Tories grasp nettle on immigration – comment – Tories grasp nettle on immigration
April 15, 2008
Rob Mitchell

The holy trinity of issues to be avoided if you are a politician and want to stay in office are privatized health care, religion and immigration. So it is with laudable courage that the Harper government has sought to reform the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

There is a backlog just shy of a million people seeking visas to enter Canada. The average wait period to get a visa is somewhere in the neighbourhood of six years and the situation is getting worse rather than better. The Conservatives want to make the system more efficient. They want to ensure that those entering Canada have the appropriate job skills to contribute to the economy and address labour market shortages. Why then is this so problematic?

The Liberals are attempting to vilify the Conservatives by suggesting there is a “hidden agenda” at play. They are invoking the fossilized stereotype of the Conservative party as a white Anglo-Saxon elite. It has even been reported that some Liberal MPs have told their constituents Prime Minster Stephen Harper doesn’t like Muslims. It has become a messy, ugly business obscuring a reality that the current system is not working.

Immigration based on family unification has been a cornerstone of Liberal hegemony in federal politics since the days of Lester Pearson. Pierre Trudeau exploited it throughout his political career to the point Liberals now believe they are the only party qualified to opine on such matters.

Yet the same Liberal party recognized under the mandate of both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin that change was overdue and immigration had to be more responsive to a growing skilled labour deficit. Indeed, reform was underway under the tutelage of former immigration minister Judy Sgro until she ran afoul of a pizza delivery man and a Romanian stripper. Something the Liberals should remember when they suggest the current minister, Diane Finley, will be allowed to personally “cherry pick” the applicants who enter Canada.

Although Sgro was ultimately vindicated in what became known as “Strippergate,” she personally approved 792 temporary resident permits during her brief tenure, so the Liberals’ assertion that the Tories are setting a new standard for ministerial intervention is unfounded.

No, what really troubles the Liberals about the proposed changes is that they so clearly demonstrate their impotence against a Prime Minister they loathe and who continually outflanks them in a minority parliament.

There has been much hue and cry over the fact this legislation is buried in the budget bill. The Liberals and the NDP would prefer it was a stand-alone piece of legislation that they could collectively defeat. How surprising then that Harper would make this an issue of confidence by wedding it to the budget bill. It’s called smart politics.

Harper put the Liberals in a box. They vote against the immigration bill, they trigger an election they don’t have the resources or the popular support – particularly in Quebec – to win. They abstain and lose face yet again, adding to a growing list of capitulations on Afghanistan, the crime bill and the budget itself. Their brand withers as the Conservative election coffers swell.

Last week the Liberals once again demonstrated the elasticity of their principles and sided with the government as the Commons voted 201-68 on an NDP motion to reject the budget-implementation bill that contains the immigration changes.

Politics is a blood sport and the Liberals are hemorrhaging badly. If this were a boxing match the referee would stop the fight.

Rob Mitchell was a senior aide to former premier Ernie Eves. His column appears every other week.

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