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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harper's tactics mislead voters

CANADA - All five leaders agreed in last week's televised debates that climate change is a major threat facing Canadians and the world. And in a rare moment of unanimity, they all called for action to reduce carbon emissions in this country.

Unsurprisingly, they disagreed on how to attack the problem.

Unpardonably, Stephen Harper made himself disagreeable with an unchecked attack on reality.

Under wilting criticism from the four opposition leaders for the government's lacklustre environmental plan, the Prime Minister lashed out at the Liberals' Green Shift by dipping into his playbook of cheap debating tricks that insult the intelligence of voters.

Harper claimed in the English-language debate that St├ęphane Dion's climate change plan was a $14 billion tax grab, because it would suck $40 billion out of the economy and cut both personal and corporate taxes by only $26 billion.

What he neglected to say was that the "missing" $14 billion would be returned to Canadians in direct tax credits, benefits and deductions – adding up to the promised $40 billion. This is no secret. It is spelled out in the Liberals' Green Shift, and in their party platform, both of which supply far greater precision and policy substance than the so far invisible Conservative election plan.

The Liberal plan details items such as a $465 million hike in the Working Income Tax Benefit; a $2.9 billion boost to the Universal Child Tax Benefit; a $750 million Green Rural Credit; a $600 million boost to the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance for environmental investments; and $400 million in other science and research credits.

Harper opted to ignore these and other tax breaks. Yet, as the Liberals point out, these are precisely the kinds of tax benefits that the Conservative government has described as "tax relief" in previous budgets.

Why would the Prime Minister pretend that these Liberal tax breaks don't count – that these funds would somehow be retained by the treasury – when the reductions are spelled out in publicly available Liberal documents? Doubtless the best defence is a strong offence, and Harper is going out of his way to camouflage the government's weak environmental policy, which has been shredded by environmentalists and economists alike for failing to set attainable targets.

The Liberal plan will raise taxes on polluters and reduce taxes for others. The Conservative plan will only succeed in raising pollution.

In fact, the Liberals have been crystal clear from the outset that their planned tax shift – making pollution costlier while turning energy savings into money savings – would be revenue-neutral. To add credibility to their claims, they have specified that the auditor general would verify that pledge was being carried out annually.

For better or for worse, debates offer the party leaders a chance to inform – or misinform – voters about a campaign's key issues. Whether a politician chooses to do the former, or the latter, speaks volumes about their character and trustworthiness.

"Don't believe this man," Dion said after hearing the disinformation. "Mr. Harper, it's a lie. I see the game you are playing. It's not true at all. For every dollar that we will raise, you will have a tax cut."

By wilfully distorting Dion's written program, Harper deliberately misled the Canadians whose trust he is seeking in this campaign.