09/09/2011 04:24 EDT | Updated 11/09/2011 05:12 EST

Immigrant tax credit pledge brews election nasties

It has been quite the start to the 2011 Ontario election campaign. In fact I can’t remember a time when the gloves came off even before the election writ was issued.

It’s been my experience as a campaign reporter and observer of provincial elections that the "nasties" build over time. But not this time.

The spark for some heated exchanges between Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty and Conservative leader Tim Hudak was — and remains – the Liberal plan to offer a $10,000 tax incentive to companies hiring new Canadians who live in Ontario and have lived in the country for up to five years.

But Hudak immediately jumped on that pledge as “unfair,” labelled it "affirmative action," and repeated over and over again that “foreign workers" would be taking jobs from Ontarians.

McGuinty countered with a lament over how Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party had been claimed by the right-wing U.S. Tea Party movement.

Some Tories joined in the fray disputing McGuinty’s claims. Hudak stuck to his message, even invoking the names of his immigrant grandparents who came to Canada not speaking the language and not expecting "special treatment."

Concerns over attacks

If Hudak’s message was not resonating in some parts of small-town and rural Ontario, he would have quickly abandoned his position. Some Liberals and Tories I have spoken with have privately expressed concerns about the racial undertones of Hudak's criticism of the Liberal pledge.

No one will say it out loud.

Hudak’s attack on the Liberal proposal is interesting on a number of levels.

The Tory strategy in this campaign is to elect some candidates or – at least someone - in Toronto and to build on the new federal Conservative presence across the Greater Toronto Area, a city and region increasingly populated by so-called visible minorities.

Just ask federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who courted the region’s “cultural communities” to create inroads in the May federal election. Notably, he has offered a thumbs down on the McGuinty plan. He told Parliament Hill reporters Thursday he believes the plan is unworkable, a view he says is based on talking to people it’s directed at helping.

But how do some Tory candidates who weren't born in this country – or whose parents weren't — go door-to-door looking for votes given their party's position on the issue? My guess is they’ll try to duck it at all cost.

But it has branded Hudak and his party and it is an issue that has – as they say in the media and politics – “legs.” It is not going away and McGuinty and every one of his candidates inside and outside the GTA will make sure it doesn’t.

Mind you, references to the idea will be couched as voters having “a clear choice” on Oct. 6 – which, of course, is what elections are supposed to be about.

Minefield for Liberals

But the idea is also a potential minefield for the Liberals and some will tell you – privately – they are worried about it.

This province was hit hard by the recession. A lot of jobs disappeared in ridings – rural and small-town – that happen to be held by Liberals seeking another term at Queen’s Park. Even they’ll have some explaining to do at the doorstep.

What is also interesting about this debate is something I remember being told just before the last federal election by pollster Darrell Bricker, the savvy CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs Worldwide, who often knows what Canadians are thinking before they do.

His read on the country’s new Canadians is that they may come here politically thinking one way, but they can and do change over time.

Bricker believes in a 10-year span after immigrating to this country, most become more socially and fiscally conservative.

So if that holds true, Hudak's opposition to the business incentives to hire immigrants may provide long-term pain for his party.

There is risk on this one all round for the Tories and the Liberals, but we likely won't know the full extent of its impact until voting night on Oct. 6