November 26, 2017 11:56 am

The West Block, Episode 12, Season 7

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, November 26, 2017. Hosted by Vassy Kapelos.

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THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 12, Season 7

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Host: Vassy Kapelos

Guest Interviews: Parliamentary Secretary Steve MacKinnon, Special Envoy Bob Rae

Food for Thought: Conservative Party Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt

Location: Ottawa

Story continues below

On this Sunday, the auditor general slams the Canada Revenue Agency for its treatment of taxpayers: blocked calls, unanswered calls and bad information. So what is the government doing about it?

Plus, a deal reached late last week will allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingyan refugees to go home to Myanmar, but is it safe for them? We’ll talk to Special Envoy Bob Rae about what Canada can do in this humanitarian crisis.

And then, Food for Thought: This week, over pasta, we sit down with Conservative Party Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt for a conversation about family, French and politics.

It’s Sunday, November 26th. I’m Vassy Kapelos, and this is The West Block.

The auditor general has revealed millions of Canadians are not able to get through to the Canada Revenue Agency for information on their taxes because their calls are either blocked or unanswered. And for those taxpayers who do get through there are obstacles as well. The auditor general had lots more to say on the government and how it deals with taxpayer money. Here’s more in your West Block primer.

[Canada Revenue Agency recorded message] “Due to high demand, all of our agents are currently busy and our agent cues are full. However, you can stay on the line to use our automated service…”

If that’s the message you receive when calling the Canada Revenue Agency, you’re not alone. According to the auditor general’s scathing report, the CRA blocks more than half of the calls into its call centres due to high volume, all in all, about 29 million of them in a year. And even if you do get through, you’re not in the clear. One in three Canadians calling in are given wrong information that could lead you pay too much or too little in taxes.

Joining me now is Steve MacKinnon Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. Thanks for being here, Mr. MacKinnon, nice to see you.

Steve MacKinnon: Good morning.

Vassy Kapelos: Great to have you on the program. I want to start off by asking about the CRA. If Canadians can’t necessarily get through, and when they do get through they’re not getting the right information, is that a major problem?

Steve MacKinnon: Well of course, it’s an intolerable set of circumstances and we’ve committed funds and committed a great effort to addressing those very issues. We’ve seen, in one of the common threads that run through the auditor general’s report, is that we’ve seen really underfunding of the very foundations of government: badly executed IT planning, poor infrastructure and indeed we’ve seen restriction of hours, cuts to training, cuts in personnel for these basic things that Canadians look to government to provide. And so it’s going to take many years, but we have to rebuild a lot of this capacity. And as incredible, I know, as it is to the people watching us today, the government literally needs to, in some cases, rebuild some of our capabilities and do it for the modern age.

Vassy Kapelos: So let’s drill down a bit on the actions that you’re taking, specifically with the CRA. How will you guys ensure that a) calls get through?

Steve MacKinnon: Well better technology. The old call centre, if you will, technology that exists is basically what some officials call “rust-out”. Its 20 years old. It’s well out of date, needs to be brought up to a modern standard. So we’ve committed substantial funds, I believe $50 million over four years to bring that technology up to scratch and also, to train our employees so that they can obviously offer correct, precise information and the kind of information that Canadians count on us providing.

Vassy Kapelos: Are you hiring more people?

Steve MacKinnon: Indeed we are, and there’s a lot of renewal of course throughout the Public Service. There was some restriction of hours that happened, so of course we want to be able to provide. And we have four time zones in Canada, so we want to be there for Canadians when they need it. We want to make sure that they offer correct and precise information and obviously, we want to ensure that those services are accessible to all.

Vassy Kapelos: How many new hires are needed in order to fix the problem? And when can Canadians expect the problem to be fixed?

Steve MacKinnon: Well I don’t know that I’m in a position to provide a precise number, but suffice to say that in instance after instance, whether it be payroll systems or the kind of work at the CRA, we’ve seen this penurious type of approach over the previous decade. We need to bring in new public servants. We need to train them adequately. We need to give them the tools, the computers, the modern technology that they need to do their jobs, and we need to be there to provide services to Canadians the kinds of services that they look to government to provide.

Vassy Kapelos: So when, though, will that all happen? Because I understand what you’re saying, it’s not an easy process and that it will take time to build back up, but I think Canadians who watched the details that came out of this auditor general’s report are sitting there saying well when will I get the right information about my taxes and who will be accountable if ultimately I don’t?

Steve MacKinnon: And it’s right, and I understand citizens to be quite horrified when they hear details like they heard from the auditor general this week and that’s why it’s important to also underscore that we have announced these measures. We have announced a four-year program. So you ask about timing, we think at the end of this four-year process of investment, in people, in tools, in training, that they will see a vastly improved service.

Vassy Kapelos: And if they don’t?

