How Canada’s Conservatives Won the Immigrant Vote

June 7th, 2010 at 11:37 pm | 56 Comments |

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As center-right parties grapple with the problem of how to appeal to ethnic minorities without compromising their principles, they can look to the Canadian Conservative Party for a solution.

Without patronage, Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney has executed a minority outreach plan that, for the first time, has started a genuine conversation with immigrant voters – a conversation that has increasingly ended with these voters considering a Conservative vote for the first time.


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Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Multiculturalism, is on the line. He’s discussing how his ethnic outreach program has been more effective in conservative western Canada than in Liberal-heavy central Canada. There’s a pause as he reaches for an example.

“You’re from B.C., right?” he says. “Right,” I reply, slightly taken aback. He goes on to explain the characteristics of a riding in British Columbia in order to contrast it with a riding in suburban Ontario.

Kenney and I had only met on one previous social occasion, and I doubted mentioning my hometown then. But he did his homework before our interview.

To previously hostile ethnic groups, Kenney has reached out in ways that showed he understood their details. Through symbolic gestures, he could assuage antagonism – or at least get their attention.

And it has worked. In 2006, a visible minority voter was three times more likely to vote Liberal than to vote Conservative. By the 2008 federal election, ethnic minorities were about as likely to vote Conservative as they were to vote Liberal.

 

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Through much of the 2000s, Canadian Conservatives wracked their heads, trying to engineer a constructive ethnic outreach program. They were mired in decades-old muck: minority voters tended to see them as racists, as xenophobes, and as anti-immigrant. On the other hand, the Liberal Party dominated this expanding segment of the Canadian electorate. In 2000, 70% of all visible minorities voted for the Liberal Party.

Patrick Muttart, the Prime Minister’s former Deputy Chief of Staff and now the Managing Director of Mercury, a US-based public strategy firm, explained that the Conservatives were desperate to build a new ethnic outreach strategy. Muttart looked at the record of the Conservatives who governed Canada between 1984 and 1993, and saw the problem grimly:

Although [the Mulroney Conservatives] were in power for almost nine years, they didn’t fundamentally change the way government related to ethnic communities. They basically replicated the old Liberal approach… after nine years… new Canadians were voting for Liberals in just as large numbers as they were at the beginning.

Muttart explains that the lack of Conservative appeal amongst new Canadians was untenable over the long term:

They were growing as a share of the Canadian population faster than we were growing our support… this was a structural political problem here that, unless we addressed it, would make us uncompetitive over the long term.

Desperate for answers, the Conservative Party convened a series of focus groups, run in the language of each of the targeted minorities – people were more comfortable talking about politics in their native language – and the results were shocking.

It turned out that “new Canadians are naturally conservative in the way they live their lives: they are entrepreneurial; they have a remarkable work ethic; they are… [an] aspirational class; they want stability; they are intolerant of crime and disorder; they have a profound devotion to family and tradition, including institutions of faith,” said Minister Kenney. “That whole spectrum of values is conservative – but they didn’t vote for us.”

The first efforts that the Conservatives made to engage with ethnic communities were remarkably humble, even comically so.

In the spring of 2006, Kenney was fresh off his appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister with the portfolio of multiculturalism. Party strategists identified the Korean community on the west coast as one of the groups that were accessible to the Conservative Party – but no one knew any Koreans to get in touch with.

Minister Kenney resorted to calling up a friend of his, who happened to be Chinese. His friend got him in touch with a Korean businessman. As Kenney tells it, he called the businessman and started: “Hi, we’re the Government of Canada…”


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The Liberal ethnic outreach model had worked swimmingly for the center-left through the 1990s, and helped to ensure Liberal rule for thirteen straight years. Their strategy focused on engagement with the leaders of ethnic groups, often distributing grants for ethnic-specific projects.

