Will Stephen Harper’s “a carbon tax is crazy economics; it’s crazy environmental policy” turn out to be the 2008 election’s version of “Zap! You’re frozen”?

During the 1974 federal election campaign, earnest, awkward Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield—the Stephane Dion of his day—proposed a policy of wage and price controls to put a lid on the runaway inflation then playing havoc with Canada’s economy.

His Liberal opponent, the always-charismatic, ever-decisive Pierre Trudeau—think Stephen Harper with way more pizzazz—mocked him mercilessly. “Zap! You’re frozen,” he would joke at every campaign stop.

It worked. Trudeau won, Stanfield lost.

Fifteen months later, Trudeau turned around and zapped wage and price controls on Canadians, disingenuously claiming the economic situation had changed so radically in a year he had no choice.

In this election, Stephane Dion is playing Robert Stanfield, championing a policy most experts agree makes environmental and economic good sense.

Consider. Groups as diverse as The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an independent agency whose members include Canada's top business and environmental leaders, and the David Suzuki Foundation have both endorsed the idea of a carbon tax. So has The Economist and boardrooms full of actual economists. More than half of those surveyed last year for the Wall Street Journal, for example, agreed carbon taxes were “the most economically sound way for the government to encourage development of alternatives to fossil fuels.” Not to forget global warming pied piper Al Gore—no surprise—and—surprise!—Paul Volker, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, who says that without such a tax, “you can be sure that the economy will go down the drain in the next 30 years.” Even the hardly-left-of-Ghengis CanWest Foundation concedes “it can’t hurt to consider what some jurisdictions are doing” in terms of carbon taxes.

Other countries, in fact, particularly in Europe, have been taxing carbon since 1990 and some—depending on what they did with tax revenue—actually reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Quebec has a carbon tax. British Columbia recently introduced one. Residents in Boulder, Colorado, voted for a Climate Action Plan Tax in 2006 to help them meet Kyoto targets by 2012.

So is it really “crazy economics… crazy environmental policy?” Does Stephen Harper really think Paul Volker is “insane”?

Or is Harper simply saying what he thinks will get him elected?

Like Pierre Trudeau?

Like Brian Mulroney, who opposed free trade with the U.S., only to make it a reality when he became prime minister?

Or like Jean Chrétien, who promised his Liberals would eliminate the GST in order to become prime minister, and then didn’t? (Anyone pondering why fewer and fewer Canadians bother to vote might well begin with this litany of electorally changed minds.)

So what are we to make of Stephen Harper’s viral vitriol? It depends.

Though Harper is ever eager to please his Neanderthal base, which still desperately wants to believe global warming—as Harper himself once famously described the Kyoto agreement—is just “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” Harper is also a politician who ultimately wants nothing more than to get re-elected.

Remember it wasn’t that long ago that Harper was claiming there was only “tentative and contradictory scientific evidence” of climate change. You won’t hear that from him in this campaign.

If he wins a majority—perish the thought—Harper may feel empowered to ignore the growing consensus that we need to take real action on carbon emissions. But if he gets only a minority, we could end up with yet another Saul-like conversion on the path of power.

Here’s praying…

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