December 22, 2013 12:15 pm

Transcript: In conversation with Prime Minister Stephen Harper

TRANSCRIPT:
Interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper

and Jacques Bourbeau

Jacques Bourbeau:

Well Prime Minister thanks for joining us today.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well thank you for having me.

 

Jacques Bourbeau:

Story continues below

You’re very welcome.  Now in the past year you’ve face some political headwinds and it’s led to some speculation about whether you’re going to run in the next election, so my first question is a very simple one, are you going to run in 2015?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Yes, you know, it’s kind of surreal I tell people being in this job; one day open the paper and see that I’m planning to resign, the next day I open the paper and see that I’m calling a snap election ahead of the legislated date.  We have an election scheduled in 2015 and I plan to lead the party in that.  But look, I think Jacques the other important thing to say is I’m not campaigning now.  This is 2013, not 2015 and we have a lot to do.  We’re still in a significantly challenged global economy and that’s where we’re focussed, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for at least another year.

Jacques Bourbeau:

It seems to me that one of the challenges you face as you move towards the next election is what I would call this political millstone around your neck about this whole Senate scandal; the actions by your office during this whole Senate mess.  Now you’ve been very clear that you knew nothing at all about Nigel Wright’s deal with Mike Duffy but we’ve learned that there was an earlier plan for the Conservative party to reimburse him.  So I just want to know, were you aware at all about that plan at the time?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

No. No, as you know, as I’ve said repeatedly, I told Mr. Duffy, this came up in a caucus meeting and I was very clear he should repay his own inappropriately claimed expenses.  And that was my view all along.  And as you know, that’s what Mr. Duffy claimed publicly he had done.  That turned out not to be true, which is the reason, one of the reasons, he’s been so severely sanctioned by the Senate.

Jacques Bourbeau:

There’s been a lot of focus on the meeting, February 22nd between yourself and Mr. Wright, and I’m just wondering what did you discuss, what did he tell you, and I think more importantly from your view point of view, what did he not tell you?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well look, at all times, what I was told is that Mr. Duffy was going to repay his expenses as I thought he should.  And I think all the facts are very clear on that.  Look, obviously, I wasn’t told the full story and you know, Jacques, to be frank, I’ve had a range of emotions about that.  You know, anger, betrayal, disrespect, you name it, disappointment, but you know in the end when you have these kinds of situations, you know as a leader you have to take responsibility, and there are two things we’ve done.  One is to obviously make sure those who undertook these actions have been held accountable and I think they have been and they are subject as you know to further investigation.  And the other is to you know obviously look at our processes and try and figure how we can make sure something like that never happens again because clearly the leader has to be fully informed and has to give his consent to any kind of major decision like that.

Jacques Bourbeau:

So how do you do that?  How do you ensure that doesn’t happen again?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well we’ve…I won’t get into the details, but obviously it’s a matter of how decisions are made, how information is transmitted, who’s responsible for what.  So we’ve taken a pretty serious look at that and I think we have some fixes but you know, look, this is not something that would happen under any normal circumstances, that’s part of the issue of this entire thing.  It is so unusual for anyone to take money out of his own personal accounts and give it to someone whose expenses he knows are not appropriate.  It’s just such a bizarre story that one would hope it would not be repeated, but I say we are looking seriously at how we would try and avoid anything like that.

Jacques Bourbeau:

You’ve been very clear that you thought what Nigel Wright did in terms of the secret deal with Mike Duffy was wrong.  I’m interested about your judgment in some of the other actions taken by your office, for example, the attempts to initiate contact with Deloitte to try to influence that independent audit.  From a moral perspective, using your own moral compass, was that proper?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well look, I’m not going to get into dissecting the ins and outs of all this.  Clearly, a lot of things, clearly Jacques, what’s so troubling about Mr. Wright’s decision, is the decision was a decision he made without authority and he made in secret.  And then directed a lot of people to do other things based on a misunderstanding or misinformation about what the truth of the situation was.  And clearly the ethical issues there are enormous which is why as soon as I heard about it I insisted that Mr. Wright go immediately to the ethics commissioner and why we provided all the authorities with relevant information, but I think ultimately, it’s Mr. Duffy that took the money and Mr. Wright that made the payment that are responsible for these series of actions.

Jacques Bourbeau:

When you found out exactly what was going on in your office, did you find yourself wondering why members of your staff thought this was acceptable behaviour?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Absolutely, you know and the truth of the matter is Mr. Wright himself says that his actions were wrong.  He came to that conclusion extremely quickly.  He’s been very clear about that.  He’s been very forthcoming with authorities on any information, all information proactively.  So you know you ask yourself, how could a guy who’s so smart and generally so respectful of the rules, so high performing, how could he do something that’s so obviously wrong and not realize it before he did it.  I don’t know the answer to that but that sometimes good people do bad things and more importantly it just underscores why there need to be proper process and why people need to be involved in a proper decision-making and not go off and make decisions on their own.

