Harper is playing truth or dare on the immigration bill

The PM is challenging the Liberals to defeat his government in time for June election

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The Gazette, Monday, April 14, 2008

The Conservatives keep daring the Liberals to defeat them in the House. The Liberals keep threatening to do so, only to fold when push comes to shove in votes.

The latest Conservative dare is over an immigration bill meant to reduce a huge six-year backlog of 800,000 persons waiting to get in the country, and expedite those whose credentials fill the need of the Canadian labour market. By tying it to budget implementation, the Conservatives have made it a money bill, and thus a question of confidence.

The Liberals are trying to stir old ghosts among ethnic voters about narrow-minded Conservative attitudes on immigration. Whipping up anxieties in multicultural communities, a core Liberal constituency, is something they do well.

Thus, for two weeks in the House, the Liberals have pounded the government on the immigration bill. Here was Stéphane Dion's lead question last Wednesday: "Mr. Speaker, for half a century, Canada has pursued immigration goals based on fairness and objectivity. Why is the prime minister trying to get rid of these principles of fairness and objectivity? Why does he want to replace them with abusive powers in the hands of the minister, to replace open arms with closed doors?"

And Stephen Harper's revealing reply: "What the government is undertaking in terms of reforming immigration and ending the backlog. These measures are important to immigrants and important to our economy, which is why they are confidence measures. I look forward to seeing whether the leader of the opposition believes his own rhetoric on this."

Then the Liberal deputy leader, Michael Ignatieff, turned to refugee claimants and determination, always a hot-button issue. Under the previous Liberal government, he noted, "the queue for refugee claimants had been effectively reduced to zero."

He continued: "Under the Conservative government, the backlog has ballooned to nearly 60,000 and is said to be heading to 100,000 by 2012."

Ignatieff concluded: "What does the government have against refugees?"

Well, nothing. The real question is the reverse of the one posed by Iggy. If there are 60,000 refugee claimants today, how come there were none two years ago?

The answer is that since there are 800,000 people lined up at the front door, 60,000 people are trying to get in through the back door of refugee claims. The system isn't working in the front, and has been systematically abused by lawyers and claimants in the back. And everyone knows it. Lawyers for Karlheinz Schreiber could file a refugee claim on the grounds he would be tortured by his jailers if extradited to Germany.

The Liberals are trying to whip ethnic communities into a frenzy largely over the discretion the bill gives the minister to instruct her department to give priority to immigrants whose job skills are needed in the Canadian workforce. "Cherry-picking," Dion called it. Imagine, prioritizing immigration according to the demands of our economy. Aha. Queue jumping. Putting the economy ahead of family unification and refugee claims, sensitive issues in multicultural communities.

Harper's response to Dion last week was to remind the Liberals of their $1,000 head tax on immigrants, and to point out that they "gave priority to strippers in terms of immigration policy."

But this debate isn't about the immigration reform bill. Not really. Especially since it's been tied to the budget as a question of confidence. It's about whether the Liberals can muster the courage to bring down the government at month's end, forcing a June election. It's a big game of truth or dare.

Or, as a senior cabinet minister put it privately the other day: "We are giving the Liberals another chance to defeat us over the immigration bill."

And if the Liberals blink again, then once again they will appear weak and unprincipled. But the Liberal caucus is increasingly unhappy being stuck in this place. And there are hidden leadership agendas, of Iggy and Bob Rae, that could precipitate an election.

For Harper, it's a win-win. If the government survives, so much the better. He'll make it to the summer recess and the fall sitting of the House. That's at least another six months, for a minority government already in office 26 months (now longer than any minority government since Lester B. Pearson's two minority terms in the 1960s).

But should the government fall, Harper will get what he really wants - an election with the Liberals in terrible shape in Quebec, in a bad third place among francophones in the authoritative CROP poll, with an echo effect across the Ottawa River to Ontario.

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