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In search of a hot issue, Conservatives come up cold

Seeking an issue that connects, the Conservative Party is again focusing on taxation. Carbon taxes have got to go, cry Tory taxophobes in the leadership debates. In the overflow field of 14, Michael Chong is the sole exception. He is booed lustily at every debate.

But if he faced a cross-section of the country, Mr. Chong would more likely hear more cheers than jeers. Poll after poll, surprisingly enough, shows the majority of Canadians are fine with carbon pricing. Conservatives can hardly be tickled by this or overjoyed to note that in carbon-taxed British Columbia, the economy has been humming along very nicely.

Taking the axe to the tax has been the party's war cry through much of its history.

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Has it worked? Over the past century, Conservatives have won five majority governments, the Liberals twelve. Since 1988, they've won one majority, Liberals four. How much tax policy can factored into the equation is debatable. But few would call its take on taxes a rollicking success.

For an issue that connects, the Conservatives are also going hard on another staple – opposition to deficits. A poll out Monday showed support for the Liberals' deficit-spending approach. But they are on shaky ground here. It may not last.

On other issues such as pipelines, trade and Ukraine, Justin Trudeau's Liberalism has a wide wing span. It reaches out to Tories like Brian Mulroney. It doesn't leave many big openings for the Opposition party.

Distressingly for the party, what's attracting most attention is the divisive issue of immigrant screening for "Canadian values." The policy smacks of Donald-Trump-styled nationalism. It divides the party between those, shall we say, with necks tinted a certain shade, and multiculturalists.

It comes out of the populist provocateur school of politics. This conservative approach has been scoring in other countries with its pitch that everything is wretched and it's all the fault of snooty elites. Conservatives of this ilk prey on low-information voters, showing no shame in being bottom-feeders. Our own Conservatives targeted the less-educated in the past decade. They found some success in so doing, though their wins had more to do with the luck of facing exceptionally weak Liberal leaders than anything else.

The leading leadership candidate in all polls, Kevin O'Leary, is right out of the populist disruptor school, sounding alarms from his American base over dire mismanagement in his birth land. He would not have been pleased to notice a headline in a Canadian magazine last week proclaiming, "The American Dream has moved to Canada."

On life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, the story noted that Canadians live longer, have more economic equality, more per capita college graduates and a greater rate of home ownership than Americans. Canadians score higher on happiness measures, they have a more open and much safer society than the United States.

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Making it difficult for Conservatives is the fortuitous timing of Mr. Trudeau's arrival in power. These are, comparatively speaking, stable and healthy times in Canada. Across its history there has been three primary sources of tension: threats to national unity, engagement in war and economic blight. Only on rare occasions has the country been free of all three. The sigh-of-relief 1920s was one such period, the popcorn decade of the 1950s was another. And this decade may well constitute a third.

Regional tensions that rocked the country from the 1960s almost to the century's turn have disappeared. The Afghanistan war is over. And while economic growth is no great shakes, there are more ups than downs.

All's not to say the Liberals aren't vulnerable. All's not to say the country doesn't face myriad problems. Too many Canadians are relying on part-time employment; Islamophobic passions spur racial clashes; the plight of indigenous peoples remains dire; the housing bubble could well burst; Ottawa's deficits climb.

But it's hardly like the United States, where conditions were such that a con man selling carnage could find a big enough market to win. The problem there was that too many people were losing faith in the American Dream. Here, having taken it over, we don't have that problem.

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