OTTAWA - Canada's parliamentary engine sputtered back to life with a hyper-partisan bang Monday as the Conservatives sought to tarnish New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair with a plan to impose a carbon tax on unsuspecting Canadians.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper got in on the act, demonstrating that a three-month summer break has done little to soften the Conservative government's go-for-the-jugular partisan instincts.
Harper, his ministers and his backbenchers repeated at every opportunity their tirade against NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's alleged carbon tax proposal, disregarding the fact that the NDP has never actually proposed a carbon tax.
Indeed, Mulcair and his predecessor, Jack Layton, have proposed a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a proposal Harper himself championed for several years before dropping the idea.
At no point did the Tories ever refer to their own proposal as a carbon tax — but now, it seems, they're not about to let facts get in the way of a good partisan attack.
"Cap and trade or cap and tax, a price on carbon is a tax on carbon. That makes it a carbon tax," asserted New Brunswick MP John Williamson, one of three government backbenchers whose short statements in the House of Commons were aimed at lambasting the NDP.
Harper followed up during question period. Responding to five different questions from Mulcair about the perilous state of the economy, the prime minister managed to work a reference to the NDP's alleged plan to hike taxes into all five answers.
Canada has remained "one of the few islands of stability" amid global economic turmoil because of his government's economic action plan "and also because Canadians and people across the globe know we have a government smart enough to reject dumb ideas like a $20-billion carbon tax," Harper said at one point.
"There is not a single serious analyst in the entire world who thinks this economy would be anything but worse off if the leader of the NDP put his policies into effect," he said later. "That is why we will keep expanding trade and keep lowering taxes."
Harper's ministers joined the refrain.
"The NDP would impose a $20-billion, job-killing carbon tax that would raise prices on everything, including gas, groceries and hydro," said International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz even managed to work the alleged NDP carbon tax into an answer about the impact of the summer drought on farmers.
"The most detrimental thing to agriculture would be a carbon tax, and that is what the NDP keeps fanning," he said.
Mulcair refused to respond in the Commons to any of the Tory attacks on his supposed carbon tax plan — an assertion he's already described as a "bald-faced lie."
"The NDP's top priority is the economy. The Conservatives' top priority is making things up about the NDP," Mulcair said outside the Commons.
"If the Conservatives want to lie, I'm going to rely on Canadian journalists to show that they're lying. I'm not going to do that in the House.... My goal today was not to take the bait. My job was to take the debate to the Conservatives on the failings in the economy and that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Mulcair's restraint may not be sustainable, however. As the past two Liberal leaders — Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff — discovered, failing to forcefully counter the Conservative spin machine can be fatal to opposition leaders.
"(Harper) wants to portray any carbon pricing plan as a tax," said Dion, whose own "green shift" proposal was trashed by the Tories as a "tax on everything" during the 2008 election campaign.
"It's what he did to Mr. Ignatieff and he wants to try to do it to Mr. Mulcair. It's completely dishonest ... The effectiveness has been proved so maybe they want to repeat the recipe of 2008."
As the sitting progresses through the fall, parliamentarians are expected to wrestle with planned changes to pension plans for MPs and federal workers, further cuts to government spending — and more controversy over the "Trojan horse" bill that critics say will deliver them.
New omnibus legislation is expected, a sequel of sorts to Bill C-38 — the controversial budget implementation bill that was passed in June after marathon, all-night voting sessions that were forced by an angry Opposition.
The second bill "will put into place outstanding items from the economic action plan 2012 which remain to be implemented," said government House leader Peter Van Loan.
Opposition NDP MPs accused the government of planning once again to steamroller Parliament and its democratic traditions.
"Last session, we saw a legislative strategy from the government that was unco-operative and at times belligerent,"said NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"We are concerned, based on the comments made by the Conservatives, that they are planning again to trample our legislative rights."
Nonsense, said Van Loan, who said the new bill would be a key part of a fall agenda aimed at job creation and economic growth.
"The plan is working," Van Loan said. "Canada has posted the strongest job-creation record in the G7, with over 770,000 net new jobs created for Canadians families since the end of the economic downturn.
"Canadians expect their government to focus on maintaining Canada's record of relative strength."
Other forthcoming legislation is expected to deal with RCMP accountability and law-and-order issues, including a bill to make it easier to deport dangerous foreign criminals and one to double the amount which offenders must pay to victims in recompense.
The RCMP legislation will "ensure that the RCMP is fully accountable and transparent to Canadians," Van Loan said.
