Liberal backlash to refugee reforms prompts Ignatieff rethink
By Joan Bryden
The Canadian Press, June 2, 2010
OTTAWA – An angry backlash from Liberal MPs has forced Michael Ignatieff to back off his party's apparent support for proposed reforms to Canada's refugee system.
Sources say the Liberal leader promised to rethink the matter after hearing a litany of complaints during a closed-door caucus meeting.
A host of MPs, including the entire Quebec caucus, told Ignatieff they can't and won't support the reform package even though the government has agreed to changes demanded by the Liberals' own
immigration critic, Maurizio Bevilacqua.
Sources say Bevilacqua was the only MP at the Liberal caucus meeting to express support for the bill.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes to the refugee reform bill earlier this week.
Kenney lavished praise on Bevilacqua for helping strike a deal that the government hopes will mean refugee reforms are passed before Parliament's summer recess later this month.
But Bevilacqua's Liberal colleagues were not so laudatory. Some privately groused that Bevilacqua's eagerness for a deal was motivated by his desire to line up Tory support for a possible bid for the mayoralty in Vaughan, Ont.
Bevilacqua did not respond to a request for comment.
In public, several Liberal MPs dumped on the reforms supported by their party's critic particularly the proposal to create a list of so-called safe countries of origin.
Refugee claimants from those safe countries would be put through an expedited process, on the theory that most would eventually be rejected in any event. The idea is to cut short the amount of time bogus
claimants can spend in Canada exploiting the refugee system.
'As a Liberal for the last 25 years, I cannot support any list of designated countries,' asserted Denis Coderre, a former immigration minister.
Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis objected to the prospect of political interference in the creation of the safe countries list.
'At what price do we sell out to the Conservatives our values?' he said.
'I stand on the side of the people that are in favour of fair refugee reform and reflect the Canadian values which the international community has come to cherish and respect.'
A number of MPs said Bevilacqua negotiated the changes to the bill with Ignatieff's blessing. But others said the leader only gave approval in principal to the process and did not sign off on anything a factor they said Kenney chose to overlook when he boasted of striking a deal with the Liberals.
A senior Liberal adviser insisted: 'We don't have a deal.'
'As with anything in Parliament, it's premature to celebrate anything 'til the votes are counted. Talks continue and we'll see if what comes out of the committee addresses the concerns that we had.'
The adviser added: 'But there are very serious issues raised by our caucus . . . . This is what caucus is for, a place to discuss the party's position on government bills.'
It is unusual, however, for a party to disown amendments negotiated by its own critic.
Kenney declined to discuss the Liberals' apparent flip -flop on the refugee bill.
'I can't speak for the Liberal party. I'm not sure who does,' he added caustically.
Kenney said that Bevilacqua, 'on behalf of his party,' asked for changes which the government has accepted. He advised opposition MPs to 'take yes for an answer.'
Kenney said the bill may not be perfect but is a 'vast improvement' over the status quo. In particular, he said Liberals should note that the bill would give most claimants access to a new refugee appeal
division, something long desired by refugee advocates.