February 7, 2016 1:03 pm
Updated: February 10, 2016 4:29 pm

Transcript Season 5 Episode 20

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block on Sunday, February 5, 2016. Hosted by Tom Clark.

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THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 20, Season 5

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Host: Tom Clark

Guests: Dwight Ball, Gregor Robertson, Berry VrbanovicJohn McCallum

Location: Ottawa

 

Tom Clark: On this Sunday, has “The Rock” hit rock bottom? With the price of oil plummeting, Newfoundland and Labrador faces some pretty hard choices. We talk to Premier Dwight Ball.

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From crumbling bridges to overflowing sewer systems, Canada’s cities need rebuilding. With billions of federal dollars at stake, the big city mayors are making their pitches. We will hear from two of them.

Sixteen thousand and counting, that’s how many Syrians have arrived in Canada so far. We check in with Immigration Minister John McCallum, amid some troubling reports of security threats.

It is Sunday, February the 7th, and from the nation’s capital, I’m Tom Clark. And you are in The West Block.

 

Tom Clark: Well, it’s not just Alberta feeling the pain of low oil prices, many of the flights carrying the unemployed out of the oil patch head straight to Newfoundland, and this is happening at the same time that the offshore oil industry there is taking a plunge as well. It has left Newfoundland and Labrador with nearly a $2.4-billion budget crunch. So, just how did it get there? Here is your West Block primer:

(Animated graphic) Once upon a time, in this land of colourful houses and smiling children, all you could do was fish. It was a poor life, but it was a good life. And then suddenly, the fish disappeared and life got a whole lot harder. With the fish gone, someone threw a straw down into the ocean floor and up came a gusher, and the offshore oilfields were born. Soon the Newfoundland government was getting about $2 billion a year in royalties alone. Now, Newfoundlanders had a good life and they had a rich one. But then, the price of oil dropped, production fell, and just like the fish, the money started to disappear. It’s still a good life on “The Rock”, but it’s not nearly as rich as it once was.

And joining me now from his office in St. John’s is the Premier of Newfoundland, Dwight Ball. Premier Ball thanks very much for being here. Let’s start off with this, have you seen rock bottom yet or is this going to get worse for you before it gets better?

Dwight Ball: You know, Tom, I felt it on December 1st right after the election that we probably had hit rock bottom, but even the economy and the financial affairs of our province over the last two months now has eroded even more, primarily around the price of oil of course. Late November it was around $45 a barrel when we took office and we’re seeing that of course in the low $30’s on most days right now. So it’s actually getting worse, not quite sure we’re at rock bottom yet. I would anticipate and say and suggest that we are not.

Tom Clark: And to make it clear for everybody, it’s not just the collapse of oil prices for the oil off of Newfoundland, your offshore oil, but so many Newfoundlanders all worked in the oil fields in Fort McMurray in Alberta and elsewhere and brought that money back to Newfoundland, so you’re getting it from both sides, aren’t you?

Dwight Ball: Absolutely, the mobile workforce. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians for many years have been known for this, but when it comes to I guess our local oil supply, we’ve seen supply drop off. We’ve seen as we’ve mentioned already, the price of oil, but added to that is we’ve seen so many of our workers that have worked in places like Alberta, in Saskatchewan as an example, and they would bring their money home to support their families. That money would be spent in Newfoundland and Labrador and would add to the tax space right here in our province. And a lot of that money right now has been drying up, and we can certainly see the big difference in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. This is truly an unprecedented time in the history of our province.

Tom Clark: So what do you do about it? What can you do about it?

Dwight Ball: Well, No. 1, it took some time to get here, so we are putting in some short-, mid-, long-term initiatives and plans to work our way through this. There is no real short fix to this, but it’s about revenue generation, it’s about how we spend money, make sure we spend it in the most efficient way possible. And then make sure that we get our borrowing under control. So we are putting in place a very inclusive round of consultations around the province right now. The province and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have come together like never before and it’s just absolutely fascinating when you see the amount of people that we are having, turning out, coming with ideas. So revenue is about controlling expenses, and how we borrow, and we are doing that now in preparation for this year’s budget.

Tom Clark: And you know what’s fascinating, premier, is that your province has put up a website for all Newfoundlanders to go on, to help you. You’re basically saying, ‘Come up with an idea. I’ve got to cut the budget by 30 per cent.’ Have you come across any great idea that’s come to you on that website yet?

Dwight Ball: Absolutely, we’ve come across a number of great ideas, some that we’ve known before that have come from the campaign trail. And for the four years that we’ve been talking to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, we are having an unprecedented number of people that are coming out to those meetings, lots of great ideas. People are now getting the understanding of the magnitude of what $2 billion in deficit means, and they were willing to suggest changes. And they understand that we won’t do it all by revenue, it will include some expense control, it will include the way we borrow, and it will also be part of what Ottawa can do to help Newfoundland and Labrador through the initiatives around infrastructure. So, there are a tremendous number of great ideas that are coming forward to help us in our decision-making.

