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                           Populism Makes Odd Partners

               But Canada’s Consensus Goes the Other Way


By Brad James

Inequality is a hot topic.

Our attention tends to be drawn to increased inequality within nations.  Yet when measured globally, income inequality has been dropping for over twenty years.

In-country inequality turns some nations inward, but not always in expected manners.

Slashing immigration and banning non-resident "foreigners" from buying existing homes might sound like hot-button campaign planks of right-wing populism, but both will soon be implemented by a coalition New Zealand government led by the centre-left Labour Party.

In September’s federal election there, Labour finished second, winning ten fewer seats than the incumbent National Party. Labour then found common cause with the socially conservative, nationalist-leaning New Zealand First Party. The odd couple formed a coalition. Labour’s popular new leader Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister-elect.

Just after the coalition was announced, the nation’s new leader sat down for a televised interview about the issues that had animated the election campaign. After some pressing by the journalist, Prime Minister-elect Ardern declared that, if measured by homelessness and child poverty, capitalism has been a “blatant failure” in New Zealand.

Some enthusiastic social media commentary, including from the left, welcomed her claim. But less immediately feted by progressive commentators was the new government’s plan to slash immigration by 30-40%.

The New Zealand First party had long campaigned for even deeper cuts to immigration. “We welcome the people we need and not those who need us,” said its leader Winston Peters.

But the new government’s anti-immigration stance was not just to pacify its nationalist coalition partner. The Labour Party’s own campaign platform also featured remarkably big immigrations cuts.

After the election, Prime Minister-elect Ardern continued to slam the outgoing National Party government for triggering public anxiety over limits to housing and public services. “There is undoubtedly strain based on the fact that we have had a government whose entire growth agenda has been based on population growth,” she said.

In Canada, happily for most, our current consensus leads in the other direction. The federal government’s recent announcement that Canada will boost immigration levels has sparked no significant opposition. Here, there’s no lining up of progressives with nationalists to keep "foreigners" out.

In contrast to some other nations, including the United States, most Canadian concerns about trade are not paired up with antagonism to immigration or outright xenophobia.

The Canadian labour movement, in its critique of the federal Temporary Foreign Workers program, does support the view that if migrant workers coming to Canada are "good enough to work, they are good enough to stay" and take up permanent residency.

Organized labour has not always been welcoming. Before the Second World War, unions in Canada often lined up on the side of exclusion. 

While migration and immigration do alter levels of inequality, public scrutiny has focused on the impact of trade agreements.

There has been a big drop in global income inequality over the past two decades, a period of freer trade arrangements. Millions in China and to a lesser extent India have seen their living standards jump upwards. At the same time, inequality within more developed nations grew as the relative number of middle-paying jobs shrank.

But if opposition to both immigration and freer trade are right-leaning populist touchstones, the global benefit of migration from lower-income nations into higher-income countries is on the minds of some smarter thinkers. Professor Dani Rodrik, in a paper entitled “Is Global Equality the Enemy of National Equality?", sets out the case that future increases in migration will now be the more effective force to cut global inequality, stronger than increases in trade liberalization.

Rodrik’s paper lays out the blunt reminder that our views depend on which way we look: “Whether one thinks the last quarter century has been good or bad for equity depends critically on whether one takes a national or global perspective.” 

He makes the case that in the future, migration from poorer to more developed countries will have greater power to erode global inequality than will increased free trade.

That’s because the “export-oriented industrialization” of poorer nations, having produced strong gains in the past, now “seems to have run out of steam”. Rodrik gauges a variety of options for migration openness that might help continue to cut global inequality without triggering too much destabilizing opposition in more developed countries.

Instead of turning inward, Canada has rightly chosen openness and enhanced immigration. Progressive voices support the government’s direction, often encouraging it to do more.

Unions in Canada do good work to counter fears in their own membership about immigration. That’ll need to continue.

A small example of that need to counter union members' fears: using social media, a self-identified “proud union member” recently encouraged a group of employees in a nearby Ontario town to vote in favour of unionization. His profile picture was a stylized combination of the Canadian flag and a map of Canada. Overlaid across the image were the words “F--k off, we're full."


Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own.



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