the NDP, who have been having altogether too good a year, in quicksand up to their waists. It is now clear that Harper promised cap-and-trade, which feels a lot like a tax, in 2008 and didn’t mean it. And that Mulcair now promises cap-and-trade and means it. MPs spent the week debating the cost of an NDP government, not its benefits, not the cost of Harper’s.

It would be excellent if the government would be more honest. But Jean Chrétien promised to scrap the GST, Paul Martin was for loyalty to party leaders, Dion said a coalition with the NDP was not for him. Voters tend to take claims of higher integrity at a heavy discount.

If you’re explaining, Ronald Reagan once said, you’re losing. Tom Mulcair loves to explain things.