John Ivison: Migrant crisis suddenly the biggest issue in the election campaign — and Harper’s on the high wire

Talking to a Liberal friend Wednesday evening, we mused on whether the progressive vote would eventually coalesce around one or other of the opposition parties.

“There is another scenario,” he said. “The complete collapse of the Conservative vote.”

I said I thought this was unlikely, given the party’s apparently rock-solid voting base.

But each passing day brings more bad news for the Conservatives. Every media availability has on the defensive.

The impact on public opinion of the Mike Duffy trial is only now showing up in polls. No sooner had it taken a break than the country fell into recession.

And with the tragic picture of the drowned Syrian-Kurdish child, , the Conservatives are once again on the back foot.

Their cause was not helped by the immigration minister, Chris Alexander, going on CBC’s Power and Politics and blaming the media for ’s slow response to the refugee crisis.

Alexander is not to blame for the death of Alan or his brother. It turns out early reports the Kurdi family had been denied refugee status by Canada were wrong and the application that was rejected was for another branch of the family.

Mehmet Can Meral/ Associated PressMehmet Can Meral/ Associated PressAbdullah Kurdi, 40, father of Syrian boys Alan, 3, and Ghalib, 5, who were washed up drowned on a beach cries as he waits for the delivery of their bodies outside a morgue in Mugla, Turkey.

But Alexander clearly has a tin ear for politics if he thinks it was an appropriate time to go on the offensive. It made him look like an insensitive ass and didn’t enhance his chances of getting re-elected in his Ajax-Pickering riding where he is in a tough fight against Liberal  Mark Holland.

It also put added weight on Harper’s shoulders when he held his press conference in British Columbia Thursday.

The migrant crisis has the potential to be a turning point in this campaign, and required the Conservative leader to display qualities of empathy and compassion that do not come easily to him.

On this occasion, he just about got away with it. He said that the situation was “heartbreaking” and the now-iconic picture had brought tears to his eyes as he thought of his own son, Ben — at which point he got a lump in his throat that seemed genuine enough.

He said that in his visits to Jordan and Iraq, he has witnessed the refugee camps up close, calling the daily lives of their inhabitants “catastrophic.”

He said that Canada has the most generous refugee system in the world and his government has already committed to accepting more migrants from the Middle East, if re-elected.

But he added humanitarian aid alone will not solve the situation – it also requires the military will to confront the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant. “I don’t know for the life of me how you can look at that picture (of Alan Kurdi) and say we want to walk away from the military mission trying to prevent (ISIL) from trying to kill thousands of people. We will do more of everything,” he said.

It was an important moment – one that may staunch the wound his minister had inflicted, even if it ignored the fact that eight times as many people have died in Syria at the hands of government forces than have been killed by ISIL

The news that the members of the Kurdi family who drowned were not rejected by Canada will also lower the temperature.

RelatedCanada says it never denied refugee application for migrant boy and his family'I want the whole world to see': Father of drowned boys hopes tragedy will bring changeFrom search-and-rescue missions to changing Europe’s asylum rules, six things the world can do to help Syrian refugeesRefugee crisis isn’t as bad as photo of dead boy suggests — it’s ‘far, far worse,’ Harper says

But it has put the public spotlight on refugee policy and particularly on the acceptance of applicants from Syria.

Maybe Harper thought voters didn’t care about events in a far-away place of which they know little. Maybe they didn’t. But they do now.

Many in the Conservative Party earned their political spurs during the Clark and Mulroney years, when the citizenship gates were opened to floods of Vietnamese boat people, and later refugees from Somalia.

Broad swathes of Canadians of all political stripes will now urge the next government to show similar generosity of spirit.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HOTHE CANADIAN PRESS/HOAlan, left, and his brother Galib Kurdi are seen in an undated family handout photo courtesy of their aunt, Tima Kurdi. Alan, Ghalib, and their mother Rehanna died as they tried to reach Europe from Syria.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals say they will admit 25,000 Syrian refugees, if elected. The NDP say they want to see an additional 10,000 admitted by the end of the year.

By comparison, the Conservatives are saying they will admit 10,000 more asylum-seekers but over four years.

This is a “shield” issue for them – not one where they are going to win votes, as outraged voters call for action.

Harper’s party was elected on a platform that promised to reform a system that was seen as far too lax and over-generous after 9/11 and the Liberal Party’s inability to reduce a backlog of about 30,000 applicants. The system was slow, unwieldy and allowed bogus claimants to stay in Canada for years, if not decades, as they moved from appeal to appeal.

The Conservatives tightened up the system, but the number of successful applicants fell – dropping by one third in the decade after 2004, when 32,687 asylum seekers entered Canada.

I don’t know for the life of me how you can look at that picture (of Alan Kurdi) and say we want to walk away from the military mission trying to prevent (ISIL) from trying to kill thousands of people

Few Canadians would want us to return to a system that was abused, not by the huddled masses from war zones, but by Mexicans, Hungarians and Czechs seeking a higher standard of living.

But Syria is different. Harper has seen the exceptional nature of the Syrian migrant crisis.

It has, overnight, become the biggest issue in the election campaign.

Canada is a nation of immigrants. Whether their ancestors arrived in steerage at the time of the Highland Clearances or they landed more recently from Asia, Canadians have an affinity with the immigrant experience.

If he is going to stave off a precipitous drop in Conservative support, Harper must shake off the apparent lethargy that has characterized Canada’s reaction to the refugee crisis.

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National Post

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