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Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, left, makes a campaign stop with PC candidate Jason MacDonald in Ottawa-South (Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty's riding) on Sept. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, left, makes a campaign stop with PC candidate Jason MacDonald in Ottawa-South (Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty's riding) on Sept. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ontario's Hudak gambles on knowing immigrants' minds Add to ...

In the first days of this fall’s campaign, Tim Hudak took the biggest risk of his career.

If it works, it will help make the Progressive Conservative Leader the next premier of Ontario. If it fails, it could undermine years of hard work by Conservatives to replace Liberals as the first choice of new Canadians.

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Mr. Hudak’s attacks on Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty’s proposal to provide employers with a tax credit of up to $10,000, in return for hiring skilled immigrants, have been appealing to Ontarians’ worst instincts. But they represent a gamble that the Tories have their fingers on the pulse of most immigrants.

If Mr. Hudak were appealing only to his party’s traditional white and rural base, he could stop at referring to the policy as “affirmative action,” which would be a contentious but defensible interpretation. Instead, he has described it as an “affirmative action for foreign workers.”

Even if the Liberals have done a spectacularly clumsy job of specifying that the tax credit would only apply to hires of people who have their citizenship and have been in the country for five years or fewer, Mr. Hudak surely knows he’s being misleading. Less than two years ago, he himself brought forward a private member’s bill that would have done something similar to what Mr. McGuinty is proposing.

But what Mr. Hudak clearly hopes, in campaign mode, is to draw a line between new immigrants and those who have been in the country longer. To put it crudely, he’s counting on members of the latter group to want to close the door behind them. More generously, he’s appealing to those who believe they (or their parents) had nothing handed to them when they came to the country, and neither should anyone else.

That’s why Mr. Hudak keeps staging visits at the homes of immigrant families who express their distaste for giving advantage to newer arrivals. He’s also made “Horace,” an immigrant who approached him earlier this week expressing similar sentiments, a staple of his speeches.

In retrospect, the extent to which Mr. Hudak has pounced on this relatively marginal component of the Liberals’ platform should have been predictable. He targeted much the same audience last year, when he came out swinging against Mr. McGuinty’s scholarship aimed at attracting foreign students to Ontario’s universities.

But the virulence of the Tories’ attacks on the tax credit has been something to behold. In a radio ad released Friday, someone calls the government asking about a job and is told Ontario residents need not apply. The ad then implies that a flood of outsiders are calling and receiving jobs.

Mr. Hudak’s strategists have undoubtedly done plenty of research that tells them they’re on solid ground. But this issue still has potential to get away from them – not least because, while Mr. Hudak has decided just how far to go, his candidates are struggling to figure that out.

When Mr. Hudak visited Peterborough on Thursday, his candidate there – who was quoted that morning warning that the tax credit would take jobs away from “our people” – hid from reporters in the back of his campaign office before being coaxed out by the Leader’s staff. On Friday, the PC candidate in Burlington backtracked from a quote in which she asked, “When did we become for immigrants?”

The good news for the Tories is that Mr. McGuinty has given them almost free rein to define the issue, with even some of his high-profile candidates seemingly unclear what they’re selling. But if the Liberals are able to reframe it as a way of ensuring that doctors and engineers and lawyers aren’t driving taxis, Mr. Hudak could find himself even further out on a limb. (Given that the policy would seemingly apply only to citizens who have been in the country for five years or fewer, it seems that only a very limited group would qualify.)

On Thursday, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney – the point man for federal Conservative efforts to reach out to new Canadians – used much milder language than Mr. Hudak in expressing concern about Mr. McGuinty’s promise. The previous night, at a rally, Mr. Kenney applauded Mr. Hudak’s line about “foreign workers.” But glancing around him, he looked slightly uncomfortable as he did so.

Mr. Kenney knows better than anyone that it’s possible for conservative politicians to win over immigrants in different ways than Liberals have traditionally relied upon. But nobody really knows, politically speaking, if Mr. Hudak has gone a little too far.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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