Divisive politics hallmark of local election campaign

By Robert Washburn

With the provincial election barely out of the gate, the Progressive Conservatives jumped on a chance to descend into textbook wedge politics last week over a plan to help newcomers to Canada find work.

While party leaders will play out their various strategies in front of all Ontarians, it will be important to see how local candidates handle this issue.

Premier Dalton McGuinty accused the Tories of fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment across the province. Meanwhile Conservative leader Tim Hudak turned up the rhetoric arguing the Liberals were forgetting the province’s unemployed. In August, Ontario had an unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent.

The Liberal plan calls for a tax credit of up to $10,000 to offset necessary training costs for employers who hire professionals such as architects, accountants and engineers, who were trained in their homeland and become Canadian citizens and have been here for under five years. To qualify, they have not previously been able to find work in Ontario in their field. It will cost up to $12 million per year and approximately 1,200 people would qualify.

Hudak jumped on it immediately calling it an affirmative action program to “hire foreign workers” at a time when 500,000 people are unemployed.

“This is one of the most divisive policies in memory. That’s picking special favourites among residents of Ontario, or people moving into the province,” Hudak said.

McGuinty called the reaction a sign of the Tories’ intolerance.

“The (Tories) have irresponsibly and intentionally stokes xenophobic fears by labeling these Canadians as ‘foreign workers’ who have descended on the province to ‘steal’ your job,” a Liberal press release said.

McGuinty risks mimicking the fatal mistake made by former Conservative leader John Tory, who lost the 2007 provincial election in a large part because he offered a plan to fund faith-based schools with public money similar to Roman Catholic schools. The public backlash doomed the party and Tory was forced to leave politics.

But, it is important to watch how the local campaigns handle this potentially explosive issue. It is a sensitive one for incumbent Liberal Lou Rinaldi, who was born in Italy and immigrated to Canada with his family in 1960. He has witnessed how a new Canadian family makes its way into the fabric of the Ontario economy.

Conservative candidate Rob Milligan will no doubt get his marching orders from the central campaign. The question is: Will he join Hudak and jump all over this issue in an effort to stir up racist sentiments in Northumberland? Issues like the Cobourg beach controversy demonstrate how the community can be divided when it comes to racially sensitive problems.

The NDP announced the party plans to announce an overall job strategy shortly. Candidate Kira Mees may be able to deflect some of the rhetoric away from her through this strategy, but, if pressed, she needs to be clear on this to Northumberland voters.

The Green Party has not responded to the issue, instead opting to announce a payroll tax deduction for small and medium sized businesses as part of a job creation strategy. Still Judy Smith Torrie could also be pulled into the fray and her position will be important.

The politics of division may be a popular amongst Conservative party strategists; but local campaign managers should be cautious. This has the potential to blow up in a candidate’s face. The question is: which one?

First posted: Sept. 14, 2011