Steve MacKinnon: Well, if they don’t, that’s something we’re going to be watching very, very closely as parliamentarians, as a government. We’ll be measuring these things. We’ll be trying to gauge Canadians attitudes and satisfaction with the services that they get and if required, we’ll make adjustments.

Vassy Kapelos: Let me switch over to the Phoenix pay system because the auditor general was quite critical of your government. He will produce a different report looking at the Conservatives involvement in even bringing the system in, but this one focused singularly on what your government has and hasn’t done since you came to office. You have acknowledged and your minister has acknowledged that you might not proceed with Phoenix; you’re open to that possibility. When will you make that decision?

Steve MacKinnon: Well the first thing we have to do is fix the Phoenix pay system.

Vassy Kapelos: But if you decide not to proceed with it, why spend all the money fixing it?

Steve MacKinnon: Well because there is no fallback. We were left in a situation of course a year and a half ago of not the old system or the new Phoenix system, we were left in the situation where all of these people had been let go, where the previous auditor general said you’re at risk of an absolute meltdown of the prior system, so we were in a situation where it was Phoenix or no system, not Phoenix or the old system.

Vassy Kapelos: Is that why you pressed the start button?

Steve MacKinnon: Well the government was given assurances, and this is all of course on the public record, and went ahead. But again, there was no alternative. There was no former system to go back to. There were no people left to operate it. Now what we have to do, and we know that we have tested the patience of our public employees, we know we’ve tested the patience of Canadians. What we can do and what we have done, and the auditor general in fact acknowledges this, we’ve systematically made investments being careful with taxpayers’ money in satellite pay centres, in technology, in the kinds of human and financial resources that are required to provide the fix for this problem, to get that cue down, to implement new collective agreements. Remember, we were left without collective agreements. Many had expired three years previously, so we had to negotiate new collective agreements with the entirety of the Public Service. We have to implement those at the same time that we are providing the money and the resources to fix the Phoenix pay system. It’s a huge job, but we’re going to get it done.

Vassy Kapelos: So just so that I’m clear, your government will not be making a decision about whether to proceed with Phoenix or not until everything is fixed, which could be years and years away?

Steve MacKinnon: Certainly our gaze will not waiver from the need to fix the Phoenix pay system and no one should be under any illusion that any alternative system would be rapidly executed. It would not be.

Vassy Kapelos: Okay, we’ll leave it there. Thanks for your time, Mr. MacKinnon.

Steve MacKinnon: Thank you.

Vassy Kapelos: Up next, is there a role for Canada to play in the Rohingyan refugee crisis? We’ll ask Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae.

[Break]

Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. Late last week Bangladesh and Myanmar reached a supposed deal for hundreds of thousands of Rohingyan refugees to return to home to Myanmar. But many of those refugees are afraid to go home. Rohingyans have been seeking refuge in Bangladesh since August because of a military crackdown which the United Nations, the. U.S. and Canada have all called “ethnic cleansing”. So what should Canada do?

And joining me now from Toronto is Bob Rae, Special Envoy to Myanmar. Hi Mr. Rae, thanks for joining us.

Bob Rae: Not at all. Good to be with you.

Vassy Kapelos: There was a deal signed late last week for hundreds of thousands of Rohingyan Muslims to return home to Myanmar. Based on what you’ve seen and heard in the region, is it safe, do you think, for them to do so?

Bob Rae: Well first of all, I don’t know what kind of a deal there is. There’s an MOU between the two governments, which is usually something which happens before any of the details are worked out. And in something like this, the details are all important because it’s all about under what terms will people return? How will they get through the border? What kind of papers will they need to have? What are the conditions going to be when they get back there? What are the provisions being made for their safety, for their well-being and for their ability to participate in the life of the country? So from my perspective, I think there’s still a lot of things that need to be worked out and I think it’s way too early for us to be rejoicing because the reality is that people left for a reason and under very difficult circumstances, so we can’t just send people back to where they came from, particularly since 300 villages were burned down that led them to leave. So there are a lot of questions that I think we still need to have about exactly what’s being proposed.

Vassy Kapelos: Do you think it’s more than symbolic that there actually has been agreement at least in principal on, or an MOU signed?

Bob Rae: Well I think it’s an indication that both governments are talking directly to each other and are engaging, which is necessary. But I also think that there are issues around the circumstances of what happened and also what needs to happen for people to be able to return safely that the rest of the world has an interest in. I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say this is just a deal between two governments. There’s a third group that has to be considered very carefully and that’s the Rohingyans themselves. And to this point they’re a people that have not been given the kind of voice that they need to be given and to understand the circumstances that people are being asked to return to. I think these are all questions that need to be discussed.

Vassy Kapelos: Based on your experience there, though, do you have any faith that they will be, or optimism, that they will be given the voice they deserve?

