Good Policy, Risky Politics

John Ivison, National Post (Don Mills, Ontario), March 14, 2008

OTTAWA -The Liberal party is salivating at the prospect of the new Conservative plan on immigration that will be tabled today in the House of Commons. The government is set to limit the number of new immigration applications in an attempt to eat into the backlog of nearly 900,000 people who have already applied to come to Canada.

Despite assurances that the overall number of immigrants allowed into Canada will not fall as a result of the move, Maurizio Bevilacqua, the Liberal immigration critic, yesterday accused the government of “shutting the door” on immigrants at a time when almost all of the net labour-force growth will come from immigration.

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The Conservatives point out that immigrants who already have applications in the queue know how inefficient the current system is and will welcome change.

But that may prove to be the triumph of hope over experience.

The Liberals will do their best to suggest this is the Conservatives showing their Reform Party roots—a strain of social conservatism that opposes multiculturalism and bilingualism.

This rendering may be given some credibility when the details of the Conservative plan emerge. Not only do the Conservatives intend to clear the backlog, they intend to change the complexion of immigration in this country.

In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, 55% of the 251,511 given permanent resident status were “economic migrants” (this figure is somewhat misleading, because only 18% qualified as “skilled workers—principal applicants”; most of the rest were spouses and dependents).

Family reunification accounted for 28% of new arrivals, while 13% were refugees admitted on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. According to the government’s own literature, modernization is aimed at creating a ” ‘just-in-time’ competitive immigration system that will quickly process skilled immigrants who can make an immediate contribution to the economy.”

This is a clear signal that if you want to get your grandma into Canada, you’d best get her application in the post pronto because family-class permanent resident admissions are going to be at a premium in future.

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But that’s why the Conservative plan is so bold—it subverts politics to good policy.

This was alien to Liberal immigration policy during their 13-year tenure. The Grits oversaw an application backlog that ballooned from 50,000 in 1993, to 500,000 in 2000, and 800,000 by the time they left office in early 2006. Intermittently, they would attempt to get the system back under control. For example, in 2004, they attempted to limit the number of parents and grandparents admitted under the family class application.

Parents are pivotal in the “chain migration” process, because they can bring in other siblings who can marry spouses from their country of origin, who can then sponsor their parents and on and on.

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There is no question that the Conservative plan is an improvement on this weather-vane policy-making. The system is grinding to a halt and the status quo is not tenable because of a backlog that means it takes an average of four years to process an application.

A radical overhaul of the immigration system is long overdue. After all, we’re talking immigration, not refugee, policy. The determining factor in an immigration program is whether it is of net benefit to the receiving nation; clearly, admitting hundreds of thousands of people who cost the taxpayer money year after year is not in Canada’s best interests.

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The Conservatives should be commended for attempting to bring some discipline to a file that has been out of control for too long.

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