12/04/2011 12:45 EST | Updated 02/02/2012 05:12 EST

Tories' Immigration Incoherence

I know the conventional wisdom holds that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is crazy like a fox. But what appears to be a haphazard approach to dealing with immigration is actually one of the most brilliant long-term political chess games of our time, or so we're told.


If there's a consistent thread of logic or principle running through the federal Tories' approach to immigration, I've yet to see it. Six years in, despite much bloviating over the brilliance of Harper's supposedly visionary Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, official Conservative pronouncements on the matter still show no sign of coalescing behind anything remotely resembling a coherent theme or agenda.

On the one hand, there's certainly been no shortage of unsubtle pandering to the right. From ostentatiously religious, gay marriage-denying citizenship brochures and ominous campaign ads featuring scary ships packed with foreigners, to proposals for easier-to-fail citizenship tests and tougher English standards for new residents, the open-borders crowd has rarely been bereft of press releases to wring its hands over.

Yet at the same time, almost every step rightward has been met by a furious Kenney damage-control tour -- usually in local immigrant media -- in which the minister confidently assures his critics that no, actually, things are more the same than ever. Some forgiving loophole is conveniently revealed, the latest reactionary reform is recast as trivial and easily ignored, and the scary headline of yesterday is abruptly dismissed as a toothless non-event. Everyone's happy -- except, of course, any Canadian hoping to unravel the impenetrably obtuse logic guiding their country's immigration agenda.

Take the federal government's recent decree, issued earlier this month, that Canada would be imposing an immediate moratorium on immigration applications from the elderly relatives of existing residents. Out of context, this sounds conservative enough. Supporting a decrease in legal immigration, particularly of the non-economic sort, is actually a more mainstream position than is often acknowledged in this country -- particularly among the Tory base.

But speaking to the Asian Pacific Post last week, Kenney himself assured the paper that lower numbers were really the furthest thing from his mind.

"The bottom line is we are committed to family reunification," said the Minister. "That is why we have made the decision to massively increase the number of parents who can immigrate by 60 per cent -- from 15,000 to 25,000 -- and to place a temporary pause on new applications."

Got that? So a policy change that has been soundly blasted by Conservative critics as a "concerted, directed effort" to reduce unwanted family class migrants is actually a plan to "massively increase" them. Is family reunification economically useful? Are higher numbers better than lower? Who knows. The minister prefers to dwell in the "is it happening or not?" school of policy analysis.

Even Kenney's much-vaunted language requirements were quickly hand-waved away. "Only a tiny fraction of our immigrants are assessed for language proficiency -- about two out of 10" he assured the worried publication, noting that his government has no intention of demanding higher language skills from the vast majority of Canadian migrants -- "spouses, children, and parents," as he put it -- who are admitted to the country for non-economic reasons.

I know the conventional wisdom holds that Kenney is crazy like a fox with this sort of thing. What appears to be a haphazard approach to dealing with immigration is actually one of the most brilliant long-term political chess games of our time, or so we're told. But an unemotional crunching of the numbers from last May's election actually proves that the Tories have not even made the sorts of electoral inroads with new Canadians that Conservative apologists are always assuring us are imminent.

According to a deeply revealing Ipsos exit poll, Stephen Harper was able to win his much-sought majority with only 28 per cent support among immigrants who have been in this country for 10 years or less, compared to a combined 62 per cent for the centre-left parties. Similarly, even if the Tories had failed to capture any of Minister Kenney's 10 infamous "very ethnic" ridings -- the supposed crown jewels of the new Conservative electoral coalition -- they still would have eked out a narrow majority government anyway. In other words, the strategic benefits of the status quo are largely overrated.

Again, there's a reasonable argument to be made that Canada's globally unprecedented rates of per-capita legal immigration may not be a universal good for the country -- at least in the way the system is currently configured, with more emphasis placed on importing relatives than skilled workers. The polls certainly indicate a great number of Canadians are ready to have that discussion, and there may even be partisan points to be gained by doing so.

Yet broaching the topic -- or any other honest, forthright attempt at immigration reform -- would require at least a modicum of leadership and courage, which runs directly contrary to the Tory tradition of insecure pandering and worst-of-all-worlds compromise.

Hearing them speak, it's clear the Conservatives have themselves thoroughly convinced that Minister Kenney's management of the immigration portfolio will define the Harper Government's brand for years to come.

If they don't watch themselves, they may very well be right.