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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Environment Minister Rod Phillips look on during an announcement in Cambridge, Ont., on March 13, 2019.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

When Canadian conservatives stepped up their irresponsible, opportunistic campaign against Ottawa’s new carbon tax this week, it was no surprise that fire-breathing populists such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford led the charge. What was disappointing was to see more moderate, sensible conservative figures join in. Consider, for one, Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips.

Mr. Phillips had a successful career in government and business before being elected as an MPP for Ajax, just east of Toronto. He was chief of staff for Mel Lastman when he was mayor of Toronto and filled the same post for Elizabeth Witmer, a Progressive Conservative Ontario cabinet minister. He led the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. and the Postmedia newspaper group. He was chair of CivicAction, which lobbies for things like better transit and housing in the Toronto region. He is smart, personable and well-informed. And yet there he was this week, condemning the federal tax with all the same talking points you hear from Mr. Ford or Alberta’s Jason Kenney.

He said the tax will “punish” hard-pressed ordinary Canadians just for living their lives. It won’t. Most of them will come out ahead when they get a rebate from the federal government.

He suggested Canadians can’t trust Ottawa to send them the rebate. That is a line intended to play on public distrust of government – a risky game for a government minister to play. Of course taxpayers will get the money. If they reduce their carbon footprint, which is the whole point, they will do quite well out of the plan.

He called the new levy a job killer. That is not British Columbia’s experience. A conservative-minded government brought in a carbon tax in 2008. Guess what? The economy has continued to grow nicely. Greenhouse-gas emissions have dropped.

He said Ontario has cut its emissions sharply so it’s already well ahead on the climate file. But his government had nothing to do with that. It was the previous Liberal government that got rid of coal power in Ontario – the same government his party seizes every opportunity to revile.

He said the Ford government has a plan to fight climate change without a carbon tax. Ontario’s former Environment Commissioner says the plan ignores all “the facts and the evidence” about how to limit global warming. The government just closed her office, putting her out of work.

Mr. Phillips condemns Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for saying that a tax on carbon is the only way to fight climate change. They don’t say that at all. The tax is just one part Ottawa’s strategy, which includes investing in public transit, drawing up tougher vehicle-emissions standards and offering subsidies for those who buy electric cars.

What Canadian conservatives are saying about the carbon tax is pure nonsense. Ottawa’s carbon tax is not a Liberal conspiracy to pick taxpayers’ pockets. Why, in an election year, would the Liberals choose to “punish” the very voters they are trying to attract. It is a brave, prudent, long-overdue attempt to put a price on polluting.

One of the economists who won last year’s Nobel Prize says that taxing the usage of fuels that release greenhouse gases is just common sense, because it will encourage us to use less. Paul Romer told the CBC: “We need to just say, ‘Look, we’re going to start to put a tax on this.’ And that will mean that the people who were thinking about using carbon-based fuels will ... have an incentive to switch, and others will have an incentive to discover new solutions.”

True conservatives like this approach because it uses price signals, not heavy-handed regulation, to change behaviour. Preston Manning, elder statesman of Canadian conservatism, encouraged his fellow conservatives to embrace it.

Mr. Phillips can’t be unaware of all of this. That is what makes his misleading campaign against the tax worse, in some ways, than Mr. Ford’s rants. He is not a Ford Nation zealot. He has no excuse.

If we miss this chance to do what is right on climate change, future generations may point fingers at the Fords and Kenneys. More blame lies with those who know better but go along to get along.

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