February 25, 2018 12:50 pm

The West Block, Episode 25, Season 7

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block on Sunday,February 25, 2018. Hosted by Eric Sorensen.

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THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 25, Season 7
Sunday, February 25, 2018

Host: Eric Sorensen

Guest Interviews: Ujjal Dosanjh, Tasha Kheiriddin, Rob Benzie, Craig Alexander

Location: Ottawa

On this Sunday, what happened on that trip to India? Justin Trudeau returns today after a controversial visit, capped off by a convicted gunman invited to events with the prime minister. India was not impressed. Did the visit help or hurt Canada-India relations?

Story continues below

The Ontario PC leadership race comes to Ottawa this week for a debate that just got really interesting. The man who quit as party leader is back in the race. Now who has the best shot of winning the leadership and the June election?

And on Tuesday, the Liberal government tables its third federal budget. We’ll talk to a senior economist about what Canadians can expect.

It’s Sunday, February 25th. I’m Eric Sorensen, and this is The West Block.

The trip was supposed to improve Canada-India relations, but the headlines suggested otherwise. Things went from bad to worse, accusations that the Trudeau government was influenced by Sikh separatists. And then, a convicted gunman showed up as an invited guest of the Canadian government. What does this mean for Canada-India relations?

Joining us now from Vancouver is Ujjal Dosanjh, a former Liberal cabinet minister and former NDP premier of British Columbia. And just to set up your experience, at the height of the worst of extremist activities in the 1980s, a young Ujjal Dosanjh was brutally attacked and the man who was charged in that attack, Jaspal Atwal, is the same man who ended up on an invite list with the Prime Minister. Now he wasn’t convicted in your case, but he was convicted in another attack. How did you react when you heard of what happened with him hobnobbing with Liberal elites these last few days?

Ujjal Dosanjh: Well I was left speechless. I mean for him to visit India on his own is a different issue, but to be part of the political elite and perhaps other diplomatic people from India at the reception in Delhi or in Bombay was absolutely out of this world. I thought there was something amiss in this whole situation. He could be a security risk. Maybe he’s a reformed man, but obviously he had a serious criminal record of trying to kill a visiting Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, subsequent to attack on me and his acquittal on that attack. Even if there were no security concerns, there should have been the political and the diplomatic antenna go crazy in this respect because the prime minister had set out to improve Indian-Canadian relations. The Prime Minister of India had taken him aside at Davos and said look, all is not well. We believe the Khalistani activity in your country is problematic. And the prime minister had two of his ministers basically say they weren’t Khalistanis or sympathisers of Khalistanis before they departed for India. They go to India and they bungle it by poking the chief minister of the [00:03:28] of Punjab, where the Golden Temple is, in the eye by saying they didn’t want to meet with him. And he was ready to be their tour guide at the Golden Temple. And then that was ameliorated or some amends were made, and then you have this other political bombshell go off in the form of Mr. Atwal, right in the middle of Mr. Trudeau being sort of talked about in the Indian press as having been snubbed by the Prime Minister of India. So, it didn’t go well.

Eric Sorensen: No. Well, and let me ask you about that because a lot of Canadians may not appreciate the level of political involvement and passion in the Sikh community. Talk a bit about that and how someone with Atwal’s background could ingratiate himself back into having influence and connections.

Ujjal Dosanjh: Well, he’s tried to ingratiate himself with everyone in the world. I mean that’s who he is, and the Liberals aren’t alone in that regard. But for him to—so it’s easy because the problem with the politics in Canada has been the Liberals, the New Democrats, and to a certain extent, Conservatives, have all kind of played footsie with the Khalistani separatists. They have ignored the violence, the parading of the posters of Air India bomber in the parades, promotion of Khalistan, a dismemberment of India. All of that has been ignored by Canadian politicians, to date. And the Government of India basically said, you know, free speech is one thing. They can ask for Khalistan, but for you to be hobnobbing with them and giving them legitimacy, giving them oxygen by attending their functions, by speaking at their functions, by ignoring the glorification of violence and glorification of people like [00:05:29], who was the Air India bomber, then that’s problematic. So we went to correct that situation, but we obviously with Atwal, made it worse. I understand the prime ministers now have had a meeting. They’ve hugged and I hope that the relationship is back on track. We’ll see in the days to come whether or not that’s the case.

