Playing The Immigration Card Will Come With Some Risk For The Liberals

Playing the immigration card will come with some risk for the Liberals

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 4, 2008 at 5:40 AM EDT

This will look a bit strange.

In the spring the Liberals acquiesced in the passage of the Conservatives' immigration legislation. In the fall they will bring forward a plan to have that very same legislation scrapped.

Liberal sources say the repealing of the immigration section of the government's budget implementation bill will be part of an overhaul of immigration policy they are planning for their election platform.

Campaigning against legislation you have in effect supported only months ago will constitute a rare spectacle in Canadian politics. But the Grits, who are firmly opposed to the Tory approach, feel they have no choice but to risk the ridicule.

Their alternative new immigration plan is still in the making, but sources spoke of some features likely to be found in it. One would see newcomers settled outside the major urban areas where the vast majority of immigrants now go. “More people going to Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” a prominent party member said. “You can say that the provincial nominees' programs, wherein provinces determine the local needs, will be expanded under our plan.”

The Liberals say they want to address skills shortages in the labour market quickly. Immigration will be given a big push under the plan. “It's a focus on nation-building. You'll see the elevation of new Canadians.”

Immigration numbers, if temporary workers are excluded, have gone down under the Conservatives and would go up under the Liberals.

The legislation that was passed with the help of the Grits allows the government to fast-track the applications of the types of immigrants it wants or to freeze the types it doesn't want. Critics said it represented a radical shift, giving too much prerogative to the immigration minister.

The Liberals' immigration critic is Maurizio Bevilacqua. He is an expansionist who advocated major immigration increases during his bid for the Liberal leadership. His plan was to immediately increase the annual immigration target to 1 per cent of the population or roughly 325,000 from the current 250,000. By 2016 he wanted the number to jump to 1.5 per cent or 490,000.

You won't see those kinds of increases in the election platform, but it appears some of Mr. Bevilacqua's views are being heard. His nation-building concept sees population growth fuelling economic growth. With an aging population and low birth rate, the economic future, he contends, isn't bright without greater numbers of newcomers, including many under the age of 35. When they're here, he wants barriers removed so that immigrants can realize what he has called the Canadian dream.

The Liberals held their noses in the spring and allowed the immigration bill to pass by absenting themselves from the chamber in order to avoid being forced into an election they did not want at that time. They did so on other bills as well, leaving them open to charges of hypocrisy if they come forward now and start undoing what they approved.

They will counter that looks can be deceiving – that they made it abundantly clear that they didn't support, ummm, the legislation they in effect supported.

Liberal Leader Stphane Dion, in the lead-up to the vote, said he was “adamantly opposed” to the Conservative bill. He went so far as to quote a 20-year-old Reform Party document authored by Stephen Harper that said immigration should not “radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada.” Their bill, Mr. Dion said – in what some saw as a veiled reference to racism – “may look like an attempt to deliver promises made by the Reform Party 20 years ago.”

While the leader's Green Shift plan will be the centrepiece of the Liberals' campaign, party members are looking to other big-ticket items to supplement it. The economy is moving to the top of the block, as they will argue that the country's economic stewardship under Jean Chrtien and Paul Martin compares more than favourably with the current government's.

But many Liberals want immigration to be a major plank as well. The immigrant vote, certainly in modern times, has been a Liberal vote. It's a key issue for them, but it will take some doing to get out from under the cloud of hypocrisy the Tories will hang over them.