Tom Clark: That brings up an interesting point because the discussion in the rest of the country, as it pertains to low oil prices and how that has hollowed out economies, has all been about Alberta mainly, and a little bit about Saskatchewan, hardly anything about your province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The prime minister last week was out in Alberta. He was promising instant money to help that economy. Have you got any cheques coming your way from Ottawa to help you out?

Dwight Ball: As I said, we’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work in Ottawa right now, and our story is there and it’s well understood. There will be infrastructure money that will be coming our way. There will be some sustainability funds that you would have seen announced last week in Alberta. We will be qualifying for some of that. We have in the past as well. So there are a number of different levers that we will be able to pull on. There is, under the old Building Canada Fund, there is about $400 million there that will be available. And in next year’s budget, 2016-2017, based on the infrastructure money in Ottawa, there will be more support for us there as well. All of these together will—the primary objective here is to keep Newfoundlanders and Labradorians working, keep our economy going while we’ll deal with the affairs of government. And the province is definitely pulling together, but I will say this, is that when you look at the tremendous amount of assets that we have available to us in our province, in the long-term, the future looks good, but we’ve got to work away through this and we know that Ottawa is willing to help us through this and we know that the people in Newfoundland and Labrador are there to support us as well.

Tom Clark: Well, tough times on the island are nothing new for Newfoundlanders, premier, and we’ll look with interest as to how they once again, get through these difficult times. Premier Ball, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador thanks very much for being with us today.

Dwight Ball: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Clark: Well still to come, hundreds of Syrian refugees are still homeless in Canada while new warnings are coming from the German government about embedded terrorists. But first, what are big city mayors hoping to get out of their meetings in Ottawa last week? We’ll talk to two of them, coming up next.

 

[Break]

 

Tom Clark: Welcome back. Well, if you happen to be a mayor of any city or town in this country, you’ve got one thing on your mind.  How does my city get through these tough times? It was certainly what Canada’s big city mayors were fretting about when they came to Ottawa late last week. And as always, it’s all about money. In the last election campaign, the Liberals promised to spend $60 billion over 10 years on infrastructure. The mayors like that, but they want a lot of that money right now and they would prefer that there be no strings attached.

Well joining me now to talk about some of that, two mayors of our big cities: Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver, and Berry Vrbanovicthe mayor of Kitchener. Thank you both very much for being here. Let’s set the table first of all, and let me ask you both this: Name me the biggest single infrastructure problem that you’ve got in your cities, and how much it’s going to take to fix it right away? Berry?

Berry Vrbanovic: So, the first one for us obviously is dealing with existing infrastructure: water, sewer pipes, roads, we’re talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the backlog that exists, but it’s also making the key investments. So for example, regional and high speed rail between Kitchener-Waterloo region and Toronto. That is key for the economic success for example, for our tech sector.

 Tom Clark: But if you had to choose one, the one that you want to get done right now, what would that be?

Berry Vrbanovic: It would absolutely be the high speed rail and the regional rail.

Tom Clark: Okay. Gregor?

Gregor Robertson: Well I’d say, in Vancouver’s case, and it’s the case for a lot of the big cities, affordable housing is a crisis in Canada. And that’s something we can build right now. We actually have sites. We’ve made a proposal to the federal government to put dollars on the table along with city land so that we can get affordable housing built, not only for those in need as social housing in our city, but we have new refugees coming that need housing.

Tom Clark: And my understanding, just so everybody understands, is the deal that you were proposing, that you give city land in exchange for the other levels of government building the houses.

Gregor Robertson: That’s right. And that’s what’s different, cities are coming to the table actually with something to offer, you know, it’s land, it’s the capacity that we have. We invested in infrastructure, 60 per cent of our infrastructure is what we take care of despite having only about 10 per cent of the tax revenue. So we’re leveraged on our infrastructure. We need more support from the federal government, but we are investing significantly across the country in our cities.

Tom Clark: Let me go to a broader picture now because you were painting it, Berry, and put everything into the basket now, everything that you have to do in Kitchener, to make your city ready for the next 50 years. Give me a price.

Berry Vrbanovic: I would say if you took everything and put it altogether, and it’s not just Kitchener because it’s a corridor we’re talking—

 Tom Clark: Kitchener-Waterloo, yeah.

Berry Vrbanovic: But you’re looking at a few billion dollars. I mean to deal with all of the railway issues and so on that we need, high speed rail and LRT in our own region, it’s quite substantive.

Tom Clark: So a few billion dollars. Gregor, how about you? If you put all of your problems into one basket, put a price tag on it, what would it be?

