National Column: CAQ’s immigration plan a caution to Scheer

by Chantal Hebert

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives may want to push pause on plans to make immigration a signature federal campaign theme next fall long enough to take stock of the turn in the Quebec election conversation.

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault thought he was reaching for a low-hanging fruit when he embraced the issue. With less than two weeks to go until the Oct. 1 vote, it has turned into a poisoned apple.

Since midcampaign, the CAQ has lost a significant amount of support.

The latest Leger sounding – done between last Thursday’s French-language debate and Monday’s English-language debate – found a six-point drop in the party’s lead among the francophone voters who will determine the outcome of the election.

Legault’s hopes for a governing majority are fading fast. It could still get worse. With the last leaders’ face-off set for Thursday, only half of his supporters say their choice is final.

The decline in CAQ fortunes essentially comes down to one issue: immigration and the party’s bid to both reduce Quebec’s overall intake of immigrants and accelerate, by coercive means if necessary, their integration into the province’s French-language mainstream.

Under the party’s plan, Quebec would cut its annual intake of immigrants by one fifth and those who after three years fail to meet the province’s language requirements would be made to leave. (It remains unclear how that would be achieved.) At the time the policy was conceived last spring, Legault and his brain trust believed they had come up with a winning combination, a way to tap into longstanding francophone concerns over the preservation of Quebecís French-language identity without alienating the province’s non-francophone voters.

Instead the plan has become a millstone.

Many voters are repulsed by the coercive regimen his party is proposing to impose on future
immigrants. Others question the notion that Quebec’s immigration intake should be reduced.

On the latter, Legault has managed to run afoul of the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City and of many smaller towns spread out across the province.

They are all arguing that with Quebec plagued by labour shortages caused by the fast aging of its population, the time is particularly ill-chosen to cut down on immigration.

The Leger poll found Quebecers divided over the issue with 45 per cent in favour of a reduction and 47 per cent against.

But with the bulk of the province’s chattering class along with his election rivals aligned against his proposals, Legault is clearly losing the air war.

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He has been in damage-control mode for most of the past week, scrambling to put the issue of his own signature policy to rest. But with every new explanation, there have been more questions as to how much actual thinking has gone into the crafting of the CAQís immigration platform and what the many unanswered issues it raises say about the partyís competence to run a government.

As the Leger poll was putting a number on the rising toll Legaultís decision to fight part of the campaign on the immigration minefield is taking on his partyís fortunes, the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons was accusing the Trudeau government of having eroded votersí confidence in Canada’s immigration policy.

But in the province where the issue has been top of mind for weeks – the very place that is ground zero for the influx of irregular border crossers transiting from the U.S. to Canada – the evidence suggests otherwise.

For the first time in decades, there is an expanding Quebec audience, outside of the already diverse Montreal area, supporting the notion that immigration is part of the solution to the provinceís economic challenges.

At the same time, the federal Conservative partyís summer-long effort to highlight the irregular refugee issue has had little or no echo in the provincial campaign. The refugee file started to drop from the Quebec radar around the time the Trump administration’s policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants to the U.S. from their parents surfaced in the media. That is probably not a complete coincidence.

And then, for all the talk about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau losing the argument over irregular border crossings, it has so far had no significant impact on his party’s fortunes. At the end of a difficult summer for his government, his ruling party continues to enjoy a prohibitive lead in Quebec. At the national level, the gap between the leading Liberals and the Conservatives has widened.

There is a reason why mainstream provincial and federal parties have rarely if ever made immigration a major campaign plank in the past. As Legault’s experience is demonstrating, it is easy to lose control of the narrative.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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