Queen's Park Watch: Jobs, Immigration, Tempests, and Teapots
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Queen’s Park Watch: Jobs, Immigration, Tempests, and Teapots

Controversy over subsidizing employers who hire new Canadians exemplifies the pointless pettiness of election politics.

The recent public bickering around a Liberal plan to help overseas professionals gain Ontario credentials isn’t just another trumped-up mediastorm; it’s a pleasing microcosm of the campaign strategies of the three main parties.

For those too election-weary to monitor every outrage: the controversy started last week when Premier Dalton McGuinty unveiled a shiny new campaign promise. The proposal would offer some employers up to $10,000 in tax credits when hiring new Canadians working on certification for professional qualifications earned overseas (wherein “new” references length of time in Canada, not on the planet).

The plan as laid out in the the Grit news release is pretty innocuous. The people hired would have to be Canadian citizens who’ve lived in the country for less than five years, and to get the credit, employer claims would need to receive approval from the Canada Revenue Agency. The total annual cost is estimated at about $12 million, a rounding error in a budget of $124 billion.

The Liberals must have thought they had proposed a no-brainer. The province and feds have long wrestled with complaints that it can take years for foreign professionals to get Canadian credentials, leading to engineers flipping burgers and taxi drivers performing brain surgery. For a paltry million bucks a month, the plan (niftily named “No Skills Left Behind”) subsidizes some employers, helps upgrade some taxpayers to a new bracket, and grabs a few votes from newish Canadians.

But, at election time, all discourse becomes debate.

No sooner had McGuinty presented his vision of beaming immigrants holding up laminated doctorates than the Tories jumped in to complain that the plan would benefit provincial noobs at the expense of more established Ontarians. The cry was picked up by Hudak cheerleaders like the Sun‘s Christina Blizzard (noting that she herself is an immigrant, presumably from Crazyland), who compared the idea to policies promoted by Bob Rae’s “socialist hordes” back in the early ’90s.

In the process, the Conservatives referred to new citizens as “foreign workers,” a faux pas so politically incorrect that even the Tories couldn’t pull it off. The slip gave the Liberals a chance to deflect the shitstorm back at Hudak, demanding he apologize for confusing Canadians with foreigners.

In response, Hudak not only refused to say sorry (the Conservatives claimed to have misunderstood the program), but got himself up on stage with two cardboard forestry workers and a coterie of diversely hued Tory supporters to explain how “affirmative action” is wrong.

Got it so far?

While the Tories and Grits were taking wild swings at each other, the NDP were figuring out how to jump into the fray without getting labelled as racists, immigrant-panderers, or anything else controversial.

Because the New Democrats are releasing their platform in dribs and drabs, they’re able to create new planks as needed to take advantage of the squabble du jour. In this case, that took the form of a press release earlier this week in which leader Andrea Horwath posited that the problem was really about giving handouts to companies who then go home or go bankrupt without creating jobs. As an example, Horwath pointed at Navistar, which in August closed its truck plant in Chatham after two years of wrangling with the Canadian Auto Workers union and from whom the provincial government is now trying to reclaim some portion of millions of dollars in loans and incentives.

This approach avoids the quagmire of talking about new versus old Canadians, while reminding the NDP’s union base that they haven’t been forgotten and incorporating a subtly anti-American angle (“Dalton McGuinty might as well have just mailed the cheque directly to Navistar’s HQ in Illinois”) that plays well in tough times.

The whole brouhaha is the election in a nutshell. The Liberals come up with a proposal that they figure is sufficiently interesting to warrant some press coverage but also bland and good-natured enough not to piss anyone off too much. The Tories then take their attention off chain gangs and GPS anklets long enough to seize on the idea and skew it to best arouse public ire. There’s an inevitable counter-offensive, then an undignified mud-wrestling match over something that likely didn’t amount to much in the first place.

Meanwhile the New Democrats observe the manufactured mess with Olympian detachment before swooping in with a high-concept proposal (“Jobs for everyone, not just foreigners!”) that may not have been thought through but is undeniably appealing. Oh, and no hating on the haters.

Employment and immigration issues are headline-generators, for better or worse, and with party spin people competing to get as much ink and pixel as they can, you’ll be seeing more of these pointless political riverdances in the days to come. Given the weeks left till poll day, voters will want to keep their critical thinking–caps on when considering anything that comes out of campaign headquarters.

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