OTTAWA — Questions about the prime minister’s future show no signs of waning as Stephen Harper’s undeniably difficult year draws to a close. But according to the man himself, there is no question; he’s running in 2015.
“It’s kind of surreal, I tell people, being in this job,” Harper said in a wide-ranging interview with Global News. “One day I 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.”
While Harper offered a categorical “yes” when asked if he’ll be leading the Conservatives during the next federal election campaign, that drive for another majority isn’t starting yet, he said.
“I’m not campaigning now. This is 2013, not 2015 and we have a lot to do,” he said. “We’re still in a significantly challenged global economy and that’s where we’re focused, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for at least another year.”
Speculation on Harper’s future was fuelled by the hit he and his party were dealt as a result of the Senate expense scandal, a story that will almost certainly hang over him for some time to come.
WATCH below: Harper discusses the steps he’s taking to ensure what happened between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy doesn’t happen again.
Despite a series of RCMP documents that have shed light on some aspects of the scandal, there is still a long list of questions — a top one being whether criminal charges will result from the actions of Harper’s former top aide, Nigel Wright, and Senator Mike Duffy.
The prime minister has maintained a safe distance from the scandal that reached into his inner circle, consistently claiming he knew nothing of Wright’s plan to cut a cheque so Duffy could repay his questionable expense claims. The tale, in Harper’s words, is “such a bizarre story.”
“As a leader, you have to take responsibility”
After the full story of the now-infamous $90,000 cheque was revealed last spring, and Wright left his job at the Prime Minister’s Office, Harper said he’s still trying to understand the rationale behind Wright’s actions.
“What’s so troubling about Mr. Wright’s decision is the decision was a decision he made without authority and he made it in secret,” he said. “So 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? I don’t know the answer to that, but sometimes good people do bad things.”
WATCH above: Stephen Harper wonders how his once-trusted adviser could do “something that’s so obviously wrong.”
But Harper understands the buck stops with him.
“Obviously I wasn’t told the full story and … to be frank, I’ve had a range of emotions about that. You know, anger, betrayal, disrespect, you name it, disappointment,” Harper said. “But in the end, when you have these kinds of situations, as a leader you have to take responsibility.”
Two steps Harper took to address the issue, he said, included holding Wright and Duffy accountable for their actions.
The third step is looking inside his own office and making changes to ensure nothing similar ever happens again, in spite of the slim chance it would, he said.
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“Clearly the leader has to be fully informed and has to give his consent to any kind of major decision like that … it’s a matter of how decisions are made, how information is transmitted, who’s responsible for what,” he said.
“But you know, 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.”
Reforming the other chamber
While Harper says there is no doubt the Senate chamber is in need of an overhaul, he appears less eager to look at reforming the House of Commons.
A well-regarded member of Harper’s caucus, Michael Chong, recently introduced legislation that would rebalance the power between MPs and party leaders. The bill would, among other things, empower caucus members with the ability to review and oust their leader.
The bill has been public for weeks, and Chong has received support from all parties, but the prime minister hasn’t really looked over it yet, he said.
“We’ll take a look at the legislation and analyze it,” Harper said. “I gather it’s got quite a few proposals, but the truth is I haven’t actually looked at it in great deal.”
The changes, if passed, would only take effect after the next election.
No shopping spree with balanced budget
The Conservatives have promised to balance the budget by 2015, the same year voters will head to the polls—and the goal seems within reach.
The objective, of course, is to start wading into surpluses once the books are balanced, but that doesn’t mean the government will begin a spending spree.
WATCH below: Harper says : Canadians shouldn’t expect a spending spree from the Conservatives if they get the budget back in the black while in power.
Harper will implement the smattering of tax credits promised during the last election campaign, but contingent on balanced budgets.
Aside from that, Harper’s spending plan is pretty much status quo: continuing investments aimed at increasing productivity, investing in infrastructure and putting money toward manufacturing, are some examples.
“Eventually we’ll get a surplus and no matter how big it is, the demands will be 10 times as big as the surplus,” he said. “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.”
Saving for retirement
One area the government won’t likely put money is in expanding government programs for retirement.
Many private sector retirees are facing bleak financial futures, with fewer than 25 per cent of employees having any sort of pension plan. Half of those who do, pay into a defined contribution plan, which means payments upon retirement are dependent on investment returns. Once that money runs out, so does the pension.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty this week said he’s not in favour of expanding the Canada Pension Plan, that the time isn’t right to expand payroll taxes to subsidize higher pensions.
WATCH above: Rather than expanding government retirement programs, Canadians need to start saving on their own, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“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,” Harper said, pointing to Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement and tax subsidies for RRSP investments, as examples.
Those programs, among others, help “fill the gaps” for retired Canadians, the prime minister said.
“Not to say we couldn’t do some more, but that’s where we’re at … 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 need to save to do the saving they need to do.”
Some “crummy” days as prime minister
He loves his job, describing it as “the best job in the best country in the world,” though that’s not to say he doesn’t have difficult days. But it’s all relative.
“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,” he said.
WACTH above: Even his crummy days are great because his three pillars help sustain him, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
Aside from reminding himself he’s not the leader of the Opposition, Harper said the support of his family and his wife, Laureen, helps get him through.
VIDEO: Jacques Bourbeau discusses his conversation with Prime Minister Stephen Harper
In Conversation with the Prime Minister airs on Global at the following times:
Global Halifax– 12:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Atlantic
Global New Brunswick -12:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Atlantic
Global Montreal/Toronto/ Thunder Bay – 11:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. EST
Global Winnipeg/Kenora/Regina/Saskatoon – 11:00 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. Central
Global Edmonton/Calgary/Lethbridge – 10:00 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. Mountain
Global BC/Okanagan – 10:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Pacific
Global BC1- 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. (Dec 23) Pacific
Global Halifax, New Brunswick, Montreal, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary & Lethbridge – 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. local
Global BC & Okanagan – 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Pacific
BC1 – 6:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Pacific