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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Political conventions are like an extended family holiday dinner, on a public stage.

Grievances and divisions, sometimes deep, will be aired. And while the convention’s organizers may have aimed to celebrate the head of the family, such forums can be just as much a showcase for the views of a handful of cranky second cousins. And so it was last weekend at the virtual Conservative convention, when rookie Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole declared the party had to “present new ideas” or risk losing a third consecutive election. At the top of his to-do: A credible plan to tackle climate change.

The next day, 54 per cent of the 3,100 delegates rejected putting the phrase “we recognize that climate change is real” in the party’s policy book.

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Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This political family’s most recent misery stems from a difference between a minority of partisans, and a majority of less-engaged voters. Delegates at a convention are often fervent adherents to narrow special interests, and not reflective of millions of party voters and potential voters. Everyone knows that, but the results from the weekend will still leave an impression, and not a good one. Though Mr. O’Toole wants to convince Canadians that his party is serious about climate change, and though he insists that he can basically ignore the weekend vote, a majority of his core Conservative faithful did what they could to undermine that message.

Mr. O’Toole promises a comprehensive climate plan, which he says will be under wraps until an election arrives. Late may be better than never, but sooner would be best. As long as Mr. O’Toole leaves this void, he will be challenged to move on to other issues. The absence of a climate policy has become a lightning rod: It attracts attention, invites criticism and makes it harder to get air time for other matters. The convention is the case in point. Mr. O’Toole’s attempt to talk about mental health was entirely drowned out.

In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives tried to get ahead of things. They put out their climate plan four months before the election. “Canada’s Conservatives recognize that climate change is real,” it said, but it was otherwise flimsy. Mr. Scheer’s central tenet, opposition to the carbon tax, remains the position of Mr. O’Toole, the new man of supposed new ideas.

Mr. O’Toole is in a self-imposed bind. If he continues to oppose the carbon tax, he has little choice but to favour regulations, subsidies and other costs hidden from voters. In his leadership platform last year, Mr. O’Toole’s plan was vague. He would use “proven market-based principles” – but not a carbon tax – and focus on “making industry pay.” He talked of cutting global emissions by exporting more natural gas. It didn’t exactly add up.

For now, the fundamental irony of Canadian climate politics remains unchanged: The Liberals are all for the market-based lever of the carbon tax, while Conservatives talk, vaguely, of government regulation and subsidies.

The carbon tax was, originally, a conservative idea. In Canada, the centre-right BC Liberals were first to introduce it (with the BC NDP at one time pledging to “axe the tax”). Since 2015, some Harper-era Conservatives have been making the case to embrace a carbon tax paired with income-tax cuts. Preston Manning long ago supported the idea, and former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown did, too. Polling suggests such a pivot could be a winner for Conservatives in vote-rich regions such as the Greater Toronto Area, and even in Western Canada.

In Britain, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is another model. His plans have their own holes, but go much further than Canadian Conservatives. There’s even talk this year in Mr. Johnson’s government of a carbon tax, as he prepares to host the United Nations summit on climate in Glasgow in November.

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On Thursday, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Trudeau government’s carbon tax. But no matter how it decides, pricing pollution, federally or provincially, will remain the most efficient way to cut most emissions.

What could be a winning Conservative strategy? One that leapfrogs the Liberals, by saying yes to a fully rebated carbon tax, and no to the many ways the Liberals aim to use the climate crisis to divert heavy subsidies to virtue-signalling and industrial strategies. Conservatives, don’t reject carbon pricing. Embrace it.

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