Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, The Other America, Trillium (Monday March 26, 2007 at 11:45 am)

Warmed by recent polls which hint at a positive response to last week’s budget, Prime Minister Harper has taken the unusual step of broadcasting his next strategic move: a swing through Latin America and the Caribbean.

Canada has a longstanding and powerful connection with the Caribbean, largely as the dominant hemispheric member of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Caribbean presence in Canada remains strong. Roughly 600,000 immigrants have come from the region since 1961, a significant portion of whom have settled in and around Toronto. The City of Toronto proper was home to nearly 170,000 new immigrants from the Caribbean as recently as 1996, and the city’s annual Caribana festival is the largest in North America.

Canada’s foreign relations record will certainly be bolstered by the trip, as has been duly noted:

“There are opportunities for people to engage,” said Mr. Dade, who has worked for the U.S. government and the World Bank in the region.

“People want to see alternatives, and we’ve got a strong alternative to the States. Now is a time more than ever where that’s popular and of interest to people.”

But the real force of the trip will be the local direction; and that’s why it’s so important.

Throughout the region, Harper will encounter governments who are eager for a good relationship with Canada and who share his vision of government. Caribbean society tends to be more socially conservative and religious than Canadian, but just as devoted to public programmes for health care and education. This combination means a warm response from political and ideological allies throughout the region, boosting the Prime Minister’s international reputation while contrasting him favorably with Bush’s protested tour of Latin America.

The importance of an improved diplomatic image for a government which dissappointed many with its previous international efforts should not be understated. But foreign trips aren’t enough to sway the public. At best, buffing the government’s diplomatic credentials is a defensive action — fortifying it against criticism on that front. Its positive purpose lies elsewhere.

That elsewhere is Toronto. The population of 170,000 Caribbean expatriates in Toronto in 1996 constituted 5% of the population, while most estimates put the proportionate population in Toronto at over 8%. Historically, Caribbeans have voted together with most other immigrant communities — for the Liberals; and the magnitude of immigrant populations in the Toronto area has as much to do with the Liberals’ successes there as it does with their selection of candidates who represent local ethnic communities. But the weakening of the diplomatic connection with the region is evident in the stalled state of trade negotiations, even as the Caribbean strengthens its integrated community and regional role with overtures to Haiti and Cuba.

A shower of attention on the region will be welcomed by Canadians of Caribbean descent. If that group can be swayed to their side, the Tories will have successfully attacked a significant bastion of Liberal support. A mere shift from, say, a 30%-50% split of such support with the Liberals (NDP etc. gets the rest) to a 40%-40% split could constitute movement of 1.5-2% of votes in the Toronto area — taking a big bite out of the Liberals’ lead for a minor investment of time and nearly no investment of budget spending. That’s an sound strategic move against a City which represents the last major Liberal fortress of support.

Which leaves only one question: why pre-announce?

For some, it might be the surest sign yet of the government’s willingness to go to an election. Consider: if an election is called before the trip, there’s no electoral payoff unless the public already knows about it. By announcing it well in advance (beginning of spring for a summer trip), the Tories secure at least some of the trip’s benefits even if it is pre-empted.

Of course, this advance notice also gives the Liberals plenty of opportunities to shore up their support in the community. With the exit of their only Caribbean-born politician in Ontario (Jean Augustine), they will have to depend on local workers and the unpredictable Hedy Fry, a Vancouverite. But given recent Liberal tactics, the Conservatives may be skeptical of Liberal strength. That would make this an excellent time for the Liberals to move to secure a strategic constituency. Failing to do so may only lead to openings on more fronts.

And absent that, Harper’s move to warmer climates will succeed, and the Tories will hot up their chances in Ontario’s seat-rich capital.

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