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Courting the Ethnic Vote: What Liberals Can Learn From Rob Ford

01/09/2012 12:12 EST | Updated 03/09/2012 05:12 EST
Flickr: Ontario Chamber of Commerce

With the Liberal biennial convention starting later this week in Ottawa (Jan 12-15), talk about what it will take to get the party back on track is building (well, at least among remaining Liberals).

Inevitably, part of this conversation includes the question: "How can we regain ethnic vote?"

The so called "ethnic vote" is a catch-all phrase that includes new immigrants as well as Canadians who are "visible minorities" regardless of whether they are first, second, or even later generations.

Right away, this should be a give away that this kind of "lump them all together" approach is a flawed framework for the more nuanced racial and cultural landscape we live in today.

Whether the Liberals actually lost the "ethnic vote" is also debatable. According to Ipsos Reid, Liberals were over represented in their vote share amongst all but the most recent immigrants. Ultimately, as with the rest of Canadian voters, it was Jack Layton's surge that was responsible for the party losing seats around Toronto rather than "curry in a hurry" Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's push into ethnic communities.

But still the perception is that the loss of the ethnic vote is a contributor to the party's decline.

This isn't surprising since Liberals excelled at playing "ethnic politics." It's also what ultimately undermined the foundation of the Liberal party and along the way did a genuine disservice to groups of Canadians that we purported to support and want to represent.

Which is why as a Liberal and second generation Canadian from a "visible minority" group, I think the time has come to drop "ethnic outreach" from our strategy.

Instead, we should embrace multiculturalism 2.0 which requires moving beyond what frequently amounts to earnest but ham-handed attempts to "engage cultural communities" (think cliched photo-ops, broken sentences in Hindi or Mandarin, and worst of all, the regular reminders that it was Trudeau's policies that let immigrants in to Canada).

Each of these represent the authenticity gap that defined our cultural and ethnic outreach in the past -- and probably lost us more votes than they gained while demoralizing activists and supporters along the way.

My husband ran as a Liberal candidate in the last election. His riding is one with 90 per cent immigrants and 60 per cent visible minorities and is a perfect example of the damage that ethnic politics has had on both the party and on the people.

Promises had been made to ethnic communities by leadership factions within the Liberal party (which were not kept), community organizers were rewarded for their ability to deliver votes but not actually allowed to the real tables of power within the party (which explains why the Liberal party elite remained well-intentioned but tone deaf to how Canada had changed); worst of all, residents were encouraged to see their political power and potential contribution primarily as being a part of these ethnic blocs.

Those that worked in politics, largely did so in roles such as cultural relations or ethnic media, marginalizing them from within. This framework led to second and third generation Canadians being penalized by their communities and families if they didn't support the candidate from their cultural group but instead, God forbid, supported a party on issues.

It was both depressing and worrying to witness.

I appreciate that from a campaign perspective, the appeal of micro-targeting to "ethnic communities" with messages designed to appeal to them can be irresistible but they can also have the opposite effect -- as happened recently with Rogers Cable and my parents.

My parents are not big TV watchers and have the most streamlined (read cheapest) package possible -- meaning no speciality South Asian packages or Hindi channels. Nevertheless, based on their name, they received a mail out from Rogers written in Hinglish (half Hindi and half English). Both were incredibly irritated. As my mother put it, "I would appreciate if they actually provided genuine customer service instead of annoying us with this kind of nonsense."

Touché.

Data-based outreach, opening up "real" and respectful conversations on issues, are the way of the future in politics and marketing. Outreach to "communities" runs the risk of terminal lameness, the calling card of inauthenticity. Post Obama's campaign, every political party (and cable company) now has the technology and template to do this. What they need is the will and talent to get good at at.

Money will follow message and tone here (not the other way around).

Oddly enough, the Rogers incident makes me think of Rob Ford. For the record, I am not a Rob Ford supporter and I am not his target demographic. I live downtown, I don't drive, and I love my local library.

But in the aftermath of shock and horror that Toronto elected someone like him and the genuine confusion among the downtown left that immigrants and ethnic voters could have voted for Ford, I felt compelled to defend him. For all his cringeworthy gaffes and offensive comments, he was the one mayoral candidate who didn't pander to "ethnic" communities about their "issues."

In fact he did the opposite. But where he unintentionally succeeded is that he treated the issues of "new" and "diverse" Canadians as being the same as all other Torontonians: gridlock, that alleged gravy train, and property taxes. And it worked. For better or for worse, Rob Ford didn't suffer from an "authenticity gap."

And that's the lesson for Liberals going forward. Instead of trying to specially engage "cultural" groups and have token "diversity initiatives," lets put our energies into clarifying the issues and vision that engage all Canadians. Let's build a party structure that is genuinely open to all members, is effortlessly diverse top to bottom, and one that doesn't play cultural groups against each other for short-term gain (particularly during nominations and leadership races).

Lets celebrate that multiculturalism is working and not undermine it by encouraging Canadians to align themselves along religious or cultural lines for partisan purposes. Breaking old patterns is hard, but the upside of renewal is that we have an opportunity to define a genuinely more inclusive and modern meme for the party to operate on.