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Election 2015

Stephen Harper's Refugee Conundrum

Why's the Conservative leader so slow to act on the crisis? Look at his old political base.

Murray Dobbin 18 Sep

Murray Dobbin contributes his State of the Nation column to The Tyee and Rabble. Find his previous columns here.

Most government leaders would look at the refugee crisis in Europe and see it as an opportunity, especially during an election, to appear on top of the issue -- with some combination of statesmanship, leadership and intuitive grasp of their own population's sensibility. But Stephen Harper is not most politicians and the refugee crisis turns out to be one of the most intractable and complex issue he has to deal with, which is why he looks so ham-handed over a week into the refugee catastrophe unfolding across the Atlantic. It has shone an extremely unwelcome light on one of the dirty little secrets of the prime minister's old Reform Party political base: it harbours large numbers of people openly hostile to non-European immigration.

Harper and his political machine have done a remarkable job of massaging the contradictions in the Conservative Party's political strategy regarding ethnic communities. They have managed to bleed traditional Liberal support from those communities by spending oodles of time and energy playing to their (conservative) traditional family values, their suspicion of big government and their entrepreneurship. Only rarely does the strategy go sideways and expose the party to the anti-immigrant sentiment of its traditional political base.

One example was the panicked Conservative response to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) issue of last year. The TFWP allowed companies to bring in foreign workers and pay them less than Canadian employees, and the flood of such workers forced the Conservatives to tighten the program's rules. The program was incredibly popular with small and large (tar sands) businesses. But Harper and Co. no doubt knew that rank and file party members, especially in the West and rural Ontario, were not happy with their government giving preference to foreign workers over their white Canadian counterparts. When it came to choosing between business owners and the old Reform Party base, there was no real debate. Business would just have to suck it up.

A dangerous issue

Not much is written these days about the nature of the Conservative base post-merger of the old Progressive Conservative Party and the Alliance Party (formerly Reform). But the base is largely the same today, and in my book Preston Manning and the Reform Party I documented just how dangerous the immigration issue was for Manning and his then-policy chief, Stephen Harper. No other policy issue took up as much time on the political massage table as this one -- with Manning having to use all his persuasive powers to neutralize the alarming resolutions coming from the famous "grass roots" of the party.

Leading up to 1991 policy convention, the most important the Reform Party ever held, there were 18 riding resolutions on immigration. Every one of them was considered by the party executive as extreme in one way or another: imposing various restrictions on immigrants, settlement in remote regions, demands for "ethnic balance," the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions, etc. None of them made it to the convention floor, replaced by the Party Policy Committee with three more moderate ones.

But in explaining this purge to the affected riding associations, the party was very careful in the language it used to criticize the resolutions. As I wrote in my book; "They were rejected because they were open to 'misinterpretation,' 'unenforceable,' or 'created administrative problems.'" In contrast to the gentle criticism on right-wing immigration resolutions, the party was much harsher when it came to criticizing left-wing resolutions on agriculture, for example.

One way top Reformers played to the anti-immigrant vote was through the promotion of the writings and speeches of William Gairdner, one of the party's most popular keynote speakers. In his book, The Trouble with Canada, Gairdner (in a chapter called "The Silent Destruction of English Canada...") spoke of "invading cultures" and proposed quotas on "non-traditional" immigrants (those not from the U.K., U.S., New Zealand, Britain or white South Africans). Gairdner warned "in 250 years Canada could become a Chinese nation."

Few hints of Harper's take

Harper's precise role in building this anti-immigrant core is not known, but he was one of just two people Manning trusted with key decisions -- the other being senator Stan Waters. But we do know that when Harper chose to leave politics in 1997 he became the vice president (and then president) of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the most right-wing political group in the country. Among its many well-funded campaigns (against the Canada Health Act, fair tax reform, unions, and restrictions on corporate political spending) was a hysterical campaign against Canada admitting the so-called "boat people" -- the 1978-79 wave of refugees from post-war Vietnam. The NCC took out two full-page ads in The Globe and Mail warning that the government's policies would lead to "at least 750,000 [Vietnamese] in the not too distant future." The actual number was 60,000.

Of course Harper was not involved in that campaign, but 10 years later when he was helping Manning build the Reform Party he found in the NCC the closest of fellow travellers. There was a huge overlap in membership and policies between the party and the NCC, which claimed (from an internal poll) that 60 per cent of its members were also Reform Party members.

Given Harper's penchant for focusing laser-like on strategy it is difficult to tell how he feels personally about immigration -- it's just another issue to be massaged for maximum benefit and minimum damage. But he did once let slip a controversial opinion in the January 22, 2001 issue of Alberta-based newsmagazine The Report where he stated: "You have to remember that west of Winnipeg the ridings the Liberals hold are dominated by people who are either recent Asian immigrants or recent migrants from Eastern Canada; people who live in ghettos and are not integrated into Western Canadian society."

Given the controversial history of the immigration question in Harper's background, no one should be surprised at the present-day Conservatives tying themselves in knots over the moral issue of Middle Eastern refugees and what Canada's responsibility should be. With increasing numbers of Canadians saying they want a change (Abacus Data says the number this week is 76 per cent), the Conservative campaign has once again been knocked off-message. To preserve their 30 per cent base, they have to successfully play the security card to resist increasing the numbers of refugees. But in doing so, they risk alienating the already limited pool of voters who say they would consider voting Conservative.  [Tyee]

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