Election time and hyperbole is in the air

The election talk in Ontario over “foreign workers” has reached a new level of “huh?”

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP

Every now and then the province of Ontario takes leave of its collective senses. Grown men jump at shadows. House cats are conjured into dragons. For a time it seems as if the only thought on anyone’s mind is the length of their own toenails. We call these periods “elections.”

Just now this province of 13 million souls is preoccupied with a vast and far-reaching proposal on the part of the governing Liberals to give every new job that comes up to a foreign worker. You read that right: if the Liberals are re-elected, they will make the province’s unemployed sit at home—I believe the slogan is “Ontarians need not apply”—presumably until the supply of foreign workers is exhausted. Indeed, so determined are the Liberals to see these itinerant labourers take over the province that they are actually paying employers to hire them: $10,000 a job.

Advertisement

Quite why the Liberals should wish to do this is unclear, but I have it on no less authority than the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. The party has been blanketing the province with advertisements to that effect, while its leader, Tim Hudak, hammers the point home at every opportunity.

Needless to say, nothing of the kind has been proposed. Or rather, something of the kind has, but it has been so distorted and blown out of proportion by the Conservatives that you’d have to use dental records to identify it. What the Liberals have actually proposed is so narrowly drawn that the safer accusation would be that it is largely irrelevant. While it would indeed provide a $10,000 tax credit to companies for each recent immigrant they hired—not foreign workers, but Canadian citizens—the provision applies only to a handful of skilled professions, and only to immigrants who have been here less than five years. Since it takes about 4½ years, on average, to become a citizen, that means the window of eligibility is about six months.

All told, the Liberals themselves estimate the program would apply to about 1,200 people, for a total cost of $12 million. Yet the first week of the campaign has been almost entirely consumed with it.

The program is hardly above criticism. While in some ways too narrowly drawn, it is too broad in others: if the intent was to help foreign-trained engineers and architects gain the Canadian work experience they need to be certified in Ontario, there are surely more focused remedies than crude hiring bonuses (such as scrapping the Canadian experience requirement). The Liberals give every sign of having designed the plan on the fly—recklessly so, given the obvious sensitivities surrounding any such preferential hiring policies. Unless, as some have suggested, the intent was to lure the Tories into denouncing it.

If so, the Tories have surely taken the bait. It isn’t that the Tories have opposed the policy: it’s the way they’ve opposed it that’s so objectionable. It isn’t only the false and inflammatory claim that the jobs would go to “foreign workers.” It’s the wildly disproportionate scale of the response: the obsessive focus, the alarmist tone, the endless repetition. Everything about the Tory campaign is designed to suggest that the program is not just a poorly designed but relatively minor part of the Liberal platform, but an onrushing calamity.

This is quite deliberate. Parties think long and hard about all these questions: tone, emphasis, wording. If the Tories have chosen to escalate this comparatively trivial subsidy scheme to Defcon 1, it is because they think the message will resonate—not with the voters at large, perhaps, but with a particular subset of voters they hope to reach. Those without jobs. Those who might be persuaded to blame the Liberals for their plight. Those who would be particularly upset, and as such would be all too prone to suspect that the government was giving “their” jobs to someone else, someone other, someone . . . foreign. That is the poisonous pool the Tories have been stirring.

Again, it is perfectly fair to suggest the government should not be preferring one group of workers to another. Among other objections, it’s zero-sum: the jobs that subsidy creates at one firm or one industry are only jobs diverted from every other. But that is true not only of programs for skilled workers from abroad, but of all such “job creation” or “industrial support” schemes, of a kind that all parties love to propose. Were the Tories to offer a principled objection to this part of the Liberal platform, they would have to dismantle much of their own.

Of course, the only thing more comical than Tory demagoguery on this point is the piety of the Liberals in response. It was just four years ago, you’ll recall, that the Liberals fought the entire election over a Conservative proposal to offer public funding to all religious schools, rather than reserving it to Catholics, as is now the case: a plan that would have brought a grand total of about 50,000 children under the public umbrella, but which the Liberals insinuated would fund the creation of Islamist terror academies. Again, there were legitimate grounds for criticizing the Tory plan. But legitimate criticism does not extend to anti-Muslim fear campaigns.

So it is not the Liberals we should weep for. It is for politics, and the possibilities of a rational public discourse. Instead of this madness.