The Commons: Stephen Harper is made to face the farce

The Commons: Megan Leslie asks a question, the PM responds

The Scene. Two-thirds of the way through Question Period this afternoon, Megan Leslie rose to table a conundrum—to present to the House the foundational dissonance upon which rests so much nonsense. Here was the bare farce, exposed for all to see. After some weeks of merely referring to it, the New Democrats were apparently now prepared to confront it.

“Mr. Speaker, here is what the Prime Minister said in a speech on May 29, 2008 in London, England,” Ms. Leslie prefaced. ” ‘I should mention that while our plan will effectively establish a price on carbon of $65 a ton, growing to that rate over the next decade, our government has opted not to apply carbon taxes.’ ”

Various Conservatives applauded. A couple dozen were so moved they stood to applaud. Even the Prime Minister, who had been busy filling out paperwork at his desk, looked up to applaud Ms. Leslie’s reading of his previous sentiment.

What were these men and women cheering? It was certainly not the first part of the sentence: that Mr. Harper once sought to establish a price on carbon runs directly counter to everything these men and women have been saying of late. And it was certainly not the sentence in its entirety: no, taken as a complete sentence, this exposes everything they’ve been saying to be completely ridiculous. No, these grown men and women, all of them in business attire, each of them adults entrusted by their fellow citizens with no less a responsibility than public representation, could only have been applauding the third clause of that sentence. They were apparently suggesting it was possible, in the moment, to separate the final nine words from the rest of the statement. Here they were apparently venturing not simply that it was possible to take something out of context after the fact—anyone can do that—but that the human memory is so limited and the human mind so easily confused, that words can be taken out of context as they are being spoken.

Megan Leslie waited for the applause to finish and then continued.  “Mr. Speaker,” she asked, “why does the Prime Minister want to put a tax on everything?”

It was late in the hour and the Prime Minister could very easily and understandably have let one of his messengers take this, but instead he stood to respond himself, shaking his head as he rose.

“Mr. Speaker, I thank the honourable member for highlighting the difference between our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the NDP desire to put a carbon tax on everything,” he mocked.

Mr. Harper did not bother to explain how Ms. Leslie had done so. Instead he attacked, gesturing across the way at the Liberals and then the New Democrats. “The green shift of the Liberal Party only proposed $15 billion worth of carbon taxes,” he said, “and these guys want $20 billion worth of carbon taxes, something the economy cannot take, something Canadians will never accept.”

The Conservatives were once again delighted, all of them standing to cheer. Jeff Watson mimed a massive baseball swing. “More!” various voices called. “It’s t-ball!” cheered one.

Ms. Leslie returned to her feet. Mr. Harper sat and listened. Mr. Speaker, there seems to be confusion among Conservatives,” she ventured. “Formerly, the Prime Minister expressed his intention to establish a carbon price of $65 per tonne … but for the Conservatives a price on carbon is nothing more nor less than a carbon tax.”

Here was the riddle. “Do the Conservatives,” Ms. Leslie asked, “now deny the Prime Minister said that a price on carbon was not a carbon tax?”

Here is the farce. For years, the Conservative party and the Harper government publicly advocated for and pursued a cap-and-trade system to establish a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beginning in 2008, they also loudly opposed a carbon tax. But now, faced with an official opposition that has advocated for a cap-and-trade system, the Conservatives say there is no difference between cap-and-trade and a carbon tax. Anything, they now say, that establishes a price on carbon is a carbon tax.

How do they account for everything they said and did up until recently? They don’t. “That’s the past,” they say. What the Conservative party ran on in 2004 and 2008, what the Harper government had the Governor General say in the Throne Speech in 2008, what cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister said they would do and what they all said and did over a five-year period is now not only ancient history, but entirely inapplicable to the present. (And never mind that, still now, the Conservatives are not quite prepared to definitely say they won’t pursue cap-and-trade if the United States decides to do likewise.)

In addition to splitting sentences, the Conservatives wish to control the human mind: to wave their hands and tell you these are not the droids you’re looking for and leave you to go about your business understanding only that Thomas Mulcair is a bad man.

Mr. Harper stood, smiling. “Mr. Speaker, in the quotation from the member, it is clear that the government would not impose a tax on carbon,” he said, en francais. “It is quite the opposite.”

The Prime Minister now switched to English and attempted to split the idea. “The difference is simply this,” he said. “No plan ever proposed by this government has involved raising revenue and taking money from Canadian consumers.”

It is important here to understand all of the problems with this second sentence.