Jacques Bourbeau:

There’s been a longstanding debate in this country about Senate reform and/or abolition. The events of the past year involving the Senate, if there’s a continuum between reform and abolition, have your own thoughts about abolition, have you moved at all on that continuum from reform to abolition?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Look, I’ve always said…I told this to the Senate in 2006, I believe the Senate should be reformed and if it can’t be reformed it should be abolished.  I continue to advocate some practical reforms that I think we can do federally, shortening the terms, getting some of these people elected as some of the Alberta ones are now.  Unfortunately as you know, these reforms have been tied up by court challenges so we’ll see what the court ultimately says about this.  But what I would say about this Jacques, I think it’s important, is there is a silver lining here which is that for the first time in 150 years, the Senate’s actually now transparent on its expenses.  When people break the rules, we know that and people are actually held accountable.  And this has not happened before.  It’s been a very painful process but this is actually a fairly meaningful reform and I hope we’ll see more like it.

Jacques Bourbeau:

But is it still an institution worth saving?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

The institution clearly has to change dramatically to be an institution that can be justified the modern age.  My view is you cannot justify, not matter how many…there are lots of good senators, no matter how many good people are in the Senate, you cannot justify an unelected legislature in the 21st century.

Jacques Bourbeau:

I also want to take a look at the other chamber in Parliament, the House of Commons.  One of your backbenchers, Michael Chong has introduced a reform act and if I were to summarize it, he wants to take away some powers from party leaders, including yourself and redistribute those to individual MPs.  So I’m just wondering, how comfortable would you be as a party leader to lose some of your powers ostensibly to further the cause of democracy in the House of Commons?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well look, we’ll take a look at the legislation and analyze it.  I gather it’s got quite a few proposals and the truth is I haven’t actually looked at it in great detail yet.  This will be something that’s of interest not just to me but to all of our members of our caucus and also to our members of our party who are the ones who pick the leaders and pick the candidates in this party.  So, look, we’re always interested in constructive debate and positive reform but I haven’t formed a strong opinion on any of these particular proposals.

Jacques Bourbeau:

Well Prime Minister, we’re going to take a break and when we come back, we’ll take a look at where Canada is heading once the federal books are balanced.

Break

Jacques Bourbeau:

Welcome back.  Now Prime Minister, a big promise that you’ve been making for the last few years is that you want to balance the federal books by 2015, and it certainly looks like you’re on track to do that.  It seems to me that that gives you some fiscal maneuverability to start looking at opportunities to start dreaming a little bit.  So I’m just wondering, once you balance those books, what do you intend to do with that fiscal freedom?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well, first of all, let me just maybe talk about the preamble.  We’re happy with the progress we’re making.  It does appear that we’ll not only balance our books on time but well ahead of other countries.  We have a pretty low debt level as well so we want to secure the country’s fiscal advantage going into the future.  This is one of the things, one of the many things and one of the best things that marks us out from almost all the other developed countries is we actually have our fiscal house in order.  So yeah, absolutely we want to get that done, barring another shock to the global economy which as you know is far from certain.  We’re still in uncertain times.  We’ll get that done.  We’ve already set a couple of things.  We already set some debt reduction targets.  We want to make sure our debt levels continue to come down over the next few years.  They’re not at any kind of crisis now but it’s just another part of securing a long run fiscal advantage.  We said in the last election campaign we have some very specific tax reduction measures we’d like to bring in for Canadian families.  We do think that you know hard working middle class Canadian families often have a disproportionate share of the tax burden; that’s something we want to address.  And we’ll also continue to make investments, as we are now in things that we believe will increase the productive capacity of the Canadian economy over time.  That’s why you know just this past year we announced the renewal, the next new build in Canada fund, this will now be…2007 I think it was, was the biggest infrastructure program in Canadian history.  This is now the bigger biggest infrastructure program in Canadian history.  We’re making important investments in advanced manufacturing, in incentives for machinery and equipment for manufacturing in research and things like the National Research Council to transform them so they do better job of commercialization, partnerships with economic actors.  So, you know we’re going to continue to do a whole range of things, to continue to build the productive capacity of the Canadian economy.  Now, you know in dreams of course we’ll continue to support the dreams of our athletes.  One of the things I’m actually proudest of is the great success under our government that we’ve had in international athletics which was as you know was unprecedented when we were kids.  We’re doing things in our north.  We’re going to complete the highway system to the Arctic coast.  These are things that define our country.  We’re playing a big role in the international scene on child and maternal health.  Here’s something where Canada is leading some very concrete investments that are making a real difference saving the lives of mothers and children who otherwise would not live.  So look, there’s lots of…well you know about this Jacques, no matter how big, eventually we’ll get a surplus and no matter how big it is, the demands will be ten times as big as the surplus but we’ll pick our spots carefully, as I say to make sure we keep our debt going down, make sure taxpayers get their share, and also make sure that we contribute to “some dreams and some development” but in ways that provide real concrete payback.

