COMMENTARY: Liberals’ about-face on asylum seekers reeks of desperation

Trudeau defends asylum and refugee system, says Canada seeing higher numbers due to global instability
WATCH: Trudeau defends asylum and refugee system, says Canada seeing higher numbers due to global instability (April 10)

Turns out the Liberals figured out a way to get people talking about their budget after all.

Well, not the budget specifically, but rather the fact that fairly significant changes to how Canada deals with asylum seekers have been snuck into the budget omnibus bill. One might have thought that the Liberals would have learned a lesson by now about sneaking major legislative changes into omnibus budget bills, but here we are.

READ MORE: If refugees have made claims in certain countries, they soon may not be allowed to in Canada

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, this is not the right way to address it. Any legislative changes on this file need to be dealt with in a separate bill, so as to allow the changes the scrutiny they deserve. What is the specific problem we’re trying to solve? How do these changes get us there? Do the changes create other potential problems? This approach makes it more difficult to answer those questions.

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Moreover, though, this sudden about-face from the Liberals feels really cynical, especially since the Liberals have been spending months — almost two years, really — demonizing the opposition Conservatives for pushing for exactly this sort of approach.

This issue has become needlessly politicized and, as a result, we are well behind in addressing a problem we could have addressed much sooner and with far less rancor.

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The 392-page budget bill includes a provision that aims to prevent anyone who has made a refugee claim in certain other countries — the U.S. included — from doing so here in Canada. The goal would obviously be to reduce the number of asylum-seekers from coming across the border through unofficial border crossings.

It’s not entirely clear how this is all going to work, and groups that work with and advocate on behalf of refugees are expressing their concern. If someone sets foot on Canadian soil, they can claim asylum. Does this mean we’re going to stop people from setting foot in Canada, or does this mean we’re denying the opportunity to make a claim even if they’re here?

It’s logical that we would not allow bogus refugee claims to clog up our system. It is also logical that we would insist that someone who has claimed refugee status in the U.S. remain in the U.S. and not try to cover their bases by trying their luck in Canada, too.

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WATCH: Law professor explains why judges are supposed to presume asylum seekers are telling the truth (Feb. 5)

Law professor explains why judges are supposed to presume asylum seekers are telling the truth
Law professor explains why judges are supposed to presume asylum seekers are telling the truth

As Border Security Minister Bill Blair said this week, “there’s a right way to come to the country to seek asylum and/or to seek to immigrate to this country, and we’re trying to encourage people to use the appropriate channels and to disincentivize people from doing it improperly.”

That’s a totally reasonable statement, but it’s one that stands in stark contrast to the government line for the past two years, starting with the prime minister’s infamous “Welcome to Canada” tweet. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of statement that could have come out of the mouth of Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who has been the party’s lead on this issue.

Unfortunately, the government’s initial impulse seemed to be to deny the problem while simultaneously trying to capitalize on it. Trudeau’s tweet set the tone for a Liberal narrative that portrayed themselves as the open, welcoming and tolerant party, while painting the Conservatives as the exact opposite.

READ MORE: COMMENTARY: A disastrous week for the Liberals, and the impacts will be far-reaching (September 2018)

The problem with that approach, however, was that voters didn’t buy it. The border-crossers issue became and remained a major concern among Canadians. A poll done last fall found that two-thirds of Canadians felt the situation was reaching “crisis” levels. This new approach seems like a belated attempt to actually do something about the problem.

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If only they’d taken such an approach from day one.

Again, it remains to be seen how effective these new measures will prove to be and whether much will have changed by the time Canadians head to the polls later this year. Even if this turns out to be a more sensible and effective approach, it still doesn’t absolve the Liberals of responsibility for their inaction and rhetoric on this file or the lack of transparency in pushing these changes through.

Ever since the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke, the Liberals have appeared to be in disarray. If nothing else, this sudden shift on asylum seekers would seem to confirm that.

WATCH: Prime Minister says Tories trying to turn people against immigration (December, 2018)

PM: Tories trying to turn people against immigration
PM: Tories trying to turn people against immigration

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.