Could failing to get Canada’s natural resources to market through the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion drive populist forces here?
In an exclusive broadcast interview airing Sunday, former prime minister Stephen Harper joined the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson in New York City to talk global trade, protectionism, populism and how they tie together in his new book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.
WATCH: Stephen Harper warns populism will ‘grow worse’ if people’s concerns are not addressed
Harper linked the rise of populism in recent years with the security and availability of blue collar jobs, saying opportunities like those that would come from the Trans Mountain expansion “absolutely” play a role in whether citizens are drawn to populist ideas over concerns about economic uncertainty.
“It’s critical,” he said.
“One of the reasons that working class people have done comparatively better in Canada over the past, you know, decade and a half has been because we have a resource industry. Manufacturing and resource industries provide a lot of opportunity for blue collar people and people who target resource industries are targeting blue-collar opportunity, and I think that’s terrible.”
WATCH BELOW: Federal government won’t appeal Trans Mountain ruling
It’s not the first time populism has been linked with economic insecurity.
Former American president Barack Obama gave a speech in September blasting his own party for “dismissing” parts of the country as “racist, sexist, or homophobic,” and blamed those behind the financial crash in 2008 for the shift in the political landscape.
WATCH BELOW: Barack Obama says ‘the status quo pushes back’ due to fear of change
He said the election of Trump is a symptom of broader social and economic anxieties, and that the Great Recession compounded existing fears and divisions.
The narrative that “economic anxiety” fed the growth of populism has been the subject of multiple books and studies over the past two years. Some researchers have also pointed to a fear of “cultural displacement” among white, Christian and male voters as being among the factors that led to the rise of Trump.
Harper described populism as “strictly a reaction” to voter fears.
ANALYSIS: Is populism the new norm in Canada?
“In most countries, populists aren’t yet in power and where they’re in power, they may be doing some things I don’t like but I don’t think they’re doing anything that was going to make it worse,” he said, stressing the need to take their concerns seriously.
“Taking it seriously doesn’t mean you have to agree with it but it means you should not either dismiss or deride it. You should figure out why large masses of the population are voting this way and what it is you can do to address their concerns. I still don’t see a lot of that happening.”
To do that, Harper said governments need to acknowledge the concerns behind things like calls in the U.S. to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants.
“For a lot of this with the populists, the solutions may be wrong or the solutions may not be very good or they may be overly simplistic but, it doesn’t mean, as the other side sometimes assumes, that there’s no problem to be solved,” he said.
“The question — the challenge for conservatives and the challenge for sensible people on the left of centre — is to identify workable solutions but it is not to pretend that they’re not problems. it’s not to pretend that illegal immigration is not a problem. It’s a serious problem.”
WATCH BELOW: Is populism on the rise in Canada?
He pointed to remarks by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign as an example of that disconnect.
Clinton called Trump supporters “deplorables,” which was later reclaimed by those voters who took pride in opposing what they viewed as the established norms.
Harper said her comments are an example of what he describes as an “out of touch” attitude among liberals that needs to change.
“You can write off one or two per cent of the population as fringe or extreme,” he said. “You can’t start writing off 10, 20 or 45 per cent of the population as fringe or extreme in a democracy if you’re a serious politician.”
And until the fears behind populism are solved, the movement isn’t going anywhere.
“As long as a large mass of people are not doing well, it will continue,” he said.
“Unless their concerns are being addressed and their lives are improving, it will continue and if it is not addressed, it will grow worse.”
The West Block airs Sunday at 11 AM.