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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 19. Poilievre was in Atlantic Canada Tuesday, stoking fears that Ottawa will increase the price of gas with a carbon-price hike.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

On the day that the Liberal government released its climate change adaptation strategy, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was on an axe-the-carbon-tax tour of Atlantic Canada, seizing a golden political opportunity.

The four Atlantic Canadian premiers have joined together to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to delay a July hike in carbon prices, because they worry about a consumer backlash. This week, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston published an op-ed insisting it will make life unaffordable.

Mr. Poilievre held his Tuesday news conference at a gas station in Moncton, N.B., complaining Ottawa will increase the price of gas with a carbon-price hike. It isn’t just the so-called pain-at-the-pumps at play in Atlantic Canada. It is a region where more homes use oil for heating, so carbon taxes will amount to bigger bills.

The federal government argues that the carbon-price hikes won’t be that big, noting that most households will get more back in rebate cheques than they pay in carbon taxes, and that people who want to switch their homes from oil to electric heat pumps can get up to $10,000 in federal subsidies.

But Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston obviously thinks residents of his province will be upset. The other Atlantic Canadian premiers, including Newfoundland’s Liberal Premier Andrew Furey, are sending a similar message. They don’t want to take the blame.

So Mr. Poilievre picked the right time to go to Atlantic Canada to promise that a Conservative government would “cancel the carbon tax and reduce the cost of gas and diesel.”

Liberal MPs in Atlantic Canada are feeling the pressure. Wayne Long, the Liberal MP for the New Brunswick riding of Saint John–Rothesay, acknowledged that Mr. Poilievre is capitalizing on the angst.

“He’s having a free run of it right now,” Mr. Long said. “I don’t like it. But we need to respond.”

“Whether we like it or not, we’ve got a problem. It can be a problem of communication or perception, but we’ve got a problem.”

Mr. Long said he believes in what the Liberal government is doing with carbon pricing, and argued that Mr. Poilievre has no climate change plan. But he said it is up to Liberals to do a better job of explaining it – and that the government has to soothe public concerns by making adjustments for Atlantic Canada. He said the 10 per cent top-up to carbon rebates for people in rural areas is not enough.

There is certainly confusion about the costs. In Nova Scotia, Mr. Houston warns about a 14-cent-a-litre increase, but the three other Atlantic Provinces which already had carbon pricing will see increase of about three-and-half cents. A new clean fuel regulation isn’t supposed to have a price impact this year – but Ottawa complained that Irving Oil asked New Brunswick’s Energy and Utilities Board for an eight-cent increase.

It is clear Liberals are worried. Mr. Long isn’t running again, but the political stakes for Liberals are serious. Atlantic Canada isn’t a big electoral battleground, with 32 seats overall, but it is a stronghold for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, and they can’t afford to lose many of the 24 seats they hold.

The Atlantic Canada carbon controversy reflects the broader Canadian debate, where Liberals argue carbon pricing is key to reducing emissions – and that Mr. Poilievre has no emissions-reduction plan – while Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives insist carbon pricing is too costly.

And while a large majority of Canadians consistently tell pollsters they want governments to act on climate change, that does not always mean they accept the direct impact on their pocketbooks. On Tuesday, at a time when many link an increase in extreme weather events like massive wildfires to climate change, the Liberal government released a $1.6-billion adaptation strategy. But the costs of climate measures are still a potent political issue.

The Liberals apparently haven’t convinced Atlantic Canadians that carbon rebates alleviate the costs – even though a carbon-price opponent, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, provided a practical endorsement of their value. Earlier this year, Mr. Higgs moved New Brunswick from a provincial carbon-price scheme to the federal one so that New Brunswickers could get the federal rebates.

But all that is part of a complicated political debate that Liberals like Mr. Long think their party is losing. And this week, Mr. Poilievre is in Atlantic Canada to take advantage.

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