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Did it have to be this difficult?

On paper, closing tax loopholes for high-income earners – in a country in which campaign-finance laws restrict the influence of deep-pocketed individuals or businesses – would seem a political slam-dunk.

In practice, the federal Liberals' attempt to push through a package of such policies – limiting business owners' ability to "sprinkle" income among family members, to convert income to capital gains taxed at lower rates, and to use private corporations as vehicles to make passive investments – has wound up looking like a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to get anyone to pay more taxes, ever.

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Read more: Morneau to hold special meeting of Liberal MPs on Monday to talk taxes (for subscribers)

Read more: How the Liberals want to change the tax code – and why (for subscribers)

Read more: Only the wealthy? The truth about the Liberals' proposed small-business tax reforms (for subscribers)

But that may not be the right lesson for future finance ministers to draw if a chastened Bill Morneau scales back some of his planned reforms (as expected) in the coming week in response to Liberal caucus unrest caused by public backlash.

Governments have undertaken tax changes more potentially fraught than these, and made them work politically.

Only a few years ago, the Ontario government under Dalton McGuinty managed to harmonize federal and provincial sales tax – increasing the cost of some consumer items – without coming apart at the seams.

When it came to getting public acceptance, that government had its ducks in a row in a way the federal one did not, even though many senior staffers cut their teeth at Queen's Park.

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The top minds in Justin Trudeau's office have reasonable excuses. They have not lacked pressing areas of focus, especially U.S. relations. It would have been easy to assume that tax changes affecting relatively few people would generate limited noise.

But whatever the cause of the Liberals' nonchalance, the importance of a few communications steps they neglected may be the most constructive takeaway.

Lay the groundwork

By the time Ontario announced the HST, the province had spent months making the case for why it was needed – and, as importantly, getting others to do so too.

Business interests were lined up to argue harmonization would enhance competitiveness. Finance minister Dwight Duncan toured editorial boards to explain why he was considering it. The premier framed it as the policy item he'd heard the most about when researching how his province could bounce back from the Great Recession.

By contrast, Mr. Morneau's reforms seemed to arrive in the public sphere overnight.

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They may have been consistent with the Liberals' broad messaging about tax fairness, and with their (less contentious) personal-tax increase on those with the highest incomes. But there was little advance communication about why these specific changes were needed. Nor did the government prepare much of a campaign for after they were announced.

As a result, opposition Conservatives and lobbyists for those who would be adversely affected were able to define the issue right out of the gate. Only after that happened did the Liberals start the communications effort they should have initially.

Highlight who benefits

Most good policy pitches are aspirational, and Justin Trudeau usually does aspirational pretty well. Not this time.

Collecting a few hundred million dollars a year extra from people currently sheltering it will not, in and of itself, improve anyone else's life. In that sense, it is a harder sell than something such as the HST, which allowed Mr. McGuinty to argue there would be job gains.

But the government could, say, have paired the roll-out of these changes with the announcement of other changes to tax-dollar distribution aimed at providing incentives for small-business growth. Or it could at least have pointed to previously announced investments worth similar amounts to the increased revenue.

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As it is, Mr. Morneau's reforms seem to exist in isolation, with obvious losers but no obvious winners.

Anticipate opposition

Aside from not preparing their own case effectively, the Liberals clearly underestimated the case that would be made against them.

By all appearances, they started from the premise that dissenters could easily be dismissed as rich tax cheats clinging to money they do not deserve. They were not braced for how effective their opponents would be at casting overworked doctors or sympathetic farmers as victims.

They also seem not to have expected that people who would not immediately be affected by the changes might believe they could one day suffer from them, such as small-business owners hoping to become successful enough to shelter profits.

Governments that properly game out such scenarios help caucus members brace for push-back. In this case, the Finance Minister seems to have been behind his colleagues in finding out what they are up against.

Have the right salespeople

Sometimes a finance minister need not be a strong public performer to do his or her job effectively. But for this sort of fight, you need one who gets political theatre.

In Ontario, Mr. Duncan was that guy – a political veteran who enjoyed a tussle, with a common touch born of his Windsor roots. And to help out with the HST push, Mr. McGuinty appointed another effective communicator as revenue minister.

Mr. Morneau, a rookie MP mostly left to sink or swim through this debate, has at times looked like he would rather be anywhere else. Sharing Mr. Trudeau's privileged background, he has also been easily portrayed as someone who does not understand real-world struggles, even before it was reported on Friday that he failed to disclose his role in a private corporation that owns a villa in France.

That was just the latest unpleasant surprise to befall the Liberals during this saga. They seem to have gone into it so ill-prepared that it may not be the last.

Som Seif, CEO of Purpose Investments, says proposed changes to small business taxes would have negative consequences to the Canadian economy and that all Canadians should be paying attention
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