Eric Sorensen: Well yeah, and I mean it should have been such an easy call, the main simple message we support a united India. It’s so easy for a country like ours where there are also separatist elements to take up that position. But what will it take now because it feels like he’s further behind than he was a week ago, when the trip began.

Ujjal Dosanjh: I think what it’s going to take, from my perspective, and I’ve been saying this forever, that the Canadian politicians have to start paying attention to the sensitivities around India-Canada relations. They can’t be hobnobbing and partying with the Khalistanis whether in public or private, while at the same time saying you believe in united India. You can’t believe in united India if you hobnob with the others.

Eric Sorensen: Fair enough. Now, before you go, pipeline issue has been very big between B.C. and Alberta. I wanted to get your view on that because you also have a unique perspective. You know both of those Premiers Horgan and Notley from your NDP background. Are you surprised that the two of them came together to at least walk away from the precipice on this?

Ujjal Dosanjh: It actually [00:07:02] me to no end that they did that because they both looked childish and that’s not how you build nations. I mean Canada is a diverse country. We need to have some way of getting Alberta’s good across to the ocean, across British Columbia, and ultimately, we’re going to need one or another pipeline. And I think that the way it started with the press conference by the environment minister in British Columbia was wrong and I believe the Alberta premier also overreacted. But I’m glad that the tempers have cooled and hopefully they’ll have discussions. And Mr. Trudeau should become part of those discussions, so that we can resolve this issue.

Eric Sorensen: Alright. Mr. Dosanjh, thank you very much for talking to us.

Ujjal Dosanjh: Thank you.

Eric Sorensen: Up next, the Ontario PC leadership race. Who will emerge as leader and will that make a difference at the ballot box in June?

[Break]

Eric Sorensen: Welcome back to The West Block. It is the top job in the biggest province. What’s remarkable is that the next premier of Ontario may well be a relative unknown and it’s barely three months to Election Day.

All of this, a result of a rupture in the Official Opposition: Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown stepped down one month ago today, after misconduct allegations. A new interim leader was named. The party kicked off a leadership race that has been tumultuous. The main candidates: Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliot and Doug Ford, and Patrick Brown, who now asserts he was wrongfully accused and wrongfully forced out by the party, so he’s jumped back in. And that is making the leadership race not quite so tidy.

Speaker: “Do you know what risks tearing the party apart? Losing again, losing to Kathleen Wynne.”

Speaker: “And I think for the party it’s an opportunity to have major change, a fresh start.”

Speaker: “We don’t have time for a leader-in-training. We need somebody who’s going to be able to win.”

Speaker: “Elect me leader and we’re going to hone in on Kathleen Wynne and the issues, I can assure you.”

Eric Sorensen: The stakes couldn’t be higher. Not only leadership, but potentially Ontario premier in spite of the turmoil and IPSOS survey, find that any of the four main PC candidates has 37 to 40 per cent popularity with voters. That’s a winning number in a three-way race. Collectively, the PCs now would receive 38 per cent if a vote were held today, the Liberals 29, the NDP 26 per cent.

So, here are the six people, one of whom is almost certain to be the next premier. Favourable impressions with voters? Well, for the Tories they’re in the low 20s, though Patrick Brown is down around 18 per cent. But that’s better than the sitting Premier Kathleen Wynne who’s at 16 per cent. NDP leader Andrea Horwath is highest at 30 per cent. She runs ahead of her own party’s popularity. In terms of unfavourable impressions, they are highest for Wynne, a whopping 62 per cent, followed by Ford and Brown. Elliot and Mulroney represent the biggest unknown to voters.

