The West Block Host Tom Clark sat down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week in Cannes, France, following the G20 Summit.
Here is the full transcript of the interview.
TC: Prime minister, thank you very much, and welcome to this first edition of the West Block. It’s great to have you here.
PM: Thanks for having me.
TC: You’ve been saying loudly and clearly for months, if not years now, that the Europeans have to get on with reform, they have to balance their books, they’ve got to get it straight. Do they get it?
PM: Oh, I think they get it. Obviously it’s a complex situation because in Europe you now have in 17 countries, you have a single currency, but you have 17 national governments behind the currency instead of one national government.
So it’s a difficult circumstance, and obviously as we know well, beginning with Greece, some of those governments have been very badly managed. And that’s a situation they’re trying to tackle.
You know, the last week’s been quite eventful. We had what looked like a European plan. A week ago, October 27, they came out with a deal that certainly had the key elements necessary. And then to everybody’s surprise the Greeks said, “We’re not really sure we’re abiding by it. We’re going to put it to a referendum instead.”
Now it appears that’s off, and we’re back to implementing the plan. And that’s what has to be done. I think what the Europeans have put together is certainly on the right track.
There’s a lot of work to be done and finish it and put it in place, and that’s what they need to be concentrating on. And I think we’re coming out of the G20 with them concentrating on doing that, and I think everybody knows the stakes are very high.
TC: Are you pretty confident we can avoid an even bigger problem with Italy?
PM: Well, one of the things that happened with the G20 was the Italians, specifically, have asked the IMF to come in and monitor the implementation of their own program.
The Italians are confident that they can deal with their debt situation, that they have a program that’s eliminating their deficit and will put their financial house in order. There’s been market uncertainty about that; we’re seeing the spreads on Italian bonds start to rise. So the Italians specifically have asked the IMF to come in and provide, you know, monitor, provide surveillance, provide the confidence to the international markets that they are, in fact, on the right track.
So I think that’s a positive development. But you know, look. Obviously, this problem has to be fixed. I don’t think it’s any secret. We’ve kind of been watching this in slow motion for a couple of years, and while I know it’s complicated, I think everybody has been clear to the Europeans that this is really starting to affect global confidence and global growth and it simply must be resolved. TC: The Europeans are saying this week, in fact, that they expect they’re going to go into a mild recession.
TC: And I think that’s our read on it as well.
PM: They may be in one already.
TC: And if the Unite States heads into a recession, which isn’t impossible anyway, how does that affect us? We’re in a better position than anybody else. But have we got that much –
PM: Well look, Tom. There’s no secret. If everybody goes into — if there’s a global recession, we know there will be a recession in Canada. But our read is that that is not the situation.
There either is or likely to be a mild recession in Europe. Data out of the United States, while the growth is very slow, is not recessionary data at the moment. And obviously that’s the economy we’re most closely tied to. Other parts of the world have slowed down as well.
In fact every leader – every single leader at the G20 will tell you that the European uncertainty has affected job creation and growth in their economies. But most of them are still continuing to grow, albeit at reduced rates. So that continues to be out expectation, and out plan has been based on the assumption we will grow, but we will grow slowly.
Obviously, if we faced a very different situation, we’d adjust our plans, but, you know, the expert money is still not on a recession, and I have no reason to predict that either.
TC: Let me ask you a more general question about what’s happening in Europe. We were asking – the G20 was asking, for some pretty fundamental changes in the countries, the way many of these countries operate.
It is presumably the beginning of the end of the European welfare state. I suppose I should ask that as a question than a statement. Do you see it that way? Is this the end –the beginning of the end of the –
PM: Oh, I think, I think that’s too strong a statement. Look, I think that European countries, in fact most countries, certainly most developed countries are committed to providing good social services and social safety nets to their citizens.
I think in some cases, there is probably some evidence that those have been excessive and that problem’s going to have to be tackled.
But I don’t think there’s going to be an abandonment of the concept of social services or the social safety net.
What has to happen is Europe has to live within its means and has to get its deficits and debts under control. And that’s going to be, I think, a combination of tax measures, some spending measures, and ultimately some structural reforms to the economy.
But it has to be done because the debt levels are just unsustainable.
TC: With that type of change, we’re asking for it to be done very quickly, and in some cases dramatically as well.
Do you ever worry about this becoming – transferring itself from being an economic crisis to a political crisis?
How are these societies able to withstand that sudden and, in many cases, negative changes in terms of standards of living and that sort of thing?
PM: Well look, Tom, I think that’s been the difficulty.