Jacques Bourbeau:
You’ve had a big focus on trade.  You’ve signed…you were in Brussels this fall signing an EU trade deal and I’m just wondering, you now set the stage to pursue even more.  There’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there’s bilateral deals we’re looking at with Japan, India, South Korea.  How much momentum do you have in terms of pursuing those negotiations by having signed the EU trade deal?  How do you capitalize on that and what kinds of things stand in the way of further trade deals?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well, we got great momentum.  Look, let me give you the whole story here which is when we came to office in 2006, Canada in spite of having one of the most open economies in the developed world, had trade agreements with only five countries; dead last, dead last.  Now why is that so important?  It’s so important in this age because it’s no longer, as you know and many of your viewers know, trade is no longer about you know trading flowers and somebody else gives you bananas.  That’s not how trade works anymore.  Trade is about a new product where you know the engineering’s done in Toronto, the financing’s done in New York, the production’s done in Vietnam, the marketing plan comes out of Australia or London and so, if you’re not part of a web of global trade agreements, the global trading system, you have a very serious risk of being shut out or marginalized in what are called global value chain developments.  And then that is a very, very big risk to the country and was a very big risk in 2006.  So, we now have…we’ve gone from trade agreements with five countries to trade agreements now with 42 countries.  And those 42 countries represent half of global GDP, over half of global GDP, so we are now well anchored in the global trading system.  On top of that, unlike in 2006 because we’ve been doing so much of this stuff, we’ve actually now developed significant trade negotiation resources.  When we came to office we had almost none.  This was the country that pioneered under Mr. Mulroney, pioneered you know the first big post-war global trade agreement; NAFTA, CUSTA and then NAFTA.  And yet, we were almost out of the game entirely.  So we have the resources now.  We have the momentum.  The fact that we’re…you know, look it isn’t just that we’ve signed some deals makes it easier to sign other deals; also makes it easier not to sign other deals.  You know it makes it easier to say no if something really isn’t in your interest or you can take a tougher position because you know you have other fallback options in the trade community.  But the next challenge, Jacques, is for us to get deeper into the Asian trading system; the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It really is an American initiative now, is probably the most important in that regard but as you said, we’ve now got a number of negotiations going with Asian countries and it will be important to land one of these as we move forward.

Jacques Bourbeau:

Speaking about the TPP, one of the obstacles will likely be supply management.  When you signed the EU deal, we did make some concessions in that area and I’m just wondering why your government is so wedded to supply management given that it raises the price of dairy products, and that causes disproportionate harm to lower income Canadians and it even restricts the ability of Canadian companies to export dairy products, especially to the lucrative Asian market.  So why is supply management so important?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well you know to put another perspective on it, it’s to remember that it also provides…helps provide really strong living standards for a big section of our agriculture community who are in many cases, the backbone of the entire regional economy in those parts of the country, and also in a way that quite frankly they very rarely are coming for the government asking for additional resources.  So there are some benefits as well.  But look Jacques, when we’re in the negotiations, there are some people who never quite get this, and I understand that as an economist, I understand some economists well there’s a trade model, why aren’t you pursuing this particular model?  When you’re in trade negotiations as prime minister of a country or as a government, you’re not pursuing an abstract trade model, you’re pursuing the best deal for your country, and if your country’s best deal means you want one particular model in some sectors and a different model in other sectors that’s what you pursue because you’re trying to benefit everybody to the extent you can.  But look, ultimately there are trade-offs and you know, supply manage sectors like everybody can’t get 100 percent of what they want.  We ultimately do have to make trade-offs and have to look at what’s in the best interest in the overall economy and look I think that on this one, virtually every analyst recognizes the Canada-European Union deal, which is of enormous, not just the size of the market but the size of the deal itself in terms of its scope is of enormous magnitude.  I think everybody who’s a serious analyst recognizes it’s overwhelmingly in the best interest of the country even though if a couple of sectors would have preferred somewhat different outcomes.