Gregor Robertson: Yeah, in metro Vancouver, our big priority is our transit plan. We have a transit and transportation plan for the whole region which is about 2.5 million people, and that plan is a $7.5 billion transit plan. And we have some wastewater projects that’ll bump it up. So the first $10 billion, I think we could put to work very soon and do a transportation and wastewater infrastructure readily, along with some affordable housing.

Tom Clark: Okay, so I mean basically, just between these two cities, Kitchener and Vancouver, we’re already up to about $17 billion that you need and those are just two cities in Canada. That gives you an idea of the scope of the problem. You had brought up the fact that, in cities, you handle 60 per cent of the infrastructure. That is what you have to take care of, but you have 10 per cent of the tax base. So out of every tax dollar, you’re only getting a dime.

Gregor Robertson: Yep, if a dime.

Tom Clark: Yeah. Is it time for cities to take more of the tax revenue instead of leaving it to the province and the feds?

Gregor Robertson: It’s an interesting question and we’ve focused now on this new partnership with the Trudeau government. They’ve made this very clear, a $60 billion package of infrastructure funding, which is unprecedented. The scale of it is really significant and we want to make sure that we can land that money, we could build out the projects, get Canadians to work as our top priority right now. It’s really about making sure that the commitment the federal government is making on partnership is acted upon at a local level and we get the job done. So that’s our focus right now. The longer-term question is whether there needs to be some restructuring of the tax base that reflects that we need to be investing more locally. And we’re fortunate now to have a Trudeau government that recognized we have to invest in cities. They’re willing to put money on the table to do that as a next step, but longer-term change, I think, is more work for us to talk about going forward. For now, we’ve got to focus on getting Canadians to work.

Tom Clark: I understand that, but no matter how good your relations are with whoever is running this joint behind us here, you’re still the beggars at the banquet. You’ve got to come up here and hold out your hand and say we need more money.

Berry Vrbanovic: That’s certainly the model as it exists right now, but I think we’re seeing across the country, a level of dialogue starting to happen between municipalities and provinces and territories, and municipalities and the federal government. That I think it’s starting to change that relationship and starting to see a new era of cooperation. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I think that’s sort of the first step, I think, towards the kind of issue that you’re talking about, which is really looking at the fiscal framework and what should it ultimately look like in the future. But in the meantime, I think we need to work within the confines that exist for all of us.

 Tom Clark: Let me ask you this, and actually, let me put this to you because the fellow sitting next to you represents a city of some 2.4 million people in the greater Vancouver area. You’ve got 220,000. It seems to me that your biggest competition is this guy here. That with that money, no matter how much money comes out of this building behind us, the bigger cities – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal – are going to be first in line for most of that money and you’re sort of second tranche.

Berry Vrbanovic: Well no, you know what, I think the governments are starting to realize that part of looking at this is not just looking at population size, but also where are some of the economic strengths in our country. And we know that for example, our region has had some of the highest economic growth in terms of GDP over the last while. The tech sector in general is thriving—

Tom Clark: Especially in your area.

Berry Vrbanovic: Absolutely. And I mean Mayor Tory and I have been talking about the Toronto-Waterloo Region Innovation Corridor as a way of further strengthening that going forward, so I think there’s a recognition that this is something that is important for both larger and smaller communities.

Tom Clark: Mayor Robertson, I’ll give you the last 20 seconds.

Gregor Robertson: Well it’s certainly per capita. We need to invest across the country, from big cities to small communities, and First Nations communities. We need to make sure that that investment gets spread. Per capita is a good principle to start with, but also look at strategic investments. When there’s big leverage for economic impact, we need to target there too.

Tom Clark: Okay, gentlemen, a big discussion to be held and I’d love to continue on with you at some other time as we go further down this road. Berry Vrbanovic, the Mayor of Kitchener and Gregor Robertson, the Mayor of Vancouver. I thank you both very much for being here today. I appreciate your time.

Berry Vrbanovic: Thanks for having us.

Gregor Robertson: Thank you.

Tom Clark: Well coming up next, some red flags are being raised about Syrian refugees, housing is in short supply, and terrorism is being mentioned once again. Immigration Minister John McCallum is next.

 

[Break]

 

Tom Clark: Welcome back. Well with every planeload of refugees, the Liberal government is getting closer to its goal of resettling 25,000 Syrians, in Canada, by the end of February. It is an ambitious timeline that has been praised around the world, but is the settlement experience being compromised by the fast-track timeline?

Well joining me now is Canada’s Immigration Minister John McCallum. Minister thanks very much for being here.

John McCallum: Hi, Tom.

Tom Clark: I want to start off with one thing. At the end of last week, on Friday, there was a rather troubling report that came from the German spy agency, their Domestic Intelligence Service, that said that they had found embedded ISIS fighters in the Syrian refugees that had come to Germany. Is CSIS taking a look at the Syrians who are coming here along those exact same lines?

