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Ignatieff backs off bipartisan immigration reform deal amid caucus revolt

Liberal MPs have forced Michael Ignatieff to swallow his words and scuttle a brewing bipartisan deal on major refugee reforms, jeopardizing the bill and revealing the leader's shaky hold on his caucus.

Until the last minute, Mr. Ignatieff didn't see the danger zone in his own party: In the Liberal caucus, getting wires crossed over immigration issues leads to nasty shocks.

The Conservatives claimed they had a deal to pass reforms to Canada's refugee determination system aimed at speeding decisions, in part by cutting appeals from those who come from countries deemed "safe." Europeans and Americans, for example, would have less recourse to appeal.

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The government argued that would cut backlogs of claims, allowing "bogus" refugees to be deported faster, so they would be discouraged from coming in the first place.

Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua worked with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to push the bill through the Commons. From last August, when Mr. Kenney began pushing reforms, Mr. Ignatieff expressed willingness.

"I'm tough on that stuff," the Liberal Leader said then. "I want a legitimate, lawful refugee system that, to get to the openness point, welcomes genuine refugees … and then says, look there are a number of countries in the world in which we cannot accept a bona fide refugee claim because you don't have cause, you don't have just cause coming from those countries."

But on Thursday, the Tories hastily arranged to cancel an immigration committee meeting slated to vote on the bill that night. The deal was dead: If the committee voted, the safe-country list would be cut.

Despite Mr. Bevilacqua's efforts, Mr. Ignatieff's office insists Tory claims of a deal were premature; the Liberals were trying to get concessions. "There was never a deal. There were discussions," spokesman Mario Lagüe said.

Either way, the deal-making died Wednesday, when Liberal MPs revolted against what their own immigration critic was negotiating: a bill with a safe-country list.

Quebec MPs were dead against it, arguing asylum-seekers must be treated as individuals, regardless of where they come from. Former immigration minister Denis Coderre, who had quit as Mr. Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant in a huff last year, urged fellow MPs to kill it. At the national caucus meeting that morning, 11 MPs spoke out against it, and only Mr. Bevilacqua spoke in favour, according to several MPs.

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In response, Mr. Ignatieff hit his hands on the table, and said there would be no deal.

Veterans might have warned him that immigration issues must be managed gingerly in the Liberal caucus. Even Jean Chrétien was forced to scrap tougher selection rules for skilled workers in 2000, after an MP revolt.

Mr. Ignatieff, one MP said on condition that he not be named, is more conservative than his caucus on external-affairs issues. "Where we get elected, in the cities, if we tilt to the right on this stuff we're going to lose our base," the MP said.

Some MPs blamed Mr. Bevilacqua for negotiating without caucus support, but others insist it was clear the leader backed his critic. Either way, even Mr. Ignatieff's caucus supporters say he waited too long before making sure his party was in tune.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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