Commentary by Susan Delacourt in Ottawa

The good news for Kellie Leitch — and she might need some right now — is that many Canadians believe this country needs young, female political leaders.

The bad news is that most Conservatives — the people who make up the party Leitch wants to lead — do not share that view.

These findings come from new research by Abacus Data. By sheer happenstance, Abacus and the Leitch leadership campaign were out in the field in late August, doing some survey work that touched on Canadian values. The two surveys dovetail in some fascinating ways.

The Leitch survey asked, controversially, whether respondents would support screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” This was quite the surprise coming from the MP for Simcoe-Grey, once the federal labour minister, who only months ago was apologetically backtracking for her role in the infamous “barbaric cultural practices” tip line proposal of the 2015 election campaign.

Now, we seem to be back in the middle of a debate we thought had been settled in the last election. Maybe it wasn’t.

The Abacus survey sounded people out on the traits and values they’re seeking in political leaders. Leitch and her supporters no doubt will be heartened to hear that 54 per cent of respondents to the Abacus poll said they would prefer a woman leader. Moreover, a whopping 65 per cent — nearly two-thirds — said they would rather have someone under 50 years of age. Leitch, 46, comfortably meets both criteria.

The problem for Leitch, however, is that her own fellow Conservatives aren’t as enthusiastic about young female leaders. Almost 60 per cent of Conservative respondents to the Abacus poll said that if they had their choice between someone over 50 and someone under 50 to lead a political party, they’d select the older candidate. Only 13 per cent said they would prefer a younger, female leader.

Those results are even more striking when compared to the views of Liberal and NDP supporters who participated in the Abacus poll. Nearly 70 per cent of Liberals and 77 per cent of NDP supporters said they’d opt for a woman leader given a choice between a man and a woman of equal qualifications.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that Leitch is running for the wrong party. Then again, she might have trouble selling Liberal or NDP voters on the idea of screening immigrants for potential anti-Canadian values.

Even some folks in her own party (her leadership rivals, anyway) are balking. Michael Chong called it “dog-whistle politics.” Maxime Bernier, taking a more practical approach, called it an “unworkable” idea.

Abacus conducted its poll online in late August, asking 2,010 Canadians of voting age all kinds of questions about their ideal political leaders. When they got around to the subject of leadership qualities, the results turned out to be highly interesting.

The top two traits? “Understanding different parts of the world” and “thinking about what’s right for the next generation.” Respondents also placed a high value on leaders who “think a lot about the future of the world”, are “open-minded about different lifestyles” and “care about the poor.”

Buried in the list, however, is a possible rationale for Leitch’s controversial survey question.

Only 18 per cent of the respondents to the Abacus poll said that a leader must embrace the idea that “immigration is good for Canada.” Understanding different parts of the world is one thing, apparently, while welcoming them here is another matter entirely.

Nick Kouvalis, Leitch’s campaign manager, has said that the survey was based on what the campaign had been hearing out on the road over the summer. Kouvalis, for those who may have forgotten, has not been shy in the past about courting controversy with provocative survey questions. His firm, Campaign Research, was scolded by the Commons Speaker several years ago for polling Montreal residents about Irwin Cotler’s allegedly imminent resignation. (Cotler, then the MP for Mount Royal, protested in the Commons that the survey breached his parliamentary privileges, though he did eventually step down before the last election.)

Kouvalis, let’s also remember, was one of the early backers and staffers for former Toronto mayor Rob Ford (he was also one of the first to walk away when things started to go crazy in Fordland). Kouvalis was on John Tory’s team in the last mayoralty election in Toronto and helped B.C. Premier Christy Clark pull off an unexpected victory in 2013.

On Twitter, Kouvalis has been predicting that all the leadership candidates eventually will perform some “world-class gymnastics” to embrace Leitch’s views on screening immigrants for anti-Canadian values. Clearly, her campaign manager believes this issue taps into a rich vein of support, at least in Conservative circles. Which could explain why Bernier called the idea “unworkable” rather than, say, “egregious.”

Among the other admirable leadership qualities cited by respondents to that Abacus poll were the ability to “ask for help when you need it,” to “seek advice from smart people everywhere” and to “apologize when you make a mistake.”

One can’t help but notice that Leitch hasn’t apologized for this survey question — perhaps on the advice she needed from people she considers smart.

