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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has only herself to blame if she’s preoccupied the next few days and weeks with uncomfortable questions about the future of the government’s carbon tax. She’s created confusion where none needed to exist.

When the pan-national deal on climate change was signed in 2016, it was agreed the federal levy on carbon would start at $20 a tonne, increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022. At that point, the future of the government’s price-on-carbon program was to be reviewed and a future path determined. There were no promises the carbon levy would stay where it was after 2022.

It was negotiable, depending (one supposed) on how Canada was doing in its quest to meet the country’s international emissions-reductions obligations.

And that was fine until this summer, when the Parliamentary Budget Officer issued a report saying the price on carbon would have to go to $102 a tonne by 2030 if the federal government were to rely on that instrument alone to meet targets set out in the Paris climate accord. (There has never been a suggestion that the carbon tax would be the only method the government used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions). In a scrum on the report, Ms. McKenna surprised many when she said: “The plan is not to increase the price post-2022.”

Those words came back to haunt the Environment Minister this week when, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, she said a decision on future levels would be determined after negotiations with provinces, territories and discussions with Canadians more broadly. Suddenly, the minister’s price guarantee was gone.

The federal Conservative Party could scarcely imagine its good fortune.

The party put forth Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre on Monday to blast the Liberals for their “carbon tax cover up” and Ms. McKenna in particular for “accidentally” telling the truth about the tax. He said Canadians now know the tax “will go up much higher,” even though no one has said that. This is what politicians do in the frenzied lead-up to an election, I guess – make stuff up.

I have no idea why Ms. McKenna would have said the tax would not go up beyond 2022 when the agreement signed by the provinces (except Saskatchewan) and territories said its future was to be negotiated down the road. She should have said she had misspoken and taken her lumps. But that is not the Liberal way. The Liberal way is to hunker down in the face of adversity and ride out the storm – even if you’re wrong. The minister spent Monday in damage-control mode, saying that while there are no plans to raise the price on carbon after 2022, it is something that the federal government of the day will have to decide in consultation with the provinces.

Anyway, this is too bad. The fact is raising the carbon tax may be something a responsible government concerned about climate change does to fight rising emissions. It’s something economists agree is the most effective way of changing people’s fuel-consuming behaviours. Experts also praise the Liberal carbon tax because 90 per cent of the revenue it raises will be returned to Canadians.

Now, the carbon-tax discussion will be entirely framed around a Conservative narrative that the Liberals are lying about what they intend to do with the tax. That the fee is part of a “secret” government plan to rob Canadians of their hard-earned money to fund a dubious strategy to save the environment. It will serve as a cover for a party that has no credible climate plan itself.

And that is the real problem here: It has given the Conservatives a stick with which to bash the Liberals on an issue that the Tories have zero credibility on. Their climate-change plan is a macabre joke, one that renowned climate scientists have estimated will drive up emissions by 100 megatonnes more than the existing strategy by 2030. Defending a document such as that, in these times, is inconceivable. And the Conservatives will rightly face some voter blowback on the campaign trail as a result.

Ms. McKenna will deservedly take her lumps for handing her political foes a gift in the run-up to an election. Which is too bad because she deserves better than that. As I’ve said before, there hasn’t been an environment minister in this country’s history who has done more on her file and who has done more in the fight to bring down global emissions.

Hopefully, Canadians concerned about climate change will not have their attention diverted by scary rhetoric about clandestine agendas and instead will focus on which parties have the most effective plans to do something about the ill health of the planet.

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