Immigration has taken a back seat in this election, and business is pleased

More on the biggest (non) surprise in the election campaign:

In the waning days of the last Parliament, Canada’s CEOs publicly called on the country’s political parties to keep immigration off the table in this fall’s election campaign.

Their wish came true, more or less, until this week.

With Alberta Premier Jason Kenney bursting into the suburbs around Toronto on the weekend, and the presence of People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier at the English-language leaders’ debate on Monday, what had mostly been a discussion at the riding level finally emerged nationally.

But the worst fears of the business community have not materialized.

Rather than degenerating into an anti-immigrant brawl with racist overtones, the discussion has been rational and measured for the most part, with Bernier’s opponents labelling his call for lower immigration levels as irrational and intolerant.

Canadian business leaders had looked at the anti-immigration sentiment developing in the United States. They looked at some of the backlash in Canadian politics as thousands of asylum-seekers walked across the border from the U.S. And they looked at the state of their workforces, their need for labour and the projections for growth going out a few years into the future.

They didn’t like what they saw.

“We are 10 years away from a true demographic pressure point,” Business Council of Canada president and CEO Goldy Hyder told reporters in April. “What I’ve said to the leaders of the political parties on this issue is, ‘Please, please do all you can to resist making this election about immigration.’ That’s as bluntly as I can say it to them.”

Business leaders and many economists argue that Canadian immigration levels need to rise if the economy is to grow fast enough to support a burgeoning number of seniors into retirement. Without increased immigration, the workforce won’t expand, and the number of people depending on that workforce for benefits and supports will be insufficient.

The Liberal government admitted 310,000 immigrants in 2018, with a goal of 350,000 by 2021. About 58 per cent of those are meant to be economic migrants, selected to meet federal and provincial labour needs.

Bernier proposes to cut that number to 150,000, and polling over the past few months suggested he might have the ear of a growing minority of voters.

But instead of taking the bait, as business leaders feared, the other parties were steadfast. Bernier’s federalist opponents found a rare moment of agreement on Monday night, with all of them expressing support for increasing immigration levels.

It actually started last week, when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheerblurted out in a television interview that yes, he would support the Liberals’ general immigration plan.

“That’s a legacy that I’ll continue to build on,” Scheer told the CBC, explaining that an open and inclusive immigration policy is crucial for a growing population and a healthy workforce. Canada’s role as a safe haven for migrants is something to be valued, he added.

Scheer also said a Conservative government would find better ways to allow temporary foreign workers to stay at length in Canada and become permanent residents — a boon to employers looking to bolster their staffing over the long term.

While the business community may have its wish of no bitter immigration debate, it comes with a side effect: there is also very little discussion around how to improve the integration of immigrant workers so their skills are put to best use.

Meanwhile, there are signs the immigration discussion is not always so genteel at the riding level, and some Conservative promotional material has been more aggressive in attacking the way the Liberals have handled refugees. Kenney played into that sentiment last weekend in a tour through an array of diaspora gatherings around the GTA.

When the Conservatives were in government, he said in Richmond Hill, “we sent a message that if you wanted to come to Canada, you should come legally through the front door, waiting your turn in line, not sneaking around it by cutting the queue.”

And the Scheer campaign has issued bumper-sticker style social media slogans urging a fairer immigration system.

While that’s a far cry from the anti-immigrant backlash that the business community feared, corporate Canada has not exactly seen all of its campaign dreams come true.

Global growth is slowing, free trade patterns have been deeply disrupted by U.S.-China tensions, and Canada’s prospects are anemic. In a new forecast from the Conference Board of Canada on Monday, economists pegged Canada’s gross domestic product to expand by just 1.6 per cent this year, despite a pace of nearly four per cent in the second quarter. The culprits? Global trade, hesitant business investment in Canada, and exports.

The longer term challenges for Canadian growth are equally troubling, with the prospects of widespread automation, a world turning away from fossil fuels, and an aggressive knowledge-based economy on the horizon.

But if the discussion around immigration at the national level is practical and pro-business, the discussion around Canada in a rapidly changing economy is nearly absent.

Source: Immigration has taken a back seat in this election, and business is pleased

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: