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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement about the carbon price rebate during a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 26.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

– Okay, here’s the deal. We have to win back Atlantic Canadians, fast. Since they started paying the federal carbon tax four months ago they’ve deserted us en masse. I need a way to give Atlantic Canada a break on the tax without the rest of Canada catching on.

– I’ve got it. We increase the carbon tax rebate for rural Canadians, and we lift the tax for three years on home heating oil. For rural Canada, read Atlantic Canada – it’s the only part of rural Canada that elects Liberals, and Atlantic Canadians are pretty near the only Canadians who still burn oil to heat their houses. Only, get this, we talk about these as if they were programs of general application.

– Brilliant! And by the time Atlantic Canadians find out they still have to pay the tax once three years are up, we’ll be safely past the election. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it turns out. It didn’t take long for people to figure out that a special tax break for the 4 per cent of the population – but one-third of Atlantic Canadians – who heat their houses with oil left the gas- and electricity-heating majority out in the cold. And it didn’t take them much longer to grasp the squalid regional politics at play.

Far from the surgically precise pandering of the Prime Minister’s imagination, the move has only ignited demands for similar breaks – from the western premiers, clamouring that other types of home heating fuels also be exempt, to the federal Conservatives, for whom this was a tacit admission that the tax should be abolished altogether.

Whether Atlantic Canadians will be impressed by a bribe that expires in three years remains to be seen. But meanwhile the flip-flop, on the government’s marquee policy, has not only made hash of years of Liberal messaging – wait, you mean people can’t afford the tax, even with the rebates? – but more or less destroyed the Prime Minister’s remaining credibility with progressives.

You try explaining why heating oil, a comparatively “dirty” fuel, should be exempt from tax, while clean-burning natural gas is not. For extra credit, explain why everyone, rich or poor, should get a break on their heating costs if they burn oil, but no one, poor or rich, who burns gas should get the same break. Other than the obvious.

And just in case it was not obvious enough, there was Gudie Hutchings, Minister of Rural Economic Development, patiently explaining that if Western Canadians wanted to get the same treatment as Atlantic Canadians, “perhaps they need to elect more Liberals.” By the weekend there was a distinct smell of smoke in the air, and it wasn’t from burning oil.

Saskatchewan threatens to withhold carbon fees on natural gas

In fairness to the Liberals, there is nothing new in any of this. The break on heating oil is essentially a partial restoration of the pre-July 1 status quo in Atlantic Canada. Prior to that date Atlantic Canadians paid no federal carbon tax at all, but only a hodgepodge of provincial taxes with all sorts of offsets and carve-outs. For that matter, Quebeckers continue to pay what amounts to a sharply lower rate of carbon tax, via the province’s cap-and-trade system.

Both groups of voters expect this as no more than their due: the notion that Quebeckers and Atlantic Canadians are entitled to special treatment by the feds is so ingrained it’s part of the Constitution. Ms. Hutchings’s candid advice – get on board with the winners if you want a share of the loot – is no less familiar. It is a staple of campaign rhetoric east of Ontario: it’s called “getting a seat at the table” or “a voice in government,” and everyone knows what it means.

What was new was rubbing Western Canadians’ faces in it. A message that works in Eastern Canada – Atlantic Canada has voted with the winning party in 21 of the 31 elections since 1921 – does not in Western Canada, where siding with the opposition is just as much a part of the culture.

What’s also new is that Western Canadians are in a position to do something about it. Ontario is the fulcrum of the federation: so long as it sides with the provinces to its east, as it has for the past three elections, Western Canadians are obliged to put up with these sorts of shenanigans.

But times have changed, and so have Liberal fortunes. With the Liberals at 25 per cent in the polls nationally – and trailing the Tories by 10 points or more in Ontario – there is blood in the water. The fuel tax gambit, and the furious reaction it aroused, may have been the moment Justin Trudeau finally understood this.

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