Jacques Bourbeau:

And Prime Minister we’re going to take another pause and when we come back we’re going to take a look at the challenges facing Canada in the coming years.

Break

Jacques Bourbeau:

Welcome back.  Now Prime Minister, we’ve spoken about the opportunities you see for this country, I’m also interested where you see the challenges.  What are the things that worry you the most these days?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well look, I think the government’s three overriding objectives when you talk about Canada in the world are prosperity, our security and our values; our democracy.  These are all things that face very significant challenges today and going forward.  Obviously we’ve talked a bit about the economy but we continue to be in a global economy, particularly among our traditional trading partners that is very challenged, that is very unpredictable and we face a couple of significant challenges or threats to us.  One is the demographic changes we’re seeing; the aging of the population, the shrinking of the workforce.  We already see significant skill shortages as you know in parts of our economy.  That’s a very big problem and of course we face new competitors.  New competitors; the Chinas, the Asias, Koreas.  Look, there are economic opportunities but there are also very real challenges to us in ways that frankly these days, the United States and some European countries aren’t.  So, you know, we’re trying to do everything we can to position Canada for those changes.  That’s why we’re doing some big transformations of our immigration system.  We’re going to be launching very soon what we call the Expression of Interest System which essentially allows for a very activist recruitment of immigrants that can enter the workforce immediately.  It’s a very different model than the passive kind of application process we’ve had.  So I’ve talked about some of those things on the security front.  I mean I don’t have to tell you that you know we’re in a world where threats of terrorism, the rise of countries that are not necessarily friendly to our values, these are very real concerns.  We work with our allies but we’re also making investments in our ability to defend ourselves from cyber-attacks, our ability to defend our frontiers and our foreign worth, our ability to secure our own country.  Most of these challenges Jacques, what’s different about them from the economic challenges is our ability to deal with the kind of threats to our values and our security are extremely limited on our own.  On these things we have to work with our allies and in cases more broadly with the international community.  On our prosperity, well we certainly don’t control the markets this month or next.  Over time, I believe that if we do the right things and continue to do the right things, make the right investments, not live beyond our means; it’s always important to say, that Canada should be able to exploit opportunity in the future.

Jacques Bourbeau:

You spoke about demographics – that that’s a concern.  There’s a lot of talk about pensions these days.  I believe the figure is 12 million working Canadians don’t have a company pension plan at all.  Your finance minister has said that at the moment he’s not in favour of expanding the Canada Pension Plan but that doesn’t take away the fact that the problem exists.  So I’m wondering, what can you do to try to resolve this problem, and secondly, do we have to have a wider discussion, societal discussion about I guess first principles of retirement; start taking a look at things like retirement age as the average lifespan increases.  Is 65 really the age at which people should be retiring?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

As you know, we’re gradually raising the, over the next 15 years or so, we’re going to be raising the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67, partly because of demographics and partly because this is what we’re seeing all over the world.  But look, I think it’s important to put all this in perspective.  It is true that many Canadians don’t have an employer pension plan, however, of course we all participate in a series of government initiatives; the Canada Pension Plan, which is a government federal-provincial run pension plan, as well as payments to senior citizens, Old Age Security, the guaranteed income supplement.  We also have, the government subsidizes heavily, tax subsidizes individuals to save for their own retirement through Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) through something we brought in, the tax-free savings accounts.  So we provide a lot of incentive for people to save for themselves.  We also have under Minister Flaherty; we’ve also brought in with the provinces something called the Registered Pool Pension…Pool Registered Pension Plan (PRPP) which will allow for the possibility of a lot of small businesses to adopt pension plans in the future.  So we are trying to fill in the gaps and we have brought in something called the financial literacy leader which is to try and better educate Canadians on the opportunities for saving and investments that are out there for them but I don’t think we should exaggerate.  You know, first of all, Canadians basic needs are largely served by government support programs when they are senior citizens and we have virtually the lowest rate of seniors’ poverty in the world.  Not to say we couldn’t do some more but that’s where we’re at.  And we have lots of Canadians, either through their employer or on their own who are in fact saving for their retirement and in very good financial shape for their retirement.  The more worrisome group is a group of people who have reasonably affluent lifestyles but just don’t save.  They have the opportunity to do so, so I don’t think the challenge is to raise CPP taxes on everybody.  It’s to try and figure out how to get the people who actually need to save to do the saving they need to do.

Jacques Bourbeau:

But we haven’t been very successful so far in convincing them to do that.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well most Canadians do save.  I mean the fact is, the vast majority of Canadians have been saving and will have a decent…will be able to retire at a normal age and maintain a standard of living similar to what they’re having as working but there is a significant proportion that isn’t.  But I think we’ve got to find a solution that addresses that problem and not one that imposes a whole bunch of taxes on business and on workers that businesses and workers don’t think they should be paying.