As if the Tories needed more turmoil. Joining us now from Toronto is Tasha Kheiriddin of Global News Radio, 640 Toronto, and Rob Benzie, Toronto Star Queen’s Park Bureau Chief.

So before millions of Ontarians go to the ballot, it will be up to about 100 to 130-odd thousand PC members to pick a leader. Tasha, how does Patrick Brown’s re-entry affect the race?

Tasha Kheiriddin: I think it affects it in several ways. First of all, it focuses all the attention on him and it takes off the attention, a lot of the policy issues I think the other candidates might have wanted to bring to the fore or looking at their character or their fitness. It basically becomes a referendum on Patrick Brown’s character. It also becomes, I think, an issue for some other candidates who might be opposed to the elites such as Doug Ford who is the only other anti-elite candidate, I would say, I the race. Patrick Brown appeals to that voter base, so that could be trouble for him.

Eric Sorensen: Yeah, how many anti-elite votes are there to split up there? Rob, you’ve been at Queen’s Park for I don’t know if it’s five decades or six, but have you seen anything like this?

Rob Benzie: [Chuckles] No, this is a soap opera meets a reality show meets House of Cards. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in at least here at Queen’s Park and I don’t think on Parliament Hill either. You have this leader defenestrated on January 25th by his own party after a scandal and a few weeks later after he licks his wounds in the Witness Protection Program he’s back and with a vengeance. And I don’t think personally that Patrick Brown will win the leadership on March 10th, but if he does it will be even more chaotic here at Queen’s Park because the caucus for the most part is against him. Only about two or three MPPs are with him now on this redemption tour.

Eric Sorensen: Well, since you mentioned your guess on that, Natasha, what’s your take? Can he win this? I mean Patrick Brown brought a lot of these members to the party in the first place and they’re going to be casting some of these votes.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Yeah, but they say a lot of members also, who signed up for his leadership, have not signed up or renewed their membership. Some of them were disillusioned with the positions he took on sex ed, for example. Some of them may have just dropped off because they were members of convenience. In every leadership, numbers go up as people get signed up for a particular candidate. They might stick around, so it’s impossible to know. He does have support among a number of candidates that are running that are not elected as MPPs yet. So while he doesn’t have necessarily the caucus support, he has the attention factor. So, I really do think it’s anyone’s game at this point. There’s also the Me Too factor, I think, which kind of plays into this as well. The Me Too movement has, some people say, gone a bit too far. And those voters, members of the PC Party might be attracted to Brown’s candidacy for that reason, too.

Eric Sorensen: Rob, are you able to handicap at all? If you don’t think that Brown is likely to win, do you see a favourite out in the group right now?

Rob Benzie: Yeah, I suspect that if the race were today it would be, and of course it’s not, it would be Christine Elliot or Doug Ford who would win. Caroline Mulroney is struggling, I think, a little bit. I think a lot of people had high hopes for her, but she hasn’t really caught fire yet. We saw on Friday that she had a press conference here in Toronto, where she was attacking Patrick Brown more vociferously than she had before in saying he should get out the race because he’s a distraction. So I think we’ll see more of that in the debate next week or sorry this Wednesday in Ottawa, the candidates’ debate. But I think right now it’s still Christine Elliot or Doug Ford, but you never know. Brown did bring a lot of people into the party, and yes, Tasha’s right, a lot of those social Conservatives are disillusioned with him and some of them have gone to Tanya Granic Allen who has done a really good job of pushing her issues. She’s against the sex ed curriculum. Whoever thought that that would be a cornerstone issue of a leadership campaign? Well it is, so it’s thanks to her.

Eric Sorensen: Tasha, what do you think? Because I mean second ballot support might make a difference as well? Like who can kind of build their support after that first vote?