In particular, if you look at the origin of this, if you look at the first country, the country most affected, which is Greece, I mean obviously, changes have been made there and changes have to be made there that are politically very difficult.
And I think that’s one of the reasons, in the last week, the Greeks suddenly hesitated about whether they were prepared to fulfill the plan. But, you know, ultimately, the choice, unfortunately for many electorates, that they are facing is not the way things are.
The choice is some tough medicine now, or things are going to be a lot worse.
I think the Greeks were sent a pretty clear message that if you don’t make the changes necessary to get the rescue package, you’re going to be outside the Euro, you’re going to default and the consequences for government programs are going to be a lot more dramatic than they will be if you work with the rest of us to fix the problem.
TC: This unrest that we’re seeing in Europe, or at least the uncertainty that we’re seeing in Europe, are you tying that- we had some bad job numbers —
TC: this week. Do you think that they’re directly related to one another?
PM: Well, look, I think first of all, the job numbers for last month are certainly disappointing. And as you know, our number one priority has been the economy and jobs, and certainly these numbers are a lot poorer than we were expecting.
On the other hand, they’re very volatile. I think you’ll remember last month, job growth was way ahead of what we expected. This month it’s behind. But there’s been a pattern certainly of slowed – a lot less job creation in the past few months than we saw previously.
And as I say, that’s the universal opinion around the G20 table, that the uncertainty caused in global markets because of their protracted debt crisis is affecting growth and it’s affecting job creation and it’s affecting confidence all around the world.
So, yes. It is a direct consequence. I think it can be corrected. I mean, everything I see is that markets are saying – you know there’s a lot of money out there sitting on the sidelines. And markets are saying, “Give us some good news. Give us the confidence; we’ll get off the sidelines and into the game.”
Every time, Tom, we see some good news, I’m amazed how quickly markets pick up. They want the solution. So we just keep saying, “Give us the solution and let us move beyond the crisis and move ahead with job creation with growth.”
The G20, actually this week came out with a pretty good action plan on creating jobs and growth over the short and medium term; a series of actions agreed to by all countries.
But to really implement that we need to get past this immediate European crisis.
TC: Prime Minister, if you don’t mind, we’re going to take a short break and when we come back, we’re going to take the question of the economy back home when we return.
TC: And we’re sitting down with the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Prime Minister, we went to a number a number of cities in Canada before the –
TC: — the G20 meeting and asked people what their concerns were in general and we got a lot of different responses.
We got a lot though on one issue and it’s the reason I chose this subject, because we had many responses on it. And it had actually to do with your crime bill, but in an economic sense.
I just want to, we had a comment for example from Graham Hudson in Toronto, and here’s what he said:
“With imminent economic instability, why is so much money being put on crime legislation that is not likely to produce anything of value, and is going to cost a lot of money.”
And I guess added to that, you’ve got now an additional problem with the premiers of Ontario and Quebec saying they don’t want to pay for their share of what will be a new bill for crime. How do you square the circle for Graham Hudson.
PM: Well look, what I say to Graham Hudson, and what I say to most other Canadians, is first of all, the crime measures we’re proposing are overwhelmingly supported by Canadians.
They’re not, in our judgment – we put the numbers before Parliament – they’re not terribly expensive. They obviously cost some money, but compared to the cost of having dangerous and repeat offenders walk the streets, they’re pretty modest.
And this is a fundamental responsibility of government to make sure there’s a criminal justice system that does what it can to protect people. And all the data I’ve seen has suggested that whether it’s Quebec, Ontario or anywhere else in the country, these measures are popular, they’re supported.
They’re certainly supported bylaw enforcement people across the country and we were elected, and we’ve been promising these a long time. We were elected specifically to move forward on them, and that’s what we’re going to do.
TC: Specifically to Ontario and Quebec, are you saying that they’d better pay up?
PM: Look, it’s – there’s constitutional responsibilities of all governments to enforce laws and protect people, and I’ve seen the data. I think the people of Ontario and Quebec expect that their government will work with the federal government to make sure we have safe streets and safe communities.
TC: Another big economic issue domestically for us is going to be the success or failure of the Keystone XL pipeline.
TC: You’ve heard President Obama, on a trip that he made in Nebraska, one of the states where the pipeline is going to go through, say, he said that a big spill is not worth the extra jobs that this project would create. Are you at all concerned that this issue is moving in the wrong direction?
PM: Well, I guess we don’t know. I mean, I actually read President Obama’s comments. I thought they were on balance, pretty neutral. This decision ultimately rests with him.
