Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Pining For The Fjords

The parrot is dead. It's lying on the floor of the House of Commons and it's not moving. Because it's dead.

Of course you remember the Monty Python skit where a man walks into a shop carrying a bird cage. "I wish to complain about this parrot wot I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique," he says.

"That's a Norwegian Blue," the clerk responds. "What's wrong with it?"

"I'll tell you what's wrong with it. It's dead. That's what's wrong."

"No, no, it's resting." "Look, my lad, I know a dead par-rot when I see one and I'm looking at one right now."

"No, no, it's not dead. It's resting." Stephen Harper must be a colossal Monty Python fan because his government spent the past week re-enacting this skit, with NDP leader Tom Mulcair playing the part of the hapless customer and the prime minister and his caucus taking turns as the shifty-eyed clerk.

Over and over the Conservatives thunderously insisted that the nation would suffer economic devastation if the NDP were to enact its "job-killing carbon tax." Which was odd. Because, as you may recall, the NDP did not win the 2011 election.

The Conservatives did. And after a year-and-a-half of Conservative rule, the government's agenda is looking sparse. One would think that following the long summer break the resumption of Parliament this week would be a good time for the government to discuss its plans for the future. But, no. Instead, the Conservatives launched a full-scale public relations blitz against an old NDP proposal, as if the NDP were the government and only the plucky Conservative Opposition could stop it from destroying life as we know it.

Like I said, odd. But that's the least of the weirdness.

The NDP does not support a car-bon tax. It never has. In fact, in the 2008 campaign, when the Liberals under St├ęphane Dion really did pro-pose a carbon tax, the NDP under Jack Layton explicitly opposed the idea.

Of course, this being politics, there is a pinch of truthiness in the Conservatives' stew of lies.

The NDP supports a cap-and-trade policy. And the effect of a cap-and-trade policy - in fact, its purpose - is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by putting a price on them. A carbon tax is mechanic-ally quite different but it, too, puts a price on emissions. In both cases, the price is ultimately paid by you, me and every other Canadian.

So there are important commonalities, which is why, in the sleazy world of politics, equating cap-and-trade with a carbon tax isn't such a terrible sin. If that's all there is to it. But there are two more points to bear in mind.

First, to reduce emissions, the government is imposing sector-by-sector regulations, the costs of which will be passed down from polluters to you, me and every other Canadian. Same as above. Except the costs are hidden so we'll never know we're paying.

Second, in the 2008 election, the Conservatives promised to create a cap-and-trade system. The same policy the NDP supports. The same policy the Conservatives now say is a "job-killing carbon tax" that would crater the economy and leave us all living in mud huts and caves.

But pay no attention, says the man from the prime minister's office. "That's the past," Andrew MacDougall told Canadian Press reporter Bruce Cheadle. And he's right.

That is the past. It's four years ago, to be precise.

Did something happen in those four years that would explain why cap-and-trade went from being an excellent and practical idea to socialist insanity? No. So we are left with only one possible explanation.

The Conservatives are so shame-less, they will look straight into the eye of a man holding a dead parrot and say, "it's resting."

Of course I'm being a little un-fair to the clerk in that skit. When the customer shouts at the parrot, waves it around, and whacks it on a counter, all without rousing it in the slightest, the clerk finally changes his story.

"It's pining for the fjords," he says. It's another lie, but in replacing one lie with another the clerk has at least acknowledged that the par-rot is, if not dead, not resting. That's something, at least.

But the Conservatives won't even give us that much. There's no "it's pining for the fjords" from them.

They just shamelessly repeat, "it's resting."

This is all a carefully calculated stratagem, of course. "As long as a conversation continues about what Mulcair does and doesn't sup-port, he's in a defensive position," Tim Powers told Cheadle. Powers should know. He's a Conservative strategist.

But the worst part is the people in the PMO won't mind this column at all, or any of the others like it. Sure, I'm calling them cynical liars who would wince when they look in the mirror if they had the slightest intellectual integrity. But they don't care. They know that most people don't follow politics closely and don't have time to learn what cap-and-whutzit is or figure out how some obscure regulation will ultimately cost them money.

These people will hear some noise and catch the gist: The NDP wants a new tax and Stephen Harper is against it. That's a good gist for the public to catch.

And journalists who get angry and try to correct the record only add to the noise. So who cares if they get angry?

This is a perfect demonstration of why people like me are driven to distraction by this government. It's not the policies. I disagree with many but most are pretty moderate and reasonable and a few are excel-lent and overdue.

It's the gobsmacking cynicism and the contempt that is its foundation. Contempt for Parliament, the judiciary, the media, and any-one who gets in their way. But most of all, contempt for Canadians. Stephen Harper is looking us straight in the eye and saying, "it's not dead. It's resting."

He thinks he can get away with that. He thinks we're morons.

Maybe he can get away with that. Maybe we are morons.

But still, the goddamn parrot is dead.