Tasha Kheiriddin: Well, that’s the thing that Caroline Mulroney was talking about this week when she had her press conference last week, actually, when she said it’s not about the second ballot. That’s why Patrick Brown should get out. People should be focused on beating the Liberals. Well, it’s easy to say, but I think that the second ballot support is going to be important. I think Tanya Granic Allen, Rob’s absolutely right. She’s attracting the social Conservative vote that might have been disillusioned with Patrick Brown. Where would she throw that because I don’t think it would be enough for her to win this contest? Where would those people go on a second ballot? I don’t think they’d go to the progressive campaigns. Maybe they’d go to Doug Ford on the sex ed issue. And then again, you see the two more progressive centrist candidates. I would say Christine Elliot and Caroline Mulroney. I agree, Caroline Mulroney, I don’t think is going to win this race. Would she be instrumental in putting Christine Elliot over the top? There’s lots of different horse trading that could go on in a second ballot.

Eric Sorensen: Rob, like our poll suggested that it doesn’t matter which Conservative wins, which means the prize is really valuable here, but that it doesn’t matter who goes up against Kathleen Wynne. They’ll be ahead of Kathleen Wynne going into the race. Do you buy that necessarily?

Rob Benzie: Well, I think I would take everything that’s being polled right now with a grain of salt because it’s all theoretical. I mean yes, there is a lot of discontent with Kathleen Wynne. We’ve seen that in polls for the last sort of two years. But the Liberals I know would really like to face off against Patrick Brown or Doug Ford. They’re less enthusiastic about facing off against Christine Elliot or Caroline Mulroney, but they believe they could beat either of the two men in this race in a general election. Maybe not with another majority government, but I think they think they could win a minority once they’re talking about issues like Pharmacare, the minimum wage and not talking about personalities. I mean, at the end of the day, the Tories are going to have to tell voters after March 10th, oh yeah, honest we can govern $150 billion dollar a year corporation called Ontario, even though we’ve had this absolute mess for the last few months in our own party. That’s going to be tricky for them to turn the corner and pivot away from their problems into a general election.

Eric Sorensen: How do you think this affects the general election, Tasha?

Tasha Kheiriddin: Well, I think it definitely—if I were Kathleen Wynne I’d be smiling right now because just this three-ring circus is—it’s a distraction from anything bad that could be happening here, conversations really about things like the minimum wages impact on jobs in Ontario. All that stuff has been superseded by the Patrick Brown show, so great for her as long as it lasts of course. And Rob’s right. After the leader is chosen, that’s when the focus will narrow. I think, though, that if Patrick Brown hadn’t been allowed to run, I think it would have been a lingering situation because I don’t think—I mean I’m just guessing here—but I don’t think he necessarily will win. It’s possible, but there’s no guarantee of it, so I think the party was smart in a way to let him run because if he loses then that’s the end of story. He can’t complain anymore. He can’t sue the party for not letting him run as he threatened to do. So, I think the big beneficiary here to me should be, but seemingly isn’t yet, Andrea Horvath because NDP is the only party that doesn’t have scandal and this kind of thing happening to it as the other two do. So really, you know, if I were her, I know that she had a press conference this week. She’s trying to beat her drum and say yeah, what about me here? Look at the NDP if you want a fresh start.

Eric Sorensen: Well, it’s a lot more excitement than a lot of people expected. Rob Benzie and Tash Kheiriddin, thanks for joining us.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Thank you.

Rob Benzie: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Sorensen: Up next, the federal government tables its third budget on Tuesday. What should you expect?

[Break]

Eric Sorensen: Welcome back. The Trudeau government tables its third federal budget on Tuesday. What tax changes might we see and who will be most affected?

Joining us now from Montreal for his insights on what to look for is Craig Alexander from the Conference Board of Canada. Craig, you are a chief economist. You see budgets coming at you every year, this one coming a little earlier than usual. What do you expect on Tuesday?

