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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

Senior voices within the movement believe the best way for the federal Conservatives to fight global warming, and get elected, is to scrap the Liberal carbon tax and replace it with one of their own.

One question is whether Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole agrees; another is whether he can sell it to his base.

It’s no coincidence that Clean Prosperity held its virtual forum on climate change right before the Conservative policy convention. The NGO is trying to convince the party that it must find a way to put a price on carbon.

At the forum, former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said she lost her Greater Toronto riding of Milton in the 2019 election for one simple reason: “We opposed a carbon tax.”

The Conservatives, she said, failed to understand that voters had changed. In 2008, attacking Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s plans for a carbon tax worked, because the idea was unpopular and so was he.

“But something funny happened over the past 12 years, and it culminated with me losing my seat,” Ms. Raitt said. Voters now wanted governments to get serious about global warming. The Conservatives, still obsessing on tax cuts and balanced budgets, missed the change in the zeitgeist. Conservative candidates, especially those in suburban middle-class ridings in Ontario and British Columbia, paid the price.

Christy Clark, the former premier of British Columbia, can best be described as a small-c Liberal. She believes that conservative-leaning voters will accept a carbon tax, so long as it is offset with tax cuts elsewhere.

“You put the carbon tax in, and then every single equivalent penny comes out “ in lower income tax or other taxes, she proposed. Her predecessor as premier, Gordon Campbell, used a similar approach when he introduced Canada’s first carbon tax in 2008.

“We want to tax things we don’t want, like pollution, but we’re going to have fewer taxes on things we do want, like more income, more economic opportunity,” she explained. Progressive parties, Ms. Clark maintained, are more likely to use carbon taxes to increase the size of government (though Justin Trudeau’s Liberals do offer rebates). That, she believes, is how Conservatives can differentiate themselves from Liberals on carbon taxes.

Rumours abound that Mr. O’Toole, who has said Canada should have net-zero emissions by 2050, is thinking along the same lines as Ms. Clark. Rumours also abound that Prairie and rural MPs are up in arms at the thought.

But Ken Boessenkool, who was senior policy adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper and chief of staff to Ms. Clark, warned that without a carbon tax, Conservatives will lose seats, not only in suburban Ontario and B.C., but “in the Western ridings that are on the cusp” – ridings such as Calgary Centre or Edmonton Mill Woods or Regina-Wascana, where the Conservatives are vulnerable to the Liberals or NDP.

“Those are the kinds of seats that we can keep in our column when we have a really good, credible climate-change policy,” he said.

Not everyone at the forum agreed on everything. Michael Bernstein, executive director at Clean Prosperity, argued for exemptions or compensation for farmers and rural residents, who don’t have access to public transit and other low-carbon alternatives that city-dwellers enjoy. Others weren’t so sure.

There was a general expectation that the Supreme Court will uphold the Liberal government’s right to impose carbon taxes in provinces that don’t have their own. Once that ruling comes down, it would make sense for Ontario’s Doug Ford and other conservative premiers to introduce their own carbon taxes, which would eliminate the need for a federal alternative.

Mr. O’Toole has a difficult task. Many Prairie voters rightly worry that federal politicians ignore their concerns, such as preserving jobs in the oil-and-gas sector, focusing instead on voters in Central Canada. Western alienation produced the Reform Party in the 1980s, and the same thing could happen again.

But the Conservatives can never hope to win power unless they develop a credible approach to reducing emissions. And that means putting a price on carbon. There is simply no alternative.

Proposing a Conservative carbon tax while holding on to the base won’t be easy. But leading the federal Conservatives never is.

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