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Opinion To burst Trudeau's bubble, Conservatives need a sharper edge

The best thing that can be said about the Conservative leadership race is that Kevin O'Leary dropped out. The Tories can thank their reality-TV stars that they won't be led by a blustery Trump-lite populist with a political best-before date destined to expire well before 2019.

The Conservatives need serious and substantive leadership and Canadians deserve an Official Opposition that can deliver it. Our current Liberal government seems to be already sliding toward mid-mandate aimlessness, such are the daily platitudes emerging from the mouth of the Prime Minister, who often seems to have grown bored of the inconveniences of governing. The latter involves making difficult arbitrages and offering a sense of direction to the country. Other than standing for some stock Liberal values, such as diversity and multilateralism, Justin Trudeau seeks to avoid tough decisions, lest making them burst the sunny bubble he lives in.

Embracing a national carbon tax was not a tough decision. Eight in 10 Canadians already live in provinces with carbon-pricing schemes and there is nothing onerous, so far, about any of them. So, Ottawa's move to impose a minimum carbon price nationally will have zero impact on Canada's competitiveness, at least not before 2022, when the national rate is set to rise to $50 a tonne. But even then, provided compensatory measures are made, it need not be an economic burden.

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Related: Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney say new Tory leader should be inclusive

Canadians will accept a carbon tax if they believe it is being implemented cautiously and its proceeds are being used responsibly. This is where the Conservatives can offer a credible alternative to the federal Liberals and their provincial cousins in Ontario and Quebec, for whom carbon pricing is primarily a means to generating slush funds they can dole out to pet "green" projects.

A revenue-neutral carbon tax, as proposed by Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong, is smart policy and the Tories would be wise to embrace the idea whether they choose the Ontario MP as their leader on Saturday or not. There are certain evolutions in society – same-sex marriage, transgender rights and carbon pricing – to which resistance is not only wrong, but futile. Conservatives need to get on with it, or they'll increasingly look like a reactionary rump.

Ditto for the current Tory fixation on identity politics, embodied in candidate Kellie Leitch's Canadian values test for immigrants. It's a dumb idea, period, that will do long-term damage to the party.

For any neutral observer who followed this leadership marathon, Mr. Chong was clearly the most articulate, thoughtful and (along with Andrew Scheer) personable candidate in the race. He combines youth and gravitas in a rare and engaging way that would contrast with Mr. Trudeau's airy lack of substance. He would offer principled leadership Canadians could warm to.

Well, Canadians outside Quebec, anyway. Besides his shaky French, Mr. Chong's resignation from cabinet over the former Conservative government's 2006 motion to recognize that the Québécois form a nation within Canada would make it extremely hard for him to gain the trust of Quebeckers. That motion passed the House of Commons by a margin of 266 to 16. Mr. Chong's outlier stand will not be forgotten in a province whose motto is Je me souviens.

So, what if the Tories truly broke new ground and chose a francophone Quebecker as their leader? That would be a pretty compelling proposition, were it not for that person's ideological rigidity. Maxime Bernier has run the best campaign and put forward the boldest platform of any candidate. The problem is that his platform reads like a libertarian manifesto, with all the subtlety and maturity you'd expect from a campus Ayn Rand fan club. Libertarians do not believe in the existence of society. Conservatives do. Mr. Bernier's proposals would divide the party and distract it from the real work of providing an effective opposition.

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So, is there a compromise candidate who could unite the party, grow the Conservative tent, restore fiscal conservativism to its pride of place in Tory branding, articulate a strong (rather than mushy) foreign policy in a rudderless, Trump-led world and earn the respect and trust of Quebeckers?

Frankly, none stands out. But Erin O'Toole shows the most growth potential. The Durham MP still lacks the polish of a seasoned pro. But in tone and substance, he is on the right track. With the formidable Gérald Deltell as his Quebec lieutenant, he would show there is a national alternative to the Liberals, after all.

Because winning the next election is not the Conservatives' first challenge. Merely contesting it is.

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