When Jason Kenney stepped out to unveil reforms to the temporary foreign workers program, his message was that there will be big changes in the future. The political question is whether it will be enough to erase the damage of the past.
No longer will employers be able to build their work force on easy phone calls to recruit low-wage foreign workers, the Employment Minister warned. And there were serious measures to show that his reforms are, as he said, more than just tinkering.
But then there is the fact that they did not do it sooner. The controversy crept up on the Conservatives for years, then suddenly mugged them. The numbers of temporary foreign workers in low-skilled jobs has grown rapidly while they have been in power, with the program going from a pilot project to a relatively common practice. Then it hit Stephen Harper's Conservatives where they live.
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Reports that Canadian fast-food employees had been replaced with temporary foreign workers sparked outrage. The notion that the government helped companies bring unskilled foreign people into towns with high unemployment threatened to undermine the Conservatives' main message: that they are focused on Canadians' jobs. Opposition parties argued the Tories do not care about people struggling to find employment in Windsor or Sarnia. They got a reaction.
Mr. Kenney's task on Friday was simple: to finish off the controversy. His press conference, alongside Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, was on the last day of the parliamentary session, so Conservatives could head to summer barbecues in their ridings saying they had fixed it. Put it in the past.
To their credit, they produced a serious plan. The reforms provide greater incentives for employers to find low-wage workers at home by raising application fees and limiting the percentage of each company's work force that can be brought in from abroad. The caps will be phased in over two years. And Mr. Kenney promised to increase transparency by reporting the numbers for each employer.
Even the style used to unveil the reforms was refreshingly grown-up for a government that typically prefers slogans to explanations. The ministers briefed journalists on technical details, and did a talk-till-you-drop press conference explaining their rationale. They acknowledged some businesses might be hurt, but said companies should turn more to recruitment, training and wage increases. Mr. Kenney said he wants to return the program to what it is supposed to be: a last resort.
But there is also the past. Should the Conservatives have woken to the problems before? "No," Mr. Kenney said. The Conservatives, he explained, accepted the policy in place when they took power as "normal."
That is a frank admission. Governments do not look under every rock for worms. But it is a tad short on mea culpa. Under the Conservatives, the number of low-wage workers – those not in special programs for nannies or farm workers, or covered by agreements like NAFTA – grew from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Mr. Harper's government spent to speed up processing for TFWs. If it is broken now, they should have fixed it sooner.
That is why, even with solid fixes for the future, the Conservatives will struggle to put this issue behind them. The opposition will still say the previous problems showed the Conservatives do not care much about unemployed Canadians. They might find cases that embarrass the government now. Any flaw in the reforms will get attention. The Conservatives will wait out Parliament's summer break, hoping that with reforms for the future, they can come back with this issue in the past.