John McCallum: Well, CSIS and immigration officers have been conducting detailed interviews with every person in the region. They’ve had the endorsement of the heads of the RCMP, CSIS and the Border Services that this is correct, and we are going after the most vulnerable people, and largely, that excludes males on their own. And so a lot of those fighters that you described might be in that category.

Tom Clark: Although we have seen a lot of female terrorists as well.

John McCallum: That is true, but I think that we’ve had a lot of discussions with the U.S. We put them on the U.S. databases. I think we’re good on the security front and the health front.

Tom Clark: Does it bother you though that when the German Intelligence Agency reveals something like this, that it may raise the level of concern in Canada? Because this is not just somebody who doesn’t know what they’re talking about saying this. This is their spy agency.

John McCallum: We’re certainly not saying that such things can never happen. But what I am saying is that when our three primary security-related agencies express confidence, when the U.S. government expresses confidence, I think the Canadian public has expressed less concerns in recent times than near the beginning. I think there is a level of confidence that our security measures are appropriate.

Tom Clark: I want to move away from security and onto the resettlement itself. As I said at the beginning, an ambitious plan to have 25,000 here by the end of this month. We’ve got 16,000, but you know there’s a report just here, in the City of Ottawa itself, that came out late last week that said there are 600 Syrian refugees here in Ottawa, 300 of them are effectively homeless because they can’t find accommodation. There is no accommodation on the horizon for them to move into. What’s going to happen to those people, because another 600 are going to be arriving in this city, and this is a microcosm of what’s happening across Canada.

John McCallum: Well homeless is a slightly pejorative word. They’re in hotels and they will soon have homes and it is normal—

Tom Clark: Well you say that—let me stop you there. Yeah, but just let me stop you there. You say they will have homes and yet the people on the ground here who are organizing the reception for the Syrian refugees say they’ve looked, they can’t find anymore.

John McCallum: Well what I am saying is that they will have homes. It sometimes might take a while. There have been some cities, of which Ottawa was one, that have asked for a slowdown, either because they had trouble finding homes or because they had to hire more people, who have slowed down. At the same time, there are other parts of the country crying out for refugees. We have many going to the Maritimes, to New Brunswick, to Nova Scotia, to Quebec. Quebec is being very receptive. Alberta. So we have not slowed down the planes at all. So they are coming in quickly as predicted. And it is normal for some time to be spent in the hotel. We are also raising money through the private sector, which next week will announce subsidies to various groups across the country. I’m having meetings next week with two groups of business people in the residential area to get further support. So I think these things never go perfectly smoothly at every step. We’re dealing with very vulnerable people, many of whom have special needs, but I think it is rolling out, more or less, as we expected.

Tom Clark: You know one of the things that struck me about the report, again, just referring to the Ottawa group here, but they’re also finding that some Syrian families are turning down accommodation that they’re offered because it’s not in the right part of town or they don’t like the neighbourhood. Canadians might raise an eyebrow.

John McCallum: I read that report and I found it quite touching because it goes back to the point that these are vulnerable people. And the person reported was quoted as saying they are clinging to each other because they’re all alone in this country and they want to live nearby the people that they have travelled with. Sometimes they want to live near a mosque and they don’t know how public transit works, so often they have to be taught from very much square one how things work in this country. So that’s a good example of some of the challenges facing the resettlement agencies when you’re dealing with super vulnerable people. So it takes a little patience and it takes a little time, but it will happen.

Tom Clark: I’ve got less than a minute left. You have talked in the past about using Canada’s military bases if we can’t find accommodation for the Syrians. How soon are we going to start putting them on military bases?

John McCallum: Well we may or we may not. We have excluded all military bases except two. We had a longer list before. Either no military bases used or Kingston or Valcartier. And we will only do that if we have insufficient accommodation elsewhere. I would not be surprised if we had some use of military bases between now and the end of February, but it’s still uncertain. It depends on the flow of the people and the flow to new housing, as to whether that will materialize or not.

Tom Clark: Okay. John McCallum, Canada’s Minister of Immigration. I appreciate your time.

John McCallum: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Clark: Thank you so much.

Just before we go, I wanted to mark the 100thanniversary of the Great Fire on Parliament Hill, something that I have a bit of a family connection to because this man here (photo), Nelson Porter, was the Mayor of Ottawa at the time. He also happens to be my great-grandfather. On the night of the fire, he raced up onto Parliament Hill and literally jumped on the shoulders of the fire chief and urged the firefighters to try and save the Parliamentary Library. Well, by the next morning, when the smoke had cleared, the one thing that survived was the Parliamentary Library. Well done, Granddad. You did well.

Well that’s our show for today. We’ll see you back here next Sunday. Have a great week ahead. I’m Tom Clark.

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