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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped up his campaign on Thursday against a carbon tax proposed by his chief rival to reduce greenhouse emissions, saying it would weaken national unity in a country battered by years of fights with separatists in Quebec.
Harper, whose Conservatives are well ahead of the official opposition Liberals in the polls in the run-up to an election on Oct 14, said the tax would undoubtedly cause a recession.
"If a government spends billions of dollars and tries to fund it through a new tax, the results for the economy will be disastrous -- disastrous. For national unity, I'd say the same thing," he told a televised news conference.
Harper made his comments in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where secessionist forces have been trying for several decades to break away from the rest of Canada.
The tax on carbon emissions, which have been blamed for global warming, is the brainchild of Liberal leader Stephane Dion. He says the measure would cut greenhouse gas output while remaining revenue-neutral.
Dion says he would offset the carbon tax with income tax cuts and higher subsidies to the poor. His plan would boost taxes on most fuels, with the exception of gasoline.
Harper's latest accusation may not make much headway with voters, since Dion is the man who in 2000 pushed through legislation making it more difficult for provinces to secede from the Canadian federation.
"I do not need any lessons from Stephen Harper on fighting for the national unity of my country ... It is completely irresponsible for (him) to do this," Dion responded. Polls show support for independence in Quebec is on the wane.
The Conservatives have a minority of the 308 seats in Parliament and recent surveys show the most likely result of an election would be another minority Conservative government.
A Nanos Research poll for CPAC television on Thursday put the Conservatives at 37 percent support with the Liberals at 32 percent. Under Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, a party needs around 40 percent to win a majority in Parliament.
The Conservatives want to take seats from the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which holds 48 of Quebec's 75 seats.
Harper is stressing he favors looser ties between Ottawa and the provinces in a bid to attract sovereigntists, the soft nationalists who vote for the Bloc because they want more powers for Quebec without necessarily seeking independence.
"If a Liberal government wants to get all the money in Ottawa through a centralizing policy such as a carbon tax, well of course sovereigntists are going to be rubbing their hands in glee, because once again we'll have the old squabbles of yesteryear and debates on national unity," he said.
Separatist governments in Quebec held failed referendums on independence in 1980 and 1995. Dion, then Liberal minister in charge of ties with the provinces, subsequently drew up the law making it harder for Quebec to break away.
Harper's main message to the electorate is that the carbon tax would be far too risky at a time when the Canadian economy is struggling to cope with the downturn in the United States.
Although Harper has run a smooth low-key campaign so far, the Conservatives are looking less adroit. The party suspended chief spokesman Ryan Sparrow on Thursday for saying the father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan was a Liberal supporter.
Sparrow made the comments to a reporter after the father criticized government policy on Afghanistan.
Harper apologized on Tuesday after a party website put up a faked film that showed a puffin dropping excrement on Dion.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway