Honey and the Ethnic Vote

20 Oct

You may have heard that here in Ottawa, there was a big speech a few days ago.

And that the Liberals had a pretty bad week, with one bright spot on Friday.

And that there won’t be an election right away, but there may be one around the corner.

Almost lost in all this news was what macleans.ca called “The Great Greeting Card Controversy”.

Ontario Liberal MP Susan Kadis has been blasting the governing Conservatives for sending some of her Thornhill constituents – more than 35 per cent of whom are Jewish – greeting cards to mark Rosh Hashanah. She characterized these cards as a violation of privacy, and questioned how the government compiled the list of recipients.

Jason Kenney, the government’s point man on multiculturalism, responded by reading a letter sent to him from a Thornhill resident complaining about receiving a Rosh Hashanah card from …. Susan Kadis.

“We know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year,” Kenney said. “But it seems for that member it is the high holiday for hypocrisy.”

Political parties competing for ethnic votes? Not exactly headline news…

Scratch that. Here was the main headline in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, printed in big bold type across the entire front page:

Tories target specific ethnic voters

The article went on to describe – in detail – the Conservative strategy for wooing the votes of ethnic minorities, votes long considered the near-exclusive property of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Some of the article’s details were a bit … embarassing: A leaked document from the party stating that only 79 per cent of minorities are “accessible communities” for Conservatives.

Most of it was the sort of stuff you’d expect any party to do to win over the votes of any group: Attend community events; Translate campaign literature into minority languages; Canvas groups on the issues important to them; Seek out “natural links”, i.e. community leaders sympathetic to the party’s policies.

That last item suggests a potential pitfall for any political party – perhaps the Conservatives more than most, because this is not their traditional base of support: A tin ear for intra-group diversity.  A tendency to group every member of an ethnic group into one homogeneous blob.

In fact, debates within the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Sikh community, the Greek community, the insert-your-own-ethnic-group-here community, etc. are frequently more passionate and more polarized than debates among the public at large.

Politicians who listen only to those ethnic community leaders who scream the loudest – and whose views most closely match their own –  do so at their own risk. Those leaders may not represent the mainstream  (read vote-rich) points of view of the communities from which they come, as Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory learned in the recent provincial election. He met his Waterloo on an issue crafted to win over ethnic voters… failing in the process to win over many ethnic voters.

Coincidentally, the Globe and Mail article spotlighted the federal Conservatives’ efforts to woo the Jewish community in the same Thornhill riding that was ground zero for Rosh-Hashanah-gate. It is also, arguably, the only riding that John Tory won over with his faith-based school funding plan, although that issue has no resonance in federal politics.

Like many “ethnic” ridings across the country, Thornhill is traditionally considered a safe Liberal seat.  Kadis garnered 29,934 votes in the last election, almost 11,000 more than her Conservative opponent. So-called ethnic ridings also tend to be located in Canada’s biggest cities, where voters have proven to be the most resilient to Stephen Harper’s charms.

That has obviously been a source of frustration to the Conservatives, and their remedy seems to be… well, check out the Globe and Mail headline reproduced above.

According to the Globe report, the Conservatives believe there is “growing anecdotal evidence” that new immigrant and minority groups increasingly share the same values as their party – read traditional values.

But where the Jewish community of Thornhill, and elsewhere, is concerned, Conservatives may be barking up the wrong tree. For example, a  2004 survey of religious groups by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby shows that 64 per cent of Canadian Jews approved of same-sex marriage – second only to Buddhists (at 78 per cent).

A pitfall, again, may be a tendency for the party to listen to a vocal minority of small-c conservative Jewish activists, whose concerns do not necessarily match those of the broader community.

Last week, for example, a community group affiliated with the mainstream Canadian Jewish Congress sent out information to its local Jewish community about an event connected with this movement, which aims to build alliances between moderate Israelis and Palestinians, and is supported by many prominent Jewish leaders worldwide.

Via contacts in the right-leaning Bnai Brith organization, the Prime Minister’s Office caught wind of the fact that members of the Jewish community were sent this information, and sent out an email to the Congress, demanding to know who was responsible for sending such “garbage” and how this particular community group was funded. Of course, the group is largely funded by… members of the Jewish community

Not the best strategy for building bridges.


3 Responses to “Honey and the Ethnic Vote”

  1. St. Paul's Progressive October 24, 2007 at 6:51 am #

    You make a very good point. Canadian Jews are overwhelmingly small-“l” liberals and most don’t cast their ballots in federal elections based on which party is the most pro-Israel. In the US, despite Bush being perceived as the most pro-Israel president ever Jews vote about 80% Democrat. The only subset of the Jewish population that votes Republican in the US and Conservative in Canada are the Orthodox who are a small minority overall within the Jewish population. Harper is in for a big surprise if he believes Jews will swing enmasse to the Tories.

    Yes the Tories took Thornhill provincially but just barely – and that’s because they were led by a very Red Tory and the incumbent there was widely regarded as the worst MPP.

    Not to mention there are also lots of Jews living in ridings like St. Pauls and I can assure you the Jewish Tory vote is very, very low.


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    […] post by Alan Echenberg This was written by . Posted on Saturday, October 20, 2007, at 9:42 am. Filed under […]

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