Bob Rae: I think it’s tough. I think it would a naïve person who would say that it’s a rosy situation. It’s not at all. It’s a very difficult circumstance, very, very tough conditions and very tough issues that have to be faced inside Myanmar as well as in the refugee camps. But there are agencies: the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Unicef, a number of others, and other governments that have a very clear interest in seeing that basic humanitarian standards are met and that we don’t simply repeat the revolving door that’s been in place since the 1980s. I mean we need to understand a little bit better that this is not the first time that there’s been a mass departure from Myanmar, and it’s not the first time that the governments have gotten together and say well here’s how they’re going to go back. So we need to be aware a little bit of our own history and we need to understand just how tough the circumstances have been, which have led to the departure of so many people.

Vassy Kapelos: During your recent travels there to Myanmar, you met with the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. I’m sure you’re well aware of course she’s an honourary Canadian citizen. There are a lot of people asking the prime minister to revoke her citizenship. Should he?

Bob Rae: Well that’s a decision that the Parliament of Canada will have to make. I think it was the previous government that decided that this was a good thing to do. My own view is that it’s really not a big issue at the moment. It’s not a central issue that we need to be focusing on. We need to be focusing on three big issues. One is the quality of life in the camps and what is potentially still a very serious humanitarian situation. Secondly, we need to talk about the conditions under which people can return, whether the Government of Myanmar is actually going to be able to implement the report of the former Secretary General Kofi Annan, which talked about the need for integration of the Rohingyans, and for greater recognition and for civil rights and citizenship. And that’s something that has to be in place and certainly motion and movement has to be there. And the third is to deal with the issue of crimes that may have been committed, certainly a lot of allegations that I’ve heard with respect to activity which could only be described as criminal in nature. And there has to be an assurance that there’s going to be an independent investigation of any wrongdoing that’s gone on. And I think that needs to be our focus. And quite frankly, the question of honourary citizenship is for me, it’s not my central focus at any rate.

Vassy Kapelos: On the subject of human rights, before I let you go, the prime minister is planning a trip to China next month to talk about pursuing a free trade deal with that country. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Bob Rae: Well I think that establishing closer and more stable economic ties with China is a simple reality of our time, but I don’t think we abandon discussions about human rights in meetings with any government any more than any government would abandon its right to criticize us for what we either have or haven’t done. There is however, another issue and that is that China clearly plays a very important role in the discussions with Myanmar. Their leading officials have been meeting with the Burmese generals. They’ve had a lot of meetings with the state Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, so I think we need to recognize that China is a very significant world power and a very significant regional power, and there’ll be lots of issues for the prime minister to raise and discuss with the Chinese leadership.

Vassy Kapelos: Okay, thanks for your time, Mr. Rae.

Bob Rae: Thank you very much, nice to talk to you, Vassy.

Vassy Kapelos: Up next, Food for Thought: a conversation over Italian [food in the] heart of Ottawa with Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt.

Food for Thought

Vassy Kapelos: In the heart of Ottawa’s centre town just minutes from Parliament Hill is Mamma Teresa’s, serving traditional Italian plates for more than four decades and frequented by prime ministers and politicians of all stripes, including Conservative MP Lisa Raitt.

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa, here at Mamma Teresa’s. I appreciate it.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: I appreciate you coming to my favourite place.

Vassy Kapelos: Nice to see you. Let me ask you about why is Mamma Teresa’s is your favourite place in Ottawa?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: I have been coming here before I was a Member of Parliament. I had heard about it before because I have a really good friend, Member of Parliament, former from Danforth, Dennis Mills, and he always talked about Mamma T’s.

Vassy Kapelos: Oh yeah, Liberal, long-time Liberal MP.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Long-time Liberal MP, very good friend of mine. And he always talked about it, so it was kind of mythical for me and I got elected. And it was one of the first places I actually came to and I’m hooked. I mean it’s warm, friendly, lovely. The food is great.

Vassy Kapelos: And you normally do sit in this area. You get kind of the best seat in the house.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: It depends. I get bumped by Dominic LeBlanc without a question.

Vassy Kapelos: We all do, yeah.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Rodger Cuzner will get higher billing than me. But I like this room. You can see everything going on, and it’s cozy and it feels like a dining room. Hey—oh I like the Mamma seafood, awesome. So how many people are we feeding today?

Vassy Kapelos: Thirty, apparently.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: [00:17:21] Oh my God and a cake.

Vassy Kapelos: Or one and a Greek.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: The hot and cold appetizer is very famous and you can get it for one, two, three—how many other people you want it for. And you get a little bit of meat, lovely cheese, stuffed peppers—

Vassy Kapelos: Can’t go wrong with meat and cheese.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Yeah, it’s very Mediterranean. And then on the hot side, it’s grilled shrimp and scallops and calamari. And it’s delicious.