His government has so far been unable to substantiate the claim that the cap-and-trade system it proposed would not have resulted in government revenue. If documentation from the time exists to support this present claim—if there is evidence that the Conservatives categorically ruled out any revenue—it has not yet been produced.

But it doesn’t even matter. Government officials needn’t waste a moment looking for anything to support the Prime Minister’s claim because according to the Prime Minister’s own government his words here are irrelevant. According to his own government’s logic, it simply doesn’t matter whether cap-and-trade results in public revenue or private revenue. “Carbon pricing in any form is a carbon tax,” Environment Minister Peter Kent explained in June. “Cap and trade or cap and tax, a price on carbon is a tax on carbon,” Conservative backbencher John Williamson reported to the House just last month.

The Prime Minister can claim now that he wasn’t proposing a carbon tax because what he was proposing wouldn’t have resulted in government revenue, but his own government has already sold him out.

As for the claim that “no plan ever proposed by this government involved … taking money from consumers,” Mr. Harper should review the legislation his government has passed so far in this regard, including the billions in costs contained therein, some of which will be applied directly to Canadian consumers.

“They have in their platform,” Mr. Harper concluded, “right in black and white in their financial tables, a $20 billion hit on Canadian consumers and households, which is something this government will never do.”

The Conservatives stood to cheer. And they were delighted to see Ms. Leslie stand for another round. The New Democrats stood to cheer her on.

“It seems that the Conservatives are caught in a vicious cycle here,” she chided.

The Conservatives laughed.

“They are either claiming that the Prime Minister never gave a speech that one can find on the PMO website, or that a price on carbon is not a tax on carbon,” she ventured. “Is there anyone over on that side who will stand up and defend the Prime Minister on his position that a carbon tax is not the same as a price on carbon?”

Various Conservatives stood to offer themselves up. Tony Clement mimed a baseball swing. The government side was gleeful. Ms. Leslie waited to finish.

“Mr. Speaker,” she finally asked, “will they defend the Prime Minister or will they throw him under the bus?”

The Prime Minister stood again. “Mr. Speaker,” he quipped, “if the member keeps leading with her chin I am prepared to keep going for it.”

He proclaimed greatness and pronounced shame and jabbed his finger and once more the Conservatives stood to cheer. They positively roared when Ms. Leslie stood for a fourth time. The Conservatives were having a grand time, finding their own joke to be quite hilarious.

“Mr. Speaker, it seems that the Conservatives are caught in a bit of an ethical dilemma here,” she suggested.

The Conservatives laughed.

“Mr. Speaker, day after day Conservative MPs and ministers are making things up,” she continued. “They are spouting mistruths and they are misleading Canadians. This is a major ethical issue.”

“Ahhh!” the Conservatives mocked.

Now then, a trick.

“My question is to the chair of the ethics committee,” Ms. Leslie explained. “I would like to know whether or not this issue is on the committee’s agenda.”

It is a little known fact that Question Period provides MPs an opportunity to ask questions of not only government ministers, but also committee chairs, even if those committee chairs are opposition MPs.

Mr. Harper attempted here to stand and respond, but the question was not for him. Instead, the Speaker called on the chair of the ethics committee, the MP for Sherbrooke, Pierre-Luc Dusseault.

The youngest person ever elected to the House of Commons duly stood and explained that the committee was presently taken with a study of privacy and social media. That said, en francais, he switched to English.

“In committee or in the House, MPs should conduct themselves in a very ethical manner, including not making things up about other parties,” Mr. Dusseault offered. “Conservative tactics have been denounced widely. Some in the media are asking how stupid the Conservatives think Canadians are. As the chair of the ethics committee, I invite my colleagues across the way to address that question in committee if they want.”

The Conservatives howled. Mr. Harper laughed and held aloft the NDP’s 2011 platform. As if he and his government hadn’t already decided that the public record was now entirely irrelevant

So here was the farce writ large. Here was the farce laid out before the public and celebrated and cheered by the actors who have been bringing it to life each day for the last few weeks. It is, for sure, an astounding spectacle. Hopefully you enjoy it, because it is being performed at your expense.

The Stats. Food safety, nine questions. The environment, four questions. Employment insurance, ethics, bilingualism and museums, three questions each. Afghanistan, omnibus legislation, immigration and small business, two questions each. Fisheries, food prices, trade and Canada Post, one question each.

Stephen Harper, nine responses. James Moore, six responses. Gerry Ritz and Gerald Keddy, two responses each. Diane Finley, three responses. Peter MacKay, Gary Goodyear and Rick Dykstra, two responses each. Leona Aglukkaq, John Duncan, Pierre-Luc Dusseault and Steven Fletcher, one response each.