Leveling out Levels

3 minute read

The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau’s leadership made a significant policy departure on immigration compared to his predecessor Stephen Harper. The target projections year over year for immigration have steadily increased since Trudeau was first elected in 2015. Last Wednesday, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller unveiled the 2024-2026 Immigration Levels Plan, and while the overall target was not adjusted, it represents the second time in as many weeks that the Liberals have made changes to marquee commitments motivated more by politics than policy. 

A Political Decision 

The 2024-2026 Immigration Levels Plan indicates that the government will maintain the current 500,000 permanent resident target for 2026 – the first time there has not been an increase in the target since Trudeau came to power. In his rationale for keeping the target unchanged, Miller cited the importance of taking infrastructure and available resources into consideration when making adjustments to our immigration goals, specifically citing housing and healthcare as stressed systems which may be impacted by a higher influx of immigrants to Canada.

While weighing these factors may strike most Canadians as common-sense, it does represent a shift for the Trudeau government. A steady increase to this immigration target has been a pillar of the Trudeau government’s plan for economic growth; keeping this target status quo could have impacts on that growth (including housing construction). 

The reluctance to change up that target may be just one part of a broader change up in immigration policy from the Trudeau government. Miller acknowledged that the government is pausing future increases to ponder further adjustments that could be made to targets, and added, “we have a lot of complex calculations that we need to make and measures we need to adjust.” His comments suggest the pause wasn’t made for tangible economic or housing supply reasons, and the surrounding factors suggest political expediency was the main motivator.

The political nature of this decision is further reinforced by the fact that permanent residents are just one category of newcomers seeking housing and healthcare in Canada. 

Non-permanent residents increased by 600,000 on a net basis in 2022. While many point to this being an economic driver, questions have swirled around the benefit of increasing target immigration while people already in Canada are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing. Recent Abacus Data published findings last week which showed that Canadians are preeminently concerned over housing affordability and government action (or inaction) on it. Notably, public opinion polls do not suggest a strong sentiment against immigration to Canada, but Canadians are asking more questions about how this immigration is impacting things like housing, healthcare, and other services. 

Another Policy Pivot

Coupled with the government’s decision two weeks ago to temporarily exempt home heating oil from carbon pricing, this change in approach to immigration targets marks yet another policy pivot for the Liberals as they continue to face political headwinds and slumping poll numbers. While opposition parties are unlikely to be satisfied no matter what the Liberals try, changes to these policies do pose risk for the Liberals within their own party, as many around the caucus table staunchly support a consumer carbon price and are ardently pro-immigration. Shifting gears on these policies also threatens the Liberals’ viability with left of centre voters are supportive of ambitious climate and immigration goals. 

Some of those cracks are already showing. While many elected Liberals publicly supported the government’s change on the carbon price late last month, former central bank head and potential Liberal leadership candidate Mark Carney called out the government for backing down on its flagship environmental policy, suggesting the government ought to have explored alternative support measures in its place. Meanwhile, former federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, who played a role in implementing the carbon pricing framework, expressed disappointment, emphasizing the need to stay the course to meet targets.

These decisions have created vulnerabilities for the government, threatening support from some of their longest standing allies. But the risk may be a calculated one, as the Liberals seek to increase their favourability with Canadians by being seen to act on issues impacting their day-to-day lives. Trudeau is clearly hoping that the criticism coming from inside the proverbial house is abated by a boost in public opinion in the weeks and months ahead.

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