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Why Stephen Harper must act quickly on temporary foreign worker program

Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Ottawa early on April 16, 2013, on route to London for the funeral of former British PM Margaret Thatcher.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Many of the soon-to-be-announced changes to the temporary foreign workers program have been in the hopper for months. Others were signalled in Jim Flaherty's March budget. But there is a sense of urgency nonetheless, as the government prepares to legislate and regulate reforms.

The idea is becoming dangerously entrenched that foreign workers are taking jobs from Canadian workers. That the idea is mostly wrong-headed doesn't matter. The Harper government is supposed to stand for jobs and growing the economy.

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Except the economy is hardly growing, and now people are starting to wonder whether the Conservatives care about protecting jobs at all.

There's an even bigger problem. A middle-aged government with few recent new ideas is losing control of the agenda. Every day that the opposition is able to hammer the foreign-workers issue is a bad day for an administration that has seen far too many bad days of late.

The Harper government let the policy pipeline drain. And now it's paying the price.

Job shortages in parts of Canada have two causes: a lack of skilled Canadian workers for certain occupations, and a reluctance by Canadian workers to take unskilled jobs at the wage being offered.

In both cases, Ottawa brings in temporary foreign workers to meet the shortage. But officials have become increasingly worried that some employers are using foreign workers as a crutch.

To curb abuses, an officials speaking on background reports, Ottawa is going to start charging fees for employers who want to bring in foreign workers. The feds are also giving themselves the power to compel employers to open their books so that officials can look for instances of fraud or abuse.

And, coming this fall, employers will also be compelled to show that they have training or other programs in place that will equip Canadians workers to handle jobs currently being done by foreigners.

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All of these changes were wending their tortuous way through the labyrinths when the story broke that the Royal Bank appeared to be bringing in foreign workers to train for jobs that would eventually be handled by those workers and others overseas.

Really, the RBC affair is more of an outsourcing issue – sending work offshore that once was done by Canadians at home – than a temporary-worker issue. But it doesn't matter. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has done an excellent job of painting a grim picture, in which unemployed Canadians are turned away from jobs by employers who prefer to import their workers at a lower wage, or contract the work out to a sweat-shop overseas.

So the government is scrambling to get reforms to the temporary foreign worker program out the door, and the issue put to bed.

But the bigger problem is one of agenda control. When the Conservatives were pushing their omnibus budget bills through the House last year, they took plenty of heat. But at least the opposition was reacting to government initiatives. Right now, there are no government initiatives to speak of. And because politics abhors a vacuum, the opposition has rushed to fill it.

Where is the free-trade agreement with Europe that was due last December? (Soon, is the promise. Soon.)

Where is the promised legislation to clamp down on fraudulent robo-calls and other abuses during election campaigns? (Actually, Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal has promised it for Thursday. But the bill itself is a Conservative reaction to accusations of electoral abuses. This is the agenda of others, not the government's agenda.)

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What happened to promised legislation conferring property rights to first nations on reserve? (Word is, the idea's been scrapped.) Will the first nations education reform act ever see the light of day? (This fall, most likely.)

The government has been signalling its willingness to take on public sector unions over sick leave and other benefits. But, so far, signalling is as far as it's gotten. (Contract talks in many cases have yet to get under way.)

Every failure to drive the agenda forward has its excuse. And yet there is no agenda.

These doldrums are the precursor to a promised "reset:" a summer cabinet shuffle followed by a new throne speech laying out the government's priorities in the lead up to the 2015 election.

But in the meantime, these fallow weeks are a gift to the NDP and the Liberals, with Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau able to dominate the stage even as the Conservatives swoon in the polls.

If the situation carries on like this much longer, it will start to become the new normal. That is not good for any political party that wants to stay in government.

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It's high time the Harper government actually did something.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in Ottawa.

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