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Wedge Politics Gave Conservatives A 'Wedgie' In The 2015 Federal Election

02/03/2016 11:54 EST | Updated 02/03/2017 05:12 EST
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Refugees welcome as a road sign

In many countries the admission of immigrants is the object of highly emotional political debates. Several political parties in Europe have adopted anti-immigrant platforms and their leaders have successfully exploited people's fears and insecurities to build voter support. In this version of identity politics the immigrants are cast as a problem whether they're skilled workers, reuniting with family members, or desperately fleeing a failed state. But very often it's the vulnerable refugee that is cast as the biggest threat to the host country's economic well-being and/or its public safety.

There can be a political price to be paid for several European governments seen as being overly generous towards refugees. Historically in Europe and elsewhere refugees have never been the most popular class of immigrants. Hence, support for them isn't an obvious vote getter. Yet in the 2015 Canadian federal election a pro-refugee stance offered a rare example of delivering votes to political parties. During the campaign, the Liberals proposed to take in a much greater number of Syrian refugees than did the Conservatives and this contributed in part to their significant victory (to be fair it was not the only issue that undid the Conservative campaign).

But the Liberals' success wasn't just about the numbers of refugees to which they committed. It was about not displaying cynicism about the refugee crisis. That's how Prime Minister Harper appeared when he made the Syrian refugees part of a series of campaign wedge issues. To help them capitalize on insecurity amongst Canadians about refugees (and specifically about their origins), the Conservatives enlisted the aid of Australian campaign consultant and political wedge master Sir Lynton Crosby.

The Conservatives couldn't have chosen a worse catalyst to drive the political wedge. It emerged in response to the image of a drowned three year old boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the Mediterranean after a failed attempt to escape war torn Syria. Seeing young Kurdi lying lifeless prompted a long overdue call for action to tackle the refugee crisis. It struck an emotional chord with many Canadians. But the Conservatives seemed out of tune. Yes, they promised to admit 10,000 Syrians over the next twelve months rather than the three years they initially proposed.

But the pledge was accompanied by a dispassionate speech by the PM reassuring Canadians that their security was the priority and there would be a very careful selection of refugees admitted to the country with a focus on vulnerable religious minorities. The Conservatives accused the other political parties of being reckless and irresponsible both with regard to the numbers and the potential security risks. The specter of Islamic terrorists lurking behind the Syrian refugees was raised over the course of the campaign.

In pursuing this strategy the biggest wedge that the Conservatives ended up driving was between themselves and a growing number of Canadian voters that turned to the Liberals for leadership. Leaving aside the numbers of refugees to which the political parties committed, Canadians wanted greater empathy. They wanted their nation to be seen as kinder and gentler in the face of a human tragedy (a role our American neighbors seem unwilling to assume on refugee issues). Apparently the Conservatives needed to dig deep. They simply were unwilling and/or unable to do so. With their mishandling of the refugee issue, the Conservatives ended up giving themselves the equivalent of a political wedgie (put another way they were collectively hoisted on their own petard).

If the advice given to them on the refugee issue was provided by Crosby, the Trudeau Liberals owe him a debt of gratitude. Though Crosby had several other obstacles to overcome to help the troubled Conservative campaign, there was a clear misread of the mood of the Canadian population. Undoubtedly it would be interesting to hear Crosby's version but that's not to be expected. In the end this "wedgemaster" didn't stick around for the outcome of a campaign he likely won't be listing as an achievement on his resumé.