The dangerous game of diaspora politics

As originally published in The Globe and Mail, Feb. 10 2012.

The term “diaspora” reflects the rise of truly transnational populations occupying a key niche in Canadian politics that allows them to influence both home and host government.

Diasporas can exert pressure on their home government from abroad, free from political threats and fear of retribution. And they can lobby their host country to put pressure on their home government to endorse policies ranging from human rights and governance reform to favourable international trade policies and security guarantees. Diaspora politics is seductive and populist. And governing parties can ride the wave of new immigrant support for generations.

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New Canadians at the Polls: A Reply to Adams and Brown

Recently Michael Adams and his co-author wrote an interesting piece on  immigrants and conservatism appearing in the Globe. They ask: are immigrants natural conservatives?

The authors make several mistakes in their analysis

Mistake one. Conflating Bush’s form of conservatism with Harper’s – Republicans are further right than most Canadians can imagine and are led  by mostly white older males. Yes it’s true Harper has his white older male ideological base, but for the most part  his form of social and fiscal conservatism is far less extreme than anything concocted by the  Republicans fiscally and socially. To those immigrant Canadians who  are attracted to the middle ground on a values and fiscal basis , Harper must constantly show his party can claim some of that  middle ground especially  on social spending. Not so the Republicans with their take it or leave it philosophy on health care and other social programmes.

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Dangerous game of ‘diaspora politics’ is here to stay

As originally posted on columnist Natalie Brender recently argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka this November is because of that country’s deteriorating human rights and governance record. Harper’s purpose, she claims, is “to convey principled condemnation of what’s happening to human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka” in a challenge to our claim that this is more obviously pandering to the Tamil diaspora in order to win votes.

She then went on to state that sometimes “Ottawa’s foreign policy decision-making is logically inexplicable except by reference to a diaspora community’s pressure and votes” and that “those cases of egregious pandering to diaspora communities are not the rule in Canada’s foreign policy-making – neither with the Harper government nor with previous ones.”

We could not disagree more. Whether one calls it “pandering to specific groups,” “diaspora politics” or “creative statecraft,” it is much more frequent than Brender thinks and it is also not going away anytime soon because of the political incentive structures shaped by Canada’s demographic trends.

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A better way of doing diaspora politics

As published on March 06, 2013 by iPolitics.

Diaspora politics can become a double-edged sword if left in the hands of politicians. As evidence, look no further than the new Office of Religious Freedom — a policy outcome one might expect when parties curry favour with particular ethnic constituencies.

It straddles an ethical “grey zone” because government resources are being used for political gain. It is double-edged because politicians must avoid getting entangled in the foreign agendas and partisan interests of specific ethnic groups on the one hand, while ensuring that the office serves their political agenda on the other. If the Office of Religious Freedom lacks transparency and arm’s-length independence, we can only imagine the kinds of behind-the-scenes lobbying and petitioning to which it might succumb.

The more general problem is that pandering to ethnic constituencies can create unevenness in outcomes and inequality of access. There is, in brief, very little sense of how catering to specific groups strengthens all of Canada.

New Canadians are popular targets for this kind of “special treatment” because they are this country’s economic, demographic and political future. Efforts should be taken to immunize new Canadians from partisan manipulation. Updating the law to guarantee religious freedom independent of political affiliation might be one way to “immunize” such groups.

My point is not about insulating ethnic constituencies from democracy — far from it. But we have to make it clear that participation in democratic institutions is fundamentally distinct from the short-term and self-interested political agendas of political parties. In the case of the Office of Religious Freedom, unless its activities are transparent and open to public scrutiny, it will be unable to generate the kind of legitimacy necessary to become an independent institution. There will always be the implication that government resources are being directed toward partisan purposes.

I am not arguing the needs of new Canadians are unimportant and should be ignored. What I am suggesting is that it really matters how new Canadians are engaged by policy makers. With respect to diaspora groups, there are a number of policy initiatives in play around the world that are explicitly aimed at developing relationships between home countries, host countries and diaspora communities. Examples include the establishment of formalized regulatory systems such as flexible citizenship laws, residency, visa access, political rights, portable pensions, social services and tax incentives for investment.

New Canadians also stimulate trade and investment because the informational advantages they hold improve investment by reducing the transaction costs of entry into home markets. For the banking and investment sector, diaspora connections are very important for overcoming obstacles to resource transfer. Successful programs that enable diaspora connections to contribute to investment include IntEnt, an initiative developed by the Dutch government to support migrants seeking to start small businesses in home countries, and the UK’s ‘Send Money Home’ program, which helps diaspora communities send low-cost remittances to home countries.

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