This project is supported overwhelmingly, notwithstanding all the vocal opposition. If you look at business interests, labour interests, across the various states, this project is very strongly supported in the United States.
It will create not just thousands of jobs in Canada, but also in the United States as well, and for the United States in particular, our view is that this project is pretty fundamental to a goal that the United States has had for a long time, and that is domestic energy security.
The option, the alternative to this kind of energy is importing more oil from the Middle East and Venezuela and all kinds of other places with all the same environmental problems and a lot less of the benefits of having a strong energy partnership with Canada.
So I continue to believe — and as I said, I think we’re supported by most actors in the American political scene — that this is a good project for the United States, and we continue to believe it should and will go ahead.
TC: I want to bring you full-circle back to the whole idea of summits. You’ve attended a lot.
PM: I have.
TC: You’ve attended a lot in the last couple of weeks. Are they, in your view, achieving what they could achieve? Is sitting around a table with 20 people, sometimes with competing interests and competing ideologies – is it reaching its potential?
PM: Well look, Tom. It’s not a secret that some summits are better than others. You know, some, it depends who’s at them, it depends how many voices there are. Some summits are certainly more worthwhile than others.
What I would say is though, is one of the things I’ve learned since becoming prime minister is the degree to which all problems, especially economic problems, but to which all problems really are global.
And there is no alternative, ultimately, to leaders sitting down face to face and hearing each other out. Hearing what the other guy’s real thoughts are, his real priorities are, and trying to work towards solutions.
And look, people will point out, they’ll say, “Well, you get together for a few hours. What can you really accomplish?”
But the very fact that the meeting takes place means that there are months of meetings that go on beforehand, beginning with low-level officials and gradually working their way up to ministers and ultimately to leaders, were these decisions are slowly hashed out, so we arrive at the next step of our action plan when we reach the summit.
So it’s actually a long process that takes, that goes over time. And look, is it always as successful as I’d like? No. Of course not.
Are we always, do we always hash things out as thoroughly as we’d like? No.
Do we always reach the decisions as quickly as I’d like? No.
But given the global nature of so many problems, I really don’t think there’s much alternative. Particularly when you’re talking about the crisis and the global economy.
TC: You’re not going to tell which is the worst summit you’ve been to.
PM: No, I won’t get into that comment.
TC: Just a final question for you, and take this any direction you want. You’ve reached the ambition of a lifetime: you got a majority government. You’ve worked for this, as I said, for years. Years. Now that you’re here, what do you want to do with it?
PM: Well, first of all, look, I appreciate you saying it’s the ambition of a lifetime.
Obviously I’m pretty proud of the achievement. I would say, probably my even bigger ambition of a lifetime is the ambition that most families have, and that’s to see my children grow up and be happy, and be productive citizens.
And that’s probably the thing that’s my biggest ambition of a lifetime, but it’s one we share with so many other families out there.
Look, Tom. I didn’t get into politics, and certainly when I came to be prime minister in 2006, I didn’t think I would be managing Canada through a protracted economic crisis. Nobody saw that in 2006. B
ut the truth of the matter is, that’s where we’re at.
And whatever other ambitions, obviously there’s all kinds of things I’m trying to do – we talked about the crime agenda – there’s all kinds of things the government is trying to do and would like to do.
The thing that sits squarely on our plate every single day is the fact that this country is part of a global economy that has a lot of problems.
We’re inexorably linked to it, we don’t have necessarily a lot of direct control over it, but we need to do everything we can, both here at home and working with our international partners, to protect the jobs and income security of Canadians.
And that is what I’m trying to do day in and day out. I think that’s why we got reelected. I don’t think we got elected with a majority because Canadians said that, “Look, everything’s great.”
I think quite the opposite: Canadians understand we’re in a challenging global situation. The government is doing as well as it can, we’re doing better than most other countries, but they want us to continue to focus on that. And that will continue to be my focus.
And look, I wish, I wish we had different circumstances, but that’s the real issue. That’s the real problem. And we’ll continue to be focused on.
TC: And do you think that how you handled that economic situation, will that define your place in history? Define you administration?
PM: To date, that’s certainly the case. Look, I think all prime ministers would like to think that there’s some big legacy project that will define them. And there’s all kinds of things we’ve done, and all kinds of things I hope to do.
But our success to date is that we have so far steered Canada through the worst global recession since the Second World War, in the best position of any advanced country. And if we can continue to do that, I think that will be a success and that will continue to be my focus as long as that is the big problem that we all share.
TC: Prime Minister, you’ve been very generous with your time, and I appreciate you sitting down and talking to us.
PM: Thanks for having me.