The Conservative Party went another way. “Instead of engaging on a patronage basis, [Kenney] appealed to the conservative instincts within some of these groups, often dealing with niche issues within different groups,” said Ezra Levant, a Canadian conservative commentator.

After the Conservative Party’s 2006 federal election victory, the Conservative Party went community by community to identify symbolic issues that were important to them, and then tried to deliver on those issues.

“They weren’t hearing our message on taxes, on crime, [or] on opportunity because there was so much static. We had to break through the clutter… That’s where we came out with a series of issues for each community… and by focusing on those issues… we were able to get them to tune in,” explained Minister Kenney.

For example, the Conservatives reached out to Canada’s Polish community by lifting visa requirements to visit Canada; in a nod to former Vietnamese refugees, they condemned the socialist government in Vietnam; the process of visa applications for Croatians was also simplified.

Most people outside of these communities would not notice these seemingly small gestures. But for each beneficiary group, the symbolic gestures gave them a reason to consider the Conservative Party’s platform.

Conservative strategists recognized that this strategy was merely an excuse to start a conversation. Patrick Muttart puts it this way:

We used a number of emotional and symbolic issues that were consistent with the conservative approach – but we always understood that these were door-openers. You can’t sustain your value proposition to these sorts of voters only by focusing on these peripheral, emotional, symbolic issues.

The Conservatives also refused to meet with groups they deemed were radicalized. “They… focused on bolstering moderates within certain communities… under the conservatives, [extremist] groups have been banned, and those who have not been banned have been marginalized,” says Ezra Levant. “For example, the Canadian-Islamic Congress, which had a big delegation at the Liberal Party convention in 2006 and [is led by someone] who went on TV and said any Israeli over 18 is a legitimate target for a terrorist attack – the federal government will not meet with them.”

To be sure, grants for immigrant groups continued to be doled out. But the focus had changed: grants would be strictly limited to projects that promoted integration, encouraged cooperation between different ethnic communities, and helped combat radicalization.

“We’re not in the business of picking and choosing winners and losers among ethnic communities through some sort of sordid Tammany Hall. That’s the Liberal way, it’s not the Conservative way,” said Alykhan Velshi, Jason Kenney’s Communications Director.

Of course, the Conservatives are in the business of politics, and as such, there are winners and losers. Conservatives targeted ethnic communities that would reap the most political benefit. This means that Hispanic, Italian and Greek voters, who either have voting habits that are ossified in favor of the Liberals or live outside of strategic ridings, were largely left out of Conservative strategies.

 

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After Jason Kenney made his first overtures toward the Korean community, a group of six Korean community leaders assembled around a table for an initial consultation. Those who assembled had never voted Conservative, and in all likeliness viewed that possibility as mildly repulsive.

“They said that they had never met a Conservative… all they had ever heard was that we were racist and anti-immigrant, and could we respond?” recalls Kenney. He tried his best to explain the party platform under these circumstances, and turned to a woman sitting next to him. “Who knows, maybe you would be the first Korean-Canadian in the Parliament of Canada,” he said.

“Well, I’ve always voted NDP [Canada’s democratic socialist party],” came the reply. “I don’t really know why, but when we first moved to Burnaby, there was an NDP MP that came to our church, and always showed up at our events, and got to know everyone in our community.”

Kenney stayed in contact with the young Korean woman, and scored a coup by getting her to run in a district near Vancouver just eight months later. Though she lost, she managed to garner a swing of more than 6%, and was later appointed to Canada’s upper house as Senator Yonah Martin, the first person of Korean descent to hold federal office in the country.

The empirical results of Kenney’s outreach across Canada have been even more astounding. “We never expected to see electoral realignment in this cohort of twenty-five percent of Canadians overnight,” said Kenney. The Minister estimates that there are twenty-five to forty “ridings that have substantial numbers of new Canadians… [which] are now competitive but [were] not three elections ago.”

