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Comment: Ethnic-outreach strategies are getting old

When it comes to the B.C. Liberal Party and that now-infamous leaked memo, take your pick from the smorgasbord of indignation. You could choose righteous anger over the possible misuse of taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to the B.C. Liberal Party and that now-infamous leaked memo, take your pick from the smorgasbord of indignation. You could choose righteous anger over the possible misuse of taxpayer dollars. You might be annoyed at the memo’s greedy, grasping tone outlining how to win voters from ethnic communities.

There are those who would instead choose to stay sanguine, shrugging their shoulders at all the brouhaha. But I am not one of those people.

Tabling for a moment the troubling questions of whether an illegal act occurred through the misuse of taxpayer dollars, let’s focus on political strategy. It’s true that attracting ethnic voters goes back as far as the days of Boss Tweed, Irish immigrants and Tammany Hall in 1800s New York.

In Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau first wooed South Asian voters 40 years ago. His techniques were “perfected” by the Liberal machine under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, and ripped off by the Conservatives who figuratively ate the Liberals’ political lunch by sending MP Jason Kenney to literally eat lunch with any ethnic community group that would sit down with him.

In B.C., New Democrats revel in the hell they have wrought upon their political rivals by leaking the memo. But don’t forget the campaign pamphlets they circulated in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market during the 1996 election, boasting that then-premier Glen Clark, and ministers Moe Sihota and Ujjal Dosanjh could be counted on to “stand up for the interests of Indo-Canadians.” The pamphlets claimed the Liberals would “threaten Punjabi language instruction in our schools.” Was there a strategy around that? You bet.

But there’s a bigger point: That this memo reveals less about the Liberal plan to cure its malaise and more about the collective lack of imagination of all political parties when it comes to ethnic outreach. In a note to supporters, it is a strategy described as “something that’s necessary,” going on to point out “there are over one million British Columbians that are considered by B.C. Stats as a visible minority. This is a growing segment of our province that deserves effective communications and engagement.”

Yes, but this segment isn’t getting that. Because in four decades, little about ethnic outreach has changed.

What exactly do these outreach strategists, including the premier’s, think of voters who come from non-Judeo-Christian cultural backgrounds? That they are sheep? That the endorsement of one so-called community leader at a government announcement automatically persuades all? That they have no individual minds or values of their own?

There was a time when a politician’s visit to a house of worship or cultural community centre represented more than opportunism. A generation ago, when racism and discrimination were far more overt, it was an important signal to visible minorities that they were accepted, respected and invited to participate in the democratic process.

Today, some politicians and strategists of all stripes seem to think all they have to do is show up at a temple with a hanky or scarf on their heads, and their mere presence will send congregants obligingly bleating all the way to the ballot box.

Convincing people to respond to you positively includes working to understand whom you are trying to reach. In the market-research world, that includes recognizing that a voter of Chinese or South Asian origin will have different reactions to government policy based on whether they were born in Canada, whether they emigrated as adults or children, whether they were educated here or abroad, their age, income and line of work. If that analysis is being done, it’s not reflected in the memo.

To be fair, some so-called community leaders are complicit in this offensive ethnic oversimplification. They join parties, promising to deliver votes in exchange for recognition and other goodies. A politician of any ethnicity who turns down this kind of help does so at his or her own peril, and may see that community leader take the power base to the next candidate.

Every time something like this happens, it damages multiculturalism. It makes diversity a dirty word. The policy that helped educate my classmates about my culture is threatened every time scandals are associated with it. Just look at the Twitter hashtag assigned to this mess: #ethnicgate, as though ethnicity is to blame.

It also taints justifiable decisions the Liberals have made. Rather than judge the Times of India Film Awards on its economic performance, there are calls to cancel the event outright. The 2008 Komagata Maru apology in the legislature was a moving ceremony. It has now been discredited.

Ultimately, all political parties use the same tired ethnic-outreach strategies because they work. In the same way negative advertising works. Both garner just enough votes to win by playing to a shrinking base that gets smaller as people of all backgrounds are turned off and young voters of all ethnicities tune out precisely because of these tactics.

Isn’t it time for something new? The old ways don’t just hurt the Liberals. They hurt democracy. They hurt all of us.

Shachi Kurl is director of communications at Angus Reid Public Opinion.