Craig Alexander: Well, the government’s going to be tabling a budget, which I think is going to be relatively modest but filled with new measures with a dominant theme around removing gender barriers. I think one of the challenges the government has is that in terms of the economic outlook, we’re likely to see modest economic growth going forward and that’ll constrain the tax revenues that they have for new initiatives. Moreover, this is the third budget. Next budget will be before an election and so the government might not want to make large scale announcements given that the next budget is the one where they’ll probably want to make the biggest gains in terms of new programs before they go back to the electorate.

In terms of the focus, I do think that there’s going to be a gender theme. I think that the government has been very clear that what they’re looking to do is remove barriers facing particularly women and I think that’s going to show up in a whole variety of different ways in terms of things to help promote women in sciences, help promote women entrepreneurs.

On the tax front, I don’t think we’re going to see large scale tax changes although small businesses will be watching for clarity around some of the tax measures on small business that previously was very contentious. You might remember late last year we had a real debate about some of the proposals the government had around small business taxation.

Eric Sorensen: Yeah, you mentioned that next year is an election year. Sometimes the goodies are held back till then and also that this past year, the economy was very strong and this year might not be. So do both of these kind of constrain what we might see in this budget because we’re not getting a lot of trial balloons this year about what might be in the budget?

Craig Alexander: Yeah, typically before budgets we often hear about a variety of possible new policies and I don’t know if it’s because this is a very early budget, and so the public service is working really hard on putting together this year’s budget and that’s limiting the number of trail balloons or whether it’s just simply a function of the fact that they really do want to keep the modest new announcements to being on budget day. But, you know, the economy has done well. I think that the growth we’ve had means the deficit will be smaller than what the government was previously projecting. But I do think that if the governments going to continue to run deficits but keep the debt as a share of the economy on a downward path, and that’s what they’ve really committed to. I think it limits what their new policy options are going to be.

Eric Sorensen: Canada always has to watch what is happening south of the border. We watch with greater interest in the era of Trump, however long his administration may last. There is uncertainty about NAFTA. There is great certainty about tax cuts down there. How does all of that play into what the government must consider in its budget?

Craig Alexander: Well, I think there’s two dimensions to this. The first one is that uncertainty related to NAFTA means that the government probably should put in place a contingency reserve in case the economy doesn’t do as well as private sector economists are expecting. So I think that in addition to using modest growth forecasts when building the budget, I think that they’ll probably put aside something like $3 billion dollars just in case the economy doesn’t do as well as expected because of the potential risk of problems with the NAFTA renegotiations.

When it comes to the tax competitiveness issue, I think this is a very fundamental issue. I think that Canada’s gone from having a tax advantage versus the United States to having a disadvantage because of the large scale tax cuts in the United States. But the government has been clear that we should not expect tax cuts in this budget. They said basically they want to see what the impact of the new tax measures in the United States are and consider options before they make any large scale announcements on the tax front. But Canadian businesses don’t compete just on taxation. They also compete on the basis of things like regulation. Regulation is one of the biggest costs that businesses face. So, there are things they could do in the budget, to help enhance business competitiveness and it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it. I think that one of the things that we might see is some new announcements around how they’re funding innovation and research and development. And this has come out of some of the prior investigative work that’s been done around how could Canada improve our innovation policy? So, I think we’ll probably hear more about competitiveness enhancement on that front, but I don’t expect large scale tax measures.

Eric Sorensen: We only have a couple of seconds left. Do you have any sense of what—because Canadians always want to know, will there be anything in their good for me? Any sense of that?

Craig Alexander: Well, I think the focus of the government is helping middle income Canadians and I think that’s going to be real focus. Again, I think the tone of this budget is going to be around gender. And of course, if you remove barriers to women, that’s going to impact a lot of middle income households in Canada. And I think that’s going to be the theme.

Eric Sorensen: Craig Alexander, thank you.

And that’s our show for today. I’m Eric Sorensen. Thanks for watching.

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