Jacques Bourbeau:

The energy sector, it’s a key driver of our economy and so far your government has not introduced regulations to try to limit greenhouse gas emissions from that sector and I’m just wondering, the longer you don’t take action do you start to risk harming what I would call that social license that I think we’re going to increasingly need to sell oil from the oil sands in the international markets?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well look, I think there’s more to it than the emissions issue.  When you’re talking about social license you’re also talking about things like the safe transport through pipelines and tankers and everything else and of course the government has made very clear, and we’ve commissioned a whole bunch of studies and reports to make sure we’re doing everything we absolutely need to do to make all aspects of the energy system safe.  In the case of emissions, the government, in fact, this is the first time, it’s important to say this, it’s the first time in Canadian history a Canadian government has actually had some success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  And we’ve done it by bringing in regulations and restricting … bringing in emission standards in certain sectors.  That’s what we have been doing.  We’ve done it in transportation.  We’ve done it…we have done it in energy in the case of coal-fired electricity.  The leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, we’re going to have the lowest in that in Canada in the world. The oil and gas sector we’ve not yet done.  As you know, this is an integrated sector continentally and I am…our government is certainly prepared to work with the United States on a regulatory regime that will bring our emissions down.  But I think this would be best done if we could do this in concert with our major trading partner, given as I say it is a seamless industry in North America.  So that’s what I’m hoping we’ll be able to do over the next couple of years.

Jacques Bourbeau:

I also would like to talk about political challenges and one of the things that happens in politics is something I call political fatigue.  And I think it’s a two-headed monster.  On the one hand, political parties over time they lose steam, the get a bit tired, the run out of ideas and I think voters at some point sort of get tired of the same faces in government, so I’m wondering how do you combat that fatigue, especially since you’re telling Canadians you’d like to be their prime minister for at least the next six years?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Well first of all, on the first question on fatigue, look I can tell you this Jacques and I think any objective view of it or analysis would show this.  This government has passed more legislation, announced more initiatives and is doing more stuff now than any year since we’ve been in government.  We had our most productive year in 2013, and frankly, having a majority has made a tremendous difference.  Not that I’m saying we didn’t do important things in minority but the ability to look ahead and the ability to plan initiatives that will roll out over many years.  As I say, things like changing our approach to how we support manufacturing, to how we support science and technology and research and development, to how we re-engineer our immigration system to get the kind of outcomes we want.  Long term infrastructure plans; the ability to do this in you know the seven years the country was in various minority governments is very restricted.  So we’re doing big stuff now.  I think it’s what Canadians want us to do.  Look, in terms of what we call the boredom factor; at some point people want to make change for the sake of change.  Look we’ll address that when the time comes.  Look, I’m the leader, I lead the only party in the House of Commons, the only party in the country that has a significant capable team that can actually govern, that has a well thought out economic policy the public supports.  And so when the time comes we’ll make that case, but right now, you know I’ve been trying to focus on government to the extent I can.  As much as I enjoy politics, I’ve kind of tended to leave that for the Opposition the last couple of years and I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

Jacques Bourbeau:

And my final question is, politics is a game of highs and lows and I’m just wondering, how do you as a leader, how do you keep going when times are tough?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

First of all, let me just put that in perspective, and I’m not saying there aren’t some…haven’t been some tough days and some tough times but I have…I tell people I have the best job in the best country in the world.  I am one of 22 people in 150 years in the history of this country who has had the opportunity to have this position.  To direct the affairs of our government, to travel around the country, see every part of it, meet our people, to go around the world and represent our country and then really get, through that, a really privileged understanding of what a special country this is.  And I can tell you this, I’ve had some crummy days but those crummy days compared to what…compared to being leader of the Opposition or something else, they’re still great days, but, you know, what sustains you when you’re down, you know I guess for me, it’s probably three things.  First of all, my kind of drive and determination and the clear sense I have of what I’m doing.  Secondly, my family; you know two great kids but I’m very fortunate to have a wife who you know not only loves me as one hopes a wife would but who puts so few demands on me and takes so much off of my shoulders.  And then I have my faith and you know, ultimately my belief that there are higher powers and higher purposes and one should never lose sight of those.

Jacques Bourbeau:

Well Prime Minister, once again, I’d like to thank you for spending this time with us and I’d like to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas, and all the best for the New Year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Jacques I want to do the same to you; to all of your crew here and of course to all of your viewers.  Have a Merry Christmas; Happy New Year.

Jacques Bourbeau:

Thank you sir.

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