“Oftentimes, debating and discussing these complex policies requires tough conversations — conversations that go well beyond media sound bites and simplified labels,” Leitch wrote in an emailed statement after the controversy.

“I am committed to having these conversations, to debating theses issues, and I invite Canadians to give their feedback.”

So, like it or not, immigration may become a hot-button issue in the Conservative leadership race. Consider this an early warning — especially for those complacent Canadians who say that Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration couldn’t possibly work here.

The people in Leitch’s Conservative party may not be the biggest fans of female leaders under 50, but this particular candidate could be giving them the campaign’s sleeper issue. In other words, the debate about “barbaric cultural practices” didn’t die in 2015; it’s simply been slumbering, waiting for an opening.

Published in Policy
Sunday, 18 October 2015 19:06

Chinese-Canadians Not Swayed by Tory Site

by Samantha Lui in Toronto 

As Canada gears up for the 2015 federal election on October 19, the Conservative Party of Canada has launched a Chinese-language website as a strategic move to win the Chinese vote. 

But although the site attempts to speak to issues that will affect Chinese-Canadians, members of the community say that they’re not swayed by the party’s tactics. 

Melissa Fong, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Toronto, says that while she agrees that different languages should be represented in political parties’ platforms, she sees the website as being “really more about pandering to votes than content.”

The website, which includes a statement by multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney translated in Chinese, mentions the Conservatives' history of serving Chinese communities.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]She sees the website as being “really more about pandering to votes than content.”[/quote]

Such examples include the Conservatives having the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament in 1950 (Douglas Jung) and when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants in 1885.

“The overall tone feels like the Conservative government is attempting to "guilt trip" Chinese voters to vote for their party based on those past deeds which were intended to strengthen relations between the government and the Chinese community,” says Calvin Tsang, a 23-year-old social work student from Toronto.

The effectiveness of the site 

While she says having a website dedicated to the Chinese may be enough to get votes, Avvy Go, the clinic director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, hopes that voters will choose a government that will take leadership on issues that will affect their day to day lives. 

“[The website’s] not about speaking to a particular issue the community is concerned about. Like for instance, how are we going to address unemployment rate amongst the Chinese? How do you ensure newcomers have their international training accredited in Canada?” she says.  

“I think right now, the parties either ignore us or they use tactics such as reflected in the Conservative website and try to play up superficial kinds of things as opposed to trying to address issues that really impact our community.” 

For Fong, the recent government’s policies say more than the creation of a website ever could.

“The Conservatives are not good for racialized Canadians, not good for newcomers and not good for people of colour,” Fong says, giving mention to the Conservatives’ focus on the niqab, Anti-terrorism Act, second-tier citizenship and Harper’s recent reference to “old stock Canadians.”

She continues, “If they really cared about people of colour, Chinese voters, it would be demonstrated in the policy.” 

But strategies like the Conservatives’ website are not new in the world of politics. According to Nelson Wiseman, the director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto, ethnic communities have always been targeted with specific messages for them. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If they really cared about people of colour, Chinese voters, it would be demonstrated in the policy."[/quote]

Having a Chinese-language website doesn’t mean it will have an impact on how the Chinese will vote, he explains.

“Let’s say you’re Chinese and on the Internet. Why should you go to that site? There are an infinite number of sites that you can go to. Just because anybody can put anything they want on the Internet, it doesn’t mean it captures any eyeballs,” he says.

The Conservatives have targeted the Liberals and the New Democrats on their website, but members of the latter parties agree that it detracts from discussing issues important to immigrants such as the economy and the well-being of their families.  

Arnold Chan, who’s defending his seat as a Liberal MP in the Scarborough-Agincourt area, says he feels the Conservatives’ Chinese-language website is just another example of the party's divisive campaigning.

“At the end of the day, it looks like this is a desperate measure by a desperate team,” he says. “This is part of a continuing narrative of negative campaigning.”

Olivia Chow, who’s running for a seat in the Spadina-Fort York area as an NDP, wouldn’t speak much on the subject.

In an e-mail statement, a member of her campaign wrote, “Like many Conservative tactics, it distracts from important discussions like affordable childcare, protecting the environment, and investing in transit.”

