The Chamber of Commerce is livid. Alberta feels betrayed. Tim Hortons warns of, gasp, longer lineups. But the Smiling Buddha of Parliament Hill is perfectly Zen about it all.
Why wouldn’t he be? Jason Kenney’s grand plan to conquer the Conservative Party with his particular brand of populism is unfolding as planned. With John Baird entangled in a new Cold War and Peter MacKay serially antagonizing the female half of the electorate, the workaholic Minister of Employment and Social Development has got the field pretty much to himself.
Mr. Kenney, who moonlights as Minister for Multiculturalism, has pulled off the impossible, defusing an issue that threatened the unlikely coalition of new and old Canadians behind the Conservatives’ majority election victory in 2011. No other minister in Stephen Harper’s government did more to build that coalition. He’s not about to let his life’s work unravel now.
It’s not for nothing that Mr. Kenney ate his way across the country as the Tories’ point man on ethnic outreach, earning him the grinning and well-fed sage nickname from Chinese-Canadians. Or that he steamrolled over the bureaucracy to redefine the concept of Canadian citizenship, making it harder to get and easier to lose. He’s not about to let his track record as Mr. Harper’s most reliable Mr. Fix-It come undone now.
Sure, the business lobby and the Alberta political establishment are upset about Mr. Kenney’s move to eviscerate the temporary foreign worker program, which a tiny minority of employers rely on to fill low-wage jobs. But what’s the grumbling of few thousand business types and a handful of fellow Tories against the indignation of millions of Canadians, new and native-born, inundated with TFW horror stories?
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)
There are more than 1.1 million employers in Canada. Only about 12,000 used temporary foreign workers in 2013; barely 6,000 of them relied on migrant workers for more than 10 per cent of their work force. The constant headlines invoking Canadians squeezed out of jobs or seeing their wages depressed by cheap temps from abroad, and the stories about the exploitation of these vulnerable foreign workers, had to be stopped.
Last month’s overhaul of the program makes it all but inaccessible to a sliver of employers in low-unemployment areas. And even then, they will face a near-quadrupling of processing fees, shorter work contracts and a cap not just on the percentage of migrant workers they employ, but on the total number of hours they can work.
The business lobby calls it overkill. But for Mr. Kenney, it’s all in a day’s work.
His April move to slap a moratorium on new temporary foreign workers in the restaurant sector should have provided warning enough that tinkering is not his style. His five-year stint as Citizenship and Immigration minister provided ample evidence that he is a disruptive innovator who doesn’t so much reform programs as blow them up in the hope that something better, and more politically saleable, will emerge.
Mr. Kenney eliminated an unmanageable refugee backlog, that had admittedly ballooned on his government’s watch, by moving suspected bogus claimants from designated “safe” countries to the front of the line. Their claims are now processed within six weeks. If their application is denied, they can no longer stay in the country while they await an appeal hearing. And Ottawa no longer picks up the tab for their health care while that application is being processed.
Friday’s Federal Court ruling labelling that latter move “cruel and unusual treatment” is a decidedly unflattering one for the practising Catholic that Mr. Kenney is. But even if Ottawa is forced to reinstate health care for these claimants, their numbers are now so low that it will still save hundreds of millions annually compared to what it cost to run the refugee system before Mr. Kenney got his hands on it.
Now, Mr. Kenney’s paws are all over the TFW program. Whether his reforms turn out to be good policy will depend on whether the market works, specifically whether more Canadians migrate to Alberta to fill what are supposed to become good-paying fast-food jobs. That’s a leap of faith not even the supposedly free-market business lobby is willing to make.
But you know Mr. Kenney is on the right track when Justin Trudeau, who railed against the pre-reform TFW program and whose father created the national energy program, confusingly calls the latest overhaul “one of the most anti-Alberta federal policies we’ve seen in decades.”
If that’s all the opposition’s got, the Smiling Buddha should be laughing.