Tories need to do more to win the new immigrant vote
By Bruce M. Hicks
Pacific Asian Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
[The South Asian Post, October 14, 2010]
Since Stephen Harper transitioned from being leader of the Canadian Alliance Party to leader of the rebranded Conservative Party in 2003, news stories keep surfacing about how this new party is courting the all important immigrant vote.
These stories invariably suggest that the Conservative Party is making successful inroads into this community. And they go on to consider how and why the party is taking these voters away from the Liberal Party, which has been the historic home of new Canadian voters.
The more interesting question is not how the Conservative Party is making inroads, but why they have not been more successful.
Recent Canadians bring with them the values of their previous country. People born in Canada do the same when they move to other countries. As these values and beliefs are acquired early in life, they are hard to change.
So if you are a recent Canadian who emigrated from a country with a strong religious culture, this set of values should put you on the more conservative side of the ideological spectrum. With issues like gay marriage recently on the political agenda, the Conservative Party of Canada would seem to be the natural home for first generation Canadians.
Sure enough, when the Canadian Election Study has polled Canadians during the last three federal elections, first generation Canadians with strong religious beliefs identify issues like gay marriage as important to them and identify their preferred vote choice as the Conservative Party.
So why hasnt the Conservative Party romped to victory?
One explanation has to do with willingness to vote. Most new Canadians settle in urban neighborhoods, dubbed with names like Chinatown or Little Italy. This allows them to acclimatize in a familiar cultural setting, with established support systems, while they learn the language and skills necessary to succeed in their new country.
In a study I conducted in 2006, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, I looked at the voting turnout among wards in the city of Toronto which had the highest new Canadian populations. Not surprisingly, I found overwhelming evidence that voting turnout is lowest among these communities.
There are a number of reasons turnout is lower. Familiarity with the political system, language skills, being on the electoral list, trust in government, lower income, renting as opposed to owning property these all have a negative impact on voting.
The other explanation has to do with the Conservative Party itself.
The Conservative Party was formed by merging the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance Party with the rump of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada left devastated by the Mulroney years. This was the second attempt to rebrand the western-based Reform Party, after a name change to Canadian Alliance did not convince Canadians it was less ideologically right wing and more moderate like the Conservatives.
It is the Reform Party elements that carried forward into the new Conservative Party that most opposed same-sex marriage and espouse the socially conservative values that may appeal to new Canadian voters. But these same elements also hold largely anti-immigration attitudes.
Anti-immigration parties have sprung up in all western democracies over the last few decades. The closest that Canada had to an anti-immigration party was the Reform Party and this was one of the reasons it has so desperately tried to rebrand itself as Conservative and no longer Reform.
The reason political parties in Canada have historically avoided immigration politics is because most voters, regardless of their ancestry, accept Canadas founding myth that this is a country of immigrants. More importantly, the key electoral battlegrounds in Canada have a disproportionate number of immigrants or children of immigrants.
Where first generation immigrants settle in the urban cores, the second or, latest, third generation immigrants will populate the suburbs. These are where elections are increasingly being decided in Canada, with 30 new suburban ridings to be added in the upcoming redistribution of seats in the House of Commons.
In an earlier study published by the IRPP and Metropolis Canada following the creation of Stephen Harpers new Conservative Party, Jerome Black and I surveyed all the candidates running in that election to see what the candidates believed in and thus what they might be expected to fight for once elected tempered of course by the pressure the party leadership exerts on all candidates and MPs to tow the party line.
Fourteen percent of candidates running for the Conservative Party stated that they thought there should be fewer immigrants admitted to Canada and only 16 percent thought there should be more. This was compared to 49 percent of the Liberal candidates and 67 percent of the NDP who thought more immigrants should be admitted (only 1 and 3 percent of these parties, respectively, thought there should be fewer immigrants).
When you break down the type of immigrant, a similar and overwhelming percentage of all three parties thought that more immigrants with skills should be admitted, but the Conservatives were alone in having a noteworthy percent of their candidates thinking Canada should admit fewer immigrants who were refugees (30 percent) or who were family members wanting to be reunited with someone brought here for their skills or money (23 percent).
While new Canadians tend to be socially conservative, this is less true of second and third generation Canadians. So stands on issues like gay marriage are less important to the suburban community than a commitment to immigration and multiculturalism.
So while the Conservative Party may espouse socially conservative values that are attractive to new Canadians, they continue to have an uphill battle convincing ethno-racial communities that they are the party of immigration and multiculturalism.
Until they do, the Liberal Party will be able to continue coasting on its dated reputation as the party of new Canadians.
Bruce Hicks is author of several studies published by the Institute for Research in Public Policy, including Are Marginalized Communities Disenfranchised? Voter Turnout and Representation in Post-merger Toronto found at www.irpp.org. He is also an associate at the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies at the Universit de Montral.
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