The Conservatives, who have 10 Chinese people running for office, could not be reached for comment after multiple requests to speak with several of their candidates.*

Real engagement with Chinese-Canadian communities

But while the accessibility of language is important in a diverse country such as Canada, having a website isn’t enough to educate the Chinese to be politically involved, according to Fong.

She stresses the importance of parties hiring people that can communicate in different languages.

“I think it’s really important for representatives to hire people that speak multiple languages, and not expect it of people that they should know English or French. Canada was founded on many more languages than English and French.” 

Organizations such as the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) also offer programs such as the civic literacy project, which educate participants about the election process, how governments work and how to engage the community through civic engagement activities.

Chase Lo, the executive director at the CCNC’s Toronto chapter, says the group even holds field trips to local MPs' offices within the Scarborough-Agincourt area so people can ask questions directly about specific election issues.   

In doing so, he says he hopes he can help ethnic communities such as the Chinese go out and vote.

“People have the choice to be involved and [...] their voice matters,” he says. “If they want to see change, if they want to see that there’s injustice in terms of how things are operating, they have the power to be able to come together with other people and influence some change.”   

*Requests for comment were made to Conservative candidates Bin Chang, Alice Wong and Andy Wang.  

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Published in Politics

by Ilona Dougherty

Last week, Montreal was abuzz with the news that Mélanie Joly would be running for the Liberal nomination in Ahuntsic-Cartierville. Joly is known for two things: placing a strong second in the 2013 Montreal mayoral race and being a Canadian politician under the age of 50.

We saw this happen when 2011’s ‘Orange Wave’ brought a large number of under-40 New Democrats to the Commons: Every time a young person wins an election in this country, we wonder if it’s a sign that our dismal performance on youth voter turnout might be turning around. It’s not that simple.

Twenty-seven per cent of Canadians fall into the age group dubbed ‘millennials’. Only 10 per cent of MPs are between the ages of 19 and 40 years old. The average age of Members of Parliament is 53.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]What matters to young people, it turns out, is not a candidate’s age. What matters is whether a candidate actively reaches out to young people during a campaign.[/quote]

The Conservatives and the NDP lead the Commons in terms of age diversity, with 10 and 21 MPs under 40 in their respective caucuses. The Conservatives arguably have the lock on millennials in positions of authority; both Pierre Pollievre and James Moore are running significant portfolios while still in their 30s.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is a youthful-looking 43 and is often dismissed by his critics as too young for the job. Ironically, his is the only major caucus in the Commons with no millennial members. Newly-minted Liberal Eve Adams, at age 40, is now the youngest member of the Liberal caucus.

But does the age of a candidate have any impact on youth engagement in democracy? A recent study out of the U.S. suggests it doesn’t. The Pew Research Centre, studying the experiences of presidential hopefuls, reported that there is no significant link between a voter’s age and his or her view of a candidate’s age. The same pattern has been observed between women voters and women candidates; women don’t vote for a candidate simply because of her gender.

What matters to young people, it turns out, is not a candidate’s age. What matters is whether a candidate actively reaches out to young people during a campaign. And the most powerful way for a politician to connect with young voters is to talk to them face to face anda sk them to vote. Doing so can increase the likelihood of a young person voting by 10 per cent. Age isn’t relevant. Engagement is.

But it’s a vicious circle: Since youth don’t vote in significant numbers, candidates don’t make the effort to reach out to them. Politicians find it easier — and cheaper — to focus on older voters who are more predictable and who are sure to get out to the polls. As a result, youth voter turnout continues to decline.

The young MPs in the Orange Wave weren’t elected by young people — they were elected by a volatile Quebec electorate tired of the status quo. Putting forth a younger candidate won’t draw the youth vote on its own. That will only happen when all candidates, regardless of age, start actively reaching out to young people and encouraging them to vote. The millennial generation must come to be seen as relevant and valuable voting bloc.

Diversity of all kinds in politics is important, something we should strive for. It can have a powerful impact on the way Parliament does business. But how we get there is just as important. We need to worry more about getting young Canadians to the polls — and less about getting ‘fresh faces’ into politics.


Ilona Dougherty is co-founder of Apathy is Boring, a national non-partisan charitable organization that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy and encourages them to vote. She is a regular commentator in national media, a published author, and speaks to audiences internationally about redefining intergenerational relationships and encouraging active citizenship.

Re-published in partnership with iPolitics.ca

Published in Commentary

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