Related on HuffPost:
Big Canada Pension Plan Changes Coming In 2012
Ottawa is bringing in a raft of new or tweaked policies to reflect that retirement these days is more of a gradual transition for many people rather than a single event. Many of these changes either begin in 2012 or are entering the next phase-in period, and they'll have a direct impact on the retirement plans of Canadians. In some cases, the changes are big enough that people nearing retirement may want to have a chat with a financial adviser before deciding exactly when to apply for a CPP retirement pension. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) <em>With files from CBC</em>
1. Early CPP, Lower Benefits
The first change involves payment rates. People can choose to take a CPP retirement pension as early as age 60. But there's a catch: A 0.5 per cent reduction in the pension payout for each month before age 65 that someone begins receiving it. That translates into a retirement benefit that's 30 per cent less at age 60 that it would be if you waited until 65. Starting in 2012, Ottawa is beginning to phase in a bigger reduction to get that early access. For 2012, the penalty rises to 0.52 per cent per month -- or a 31.2 per cent reduction for someone who starts receiving their retirement pension at age 60. The early-bird reduction will continue to rise until 2016, when it hits 0.6 per cent per month, or a maximum 36 per cent reduction for those who start receiving CPP payments at age 60 rather than waiting until they reach 65. (Getty)
2. Later CPP, Bigger Benefits
Similarly, those who wait until after the age of 65 to start collection CPP will get a bigger increase in their retirement benefit. Before 2011, the rules stated that the CPP retirement benefit was boosted by 0.5 per cent for each month after age 65 that an individual put off receiving it. So someone who waited until age 70 would enjoy a 30 per cent boost in their payments. But starting in 2011, the government began to phase in a gradual increase to that delay bonus. For 2012, the increase for each month after 65 that a person delays applying for CPP goes to 0.64 per cent -- or a maximum increase of 38.4 per cent for those who start receiving a pension at age 70. By 2013, the maximum bonus moves to 42 per cent. These changes won't affect people who are already receiving CPP benefits. They are being made, according to Service Canada, to restore these adjustments to "actuarially fair levels," so there are "no unfair advantages or disadvantages to early or late take-up of CPP retirement benefits." (Getty)
3. Drop-Out Years Increase
Canadians currently don't need to contribute to the CPP every year from age 18 to age 65 to get a full CPP retirement pension. When someone's average earnings over their contributory period are calculated, 15 per cent of their lowest earning years are automatically ignored when the calculation is made. For someone who takes their CPP retirement pension at age 65, that means seven years of low or zero earnings are dropped from the equation. But starting in 2012, that "general drop-out provision," as it's called, goes up to 16 per cent. For someone eligible for CPP benefits in 2012, that will allow up to 7.5 years of the lowest earnings to be excluded from the calculations -- boosting the retirement benefit paid. In 2014, the percentage will rise again to 17 per cent, which will allow up to eight years of low earnings to be dropped. These changes can really benefit people who entered the workforce late, who were unemployed for a long time, or took time off to go back to school. One point to note is that there are separate drop-out provisions specifically for time spent out of the workforce because of disability or to have children. (Alamy)
4. 'Work Cessation Test' Dropped
CPP rules used to require that someone stop or drastically reduce the amount they earned during the two consecutive months before they began to receive a CPP retirement pension. This was, for many Canadians, an annoying and costly requirement -- especially since so many people now ease into retirement instead of stopping work completely. Now, that rule is history. Beginning in 2012, the "work cessation test" has been eliminated. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/misteraitch/" target="_hplink">Flickr: misteraitch</a>)
5. Post-Retirement Benefits
There's another rule change that's important for semi-retirees to be aware of. Before 2012, if someone started receiving a CPP retirement pension early -- say, at age 62 -- they didn't have to make any CPP contributions if they decided to collect payments but also keep working after age 62. Starting this year, if you are under age 65 and continue to work while also drawing a retirement pension, you and your employer must make CPP contributions. The good news for employees is that these extra contributions will be credited to what's called a Post-Retirement Benefit (PRB), which will result in a higher CPP retirement pension in the year after you make contributions to your PRB. This measure is a nod to the reality that many "retired" Canadians are still working. Canadians who continue working after age 65 and are receiving a retirement benefit will have the choice of whether or not they want to make CPP contributions. If they choose to make them, their employer must kick in their share too. Those additional contributions will go towards higher benefits beginning the year after the PRB contributions. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/elwillo/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Keith Williamson</a>)
6. Premiums And Benefits Rise
CPP benefits are always adjusted to reflect the rising cost of living. For 2012, the increase in benefits is 2.8 per cent. That will bring the maximum monthly CPP retirement pension to $986.67. Contribution rates are unchanged. But since the yearly earnings maximum that the rate applies to is going up, the maximum annual contribution will rise by about $89 in 2012 to $2,306.70 for both employees and employers. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/redvers/" target="_hplink">Flickr:R/DV/RS</a>)