Vassy Kapelos: So do you get the chance to actually go out and dine a lot or socialize a lot with your life on the Hill?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Yeah. You go out a lot. I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of socializing. It’s a lot of work at the end of the day. I like mixing my mealtimes with work. When I come to Ottawa I work. When I go home I try to hang out with my family.

Vassy Kapelos: How is home? How is everything at home?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Well thank you for asking.

Vassy Kapelos: I mean you’ve been really vocal about your life and about sort of what your husband is going through and your family is going through. How is he? How is Bruce?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: He’s doing okay. Obviously, you know, the disease progresses and you can see that there are little things that he once was able to do, it’s more difficult. Everything takes a lot more time, but his memory is good. He knows where we live. He can drive. He works in his barn. So those things are good.

Vassy Kapelos: Do you have any idea what the future holds, I guess?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: I think we all kinda do. But I think everyone’s journey is different. I always hate talking about the journeys, but I do think it’s different for everybody. But I do know that we are—how do I put it—I think that his progression is a lot slower than other people’s and as a result, I take advantage of every moment I have. You always know there’s a clock above your head. You don’t know when your time is up, but now I just see that clock every day. I know that I can’t say oh we’ll do that next year because I don’t know where we’re going to be next year. I don’t know how he’s going to be feeling. I don’t know if he’s going to be comfortable travelling, so we do it all now. We live a really—we have a fun life. We enjoy—we also relax an awful lot because too much on the go is actually detrimental for Alzheimer’s patients. It’s just too much and can be confusing and you kind of have to keep the stress to a minimum.

Vassy Kapelos: Do you think you would have prioritized in the same way should you have had a successful bid for the leadership of the party?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: So that would have been a little different because I would have had Bruce with me in Ottawa and it would just make things easier.

Vassy Kapelos: And I mean you’ve had some time now to sort of reflect on that leadership race. What do you think about when you reflect on it or do you at all? Or are you sort of just wash your hands of it and move forward?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Oh best decision I ever made. So happy I did it. So grateful for the people who supported me and donated and helped me on policy and helped me on connections because in a selfish way, I got to see Canada. I mean I got to meet Conservatives from across the country and I have a better understanding.

Vassy Kapelos: Do you have any regrets about the outcome or the way in which your campaign unfolded?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: Well I would have liked to have won, Vassy. I mean obviously, there’s no quote there. But do I regret? Yeah, you know, French. French was tough. And I don’t regret still going ahead with the bid, even though my French, by some, were—I think somebody wrote that they had to cover their ears when I was speaking French. But I got through an entire French debate, both understanding and speaking in French to the best of my ability. That was a huge accomplishment for me. The other things too, you know, I represent a different kind of Conservative in the party. I am a woman first of all. I’m from the GTA, suburban; grew up on the east coast. I have a professional background, two kids. I would not be seen necessarily by a lot of my colleagues in Toronto or in Milton as a typical Conservative voter, but I am because I saw them across the country so I know I represent that voice. And for me that’s an important piece of the run and the realization now that we’ve got to get our message out.

Vassy Kapelos: Do you think being a woman had anything to do with it?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: No.

Vassy Kapelos: Not at all?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: No, I don’t. I think it had more to do with geography and professional and where I’m from. I don’t think the mother part—because take a look at—I mean Candice Bergen is a great example of a staunch traditional Conservative as is Michelle Rempel, so I don’t think it’s a woman thing.

Vassy Kapelos: There are a couple woman things going on in the news right now, a lot of talk obviously about sort of sexual misconduct as sort of a broad term. Mostly down south, but we’ve had our discussions on the Hill. Have you ever experienced it on the Hill? Any kind of harassment or discrimination of any sort?

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: No. No—oh, two different questions.

Vassy Kapelos: Yeah, they’re two different things for sure.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: They are two different things, so let me not fluff it off as quickly as I did. Harassment? No. But I came as a minister, right? I came in as a minister of the Crown and I’ve worked in industries that are more than 70 per cent guys in the past and I didn’t experience it there either. And I think—I don’t know why it’s not me—it just doesn’t happen for me. And I think perhaps because I was perceived to have power. Perhaps it’s because I’m 5’ 10.5” perhaps and I wear heels and I’m over 6 foot, I don’t know. Who knows? But I know it’s there and I know other people experience it. So just because I don’t doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, so that’s important. Discrimination? No, I haven’t but I do think that in general, people will always have preconceived notions of who the person is and sometimes the assumption is that women aren’t as capable as a man is, just because it’s a woman or a younger woman and you have to fight through that.

Vassy Kapelos: Well I’ll leave this part of the conversation there. Thank you very much, I appreciate your time.

Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt: My pleasure.

Vassy Kapelos: And that is our show for today. Thanks for joining us. I’m Vassy Kapelos. See you back here, next week.

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