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.