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analysis

Justin Trudeau and his Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, spent the first Question Period of Parliament's fall session arguing that their proposed tax changes are aimed at standing up for the little guy. But in the corners of the Commons, it looked like the Waynes weren't sold.

Wayne Easter and Wayne Long are both Liberal MPs from Atlantic Canada who have criticized their own government's handling of the proposed small-business tax changes. And the reason they matter is not that they wield enough power inside Liberal circles to get their way. They don't. It's that they're a mark of how Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau aren't getting their message across to the people they want to reach.

The Conservatives came back to the Commons in pretty good spirits precisely because they think they've got a good issue: Small-business groups are hopping mad. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer came armed with a storyline that Mr. Trudeau's Liberals would use the money from the tax changes to pay for bailouts for big corporations such as Bombardier Inc., and for out-of-control deficit spending – and it's the hard-working plumber or farmer who will pay.

Read more: Small-business tax fight dominates Parliament's return

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau insisted that the Liberals are the ones acting for the ordinary Joe, arguing Canada's tax system favours the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. But behind them, Liberal MPs stayed quiet, and looked sullen, and not just the Waynes.

The messengers sometimes seemed to clash with the message. Mr. Trudeau is still a popular PM, but he had a trust fund. Mr. Morneau is an earnest minister, but mapping his finances requires a chart. The Waynes are more Main Street. Mr. Easter, briefly solicitor-general about 15 years ago, is a PEI MP and former president of the National Farmers Union; Mr. Long ran a small business before he became president of the Saint John Sea Dogs junior hockey team. Mr. Scheer gleefully referred to their criticism of Liberal tax proposals: If the PM won't listen to small business, he said, "will he at least listen to his own caucus and stop attacking job creators?"

Mr. Scheer opened by suggesting the PM had called small-business owners tax cheats. "Why is he hurting the very people he claims he wants to help?" he asked. Mr. Trudeau replied that he isn't accusing anyone of breaking rules: "The problem is the rules we have currently favour the wealthy over the middle class."

But the Liberal MPs behind him didn't look inspired. And in another corner, the NDP had decided this fight for the little guy isn't theirs: Leader Tom Mulcair asked about nuclear disarmament.

Mr. Scheer and the Conservatives had another tack: noting that the Liberals provided federal aid to Bombardier, helping the wealthy Beaudoin-Bombardier family that controls it. The Liberal tax proposals prevent small-business owners from sprinkling income to their families, but the Beaudoin-Bombardier families "voted themselves raises," Mr. Scheer said. It was a way of undermining Mr. Trudeau's claims to be fighting for the ordinary Joe.

Some of the Conservative statements about the tax proposals were, frankly, hogwash. Mr. Scheer claims they would prevent a mechanic from expanding his business, but profits reinvested in active business operations would not be taxed any differently; Mr. Scheer incorrectly claimed the changes would penalize a mechanic whose business saved money to buy a new piece of machinery. Mr. Morneau eventually complained about "inaccuracy" of opposition statements – but he didn't specify which, or shoot down those claims. Like Mr. Trudeau, he stuck to asserting the Liberals would remove tax advantages for the wealthy.

Neither Mr. Trudeau nor Mr. Morneau heard much approval from their own MPs. Directly behind the cabinet, in the third row, it wasn't hard to guess that some of the sharpest wits on the Liberal backbench didn't think their team was winning.

It was only when the Conservatives decided to aim a question at Mr. Easter, the chair of the Commons finance committee, that Liberals applauded: Mr. Easter, a veteran Liberal, attacked the Tories for failing to embrace continuing public consultations. But the rest of the time, Liberal MPs were quiet. Mr. Easter slung an arm over the back of his chair looking unimpressed, and Mr. Long held his chin in his palm, fingers at his mouth, looking tense.