 

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But what qualifies Jason Kenney to be the leader of the Conservative Party’s outreach to visible minorities? Kenney seemed taken aback by the question when I posed it. “Well, nothing qualifies me for the job,” he said.

And I suppose that’s the point. “The thing with Kenney is, I mean, his name is Jason Thomas Kenney,” chuckled Patrick Muttart. “He’s Irish Catholic; he’s Caucasian; he doesn’t fit the profile of a typical ethnic outreach guy.”

“There’s an advantage to having a guy who doesn’t come from one of the communities. I’m therefore not perceived as a token, I don’t walk into any community with baggage,” says Kenney. “The fact that I’m not a ‘token’ … and the fact that I was seen as an influential mainstream member of the party, said to people that they were being treated equally.”

“He is culturally sophisticated and culturally intelligent,” said Muttart. “When he goes to an ethnic event, it’s not, ‘oh, the food’s too spicy,’ or ‘oh, I don’t want to eat that,’ – he doesn’t look awkward.”

Kenney later added that perhaps, on second thought, he did have a qualification for the job. “Maybe I have a hard work-ethic, and it is hard work,” he mused. His colleagues, on the other hand, would have omitted the ‘maybe’.

“He is renowned. It’s been said that it’s hard to find anyone in Canada who doesn’t know him, because of his incredible industriousness,” said John Weston, an MP from a riding in suburban Vancouver.

“I’ve worked for several MPs, and I’ve never seen a schedule like this,” said his scheduler, Agnes Kim. “Even on his weekends… he often has days where he’s working from 9AM until 10PM at night because he has dinner events at night.”

Over the course of a typical two days in his schedule, Kim tells me that Kenney has events scheduled with Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Coptic, Portuguese, Turkish, Filipino, Mexican, and Polish groups. His schedule is so frenetic, in fact, that Kenney only gets a free weekend once every two months.

 

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In executing this new minority outreach strategy, Kenney and the Conservative Party have been able to reach communities who would have never been accessible – and this outreach model manages to stay true to basic conservative principles.

The cost of the new conservative strategy can be measured in the cost of sending an MP to attend a Diwali celebration, or having the Minister present at a Portuguese Independence Day celebration – this in stark contrast to the free-wheeling patronage that was doled out under Liberal rule.

The Conservative Party has spent tens of millions targeting voters in Quebec, and millions more to establish Arctic sovereignty bona fides. All of this cash led to a net loss of one seat in Quebec and one seat gained in Nunavut during the 2008 federal election. With their ethnic outreach, they’ve managed far greater success, with a much lower profile and a lot less taxpayer money.

With the achievements of Kenney’s new model, one is left to wonder whether Tammany Hall style politics is still effective in the 21st century. Kory Teneycke, the former Communications Director for the Prime Minister, says the effectiveness of ethnic-based grants is decreasing:

If it’s not dead, it’s certainly dying… the thought that there is a paternalistic, ethnic hierarchy is less true today than it was last year. You have a greater range of media options, people are getting their information from a lot of different places, [and] people’s kids are integrating in the public school system… I don’t think that people are going to a local boss and getting a ballot that’s filled out for them.

Patrick Muttart, on the other hand, believes that the Tammany Hall model still works – but that Conservatives are just terrible at implementing it:

I think [Tammany Hall] still works for the left… [but] we are not particularly authentic in executing Tammany Hall style politics… when you’re offended by big government, being in charge of doling out big government doesn’t really work very well.

The growing accomplishments of the Conservative Party’s strategy offers hope for right-of-center parties around the world. Ethnic outreach can, in fact, be done in a conservative way by enacting low-cost symbolic measures to get the attention of minority groups.

But tokenism is not a long term strategy – eventually one has to sell immigrant groups on the party’s broader platform. Over the last few years, Jason Kenney has made stunning progress in appealing to minority groups – progress that will be critical to determining when the Conservatives stay in power, or are to be defeated. If Kenney has anything to do with it, one can count on the Conservatives being around a while longer.


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