March 17, 2019 11:30 am

The West Block, Season 8, Episode 28

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, March 17, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 28, Season 8
Sunday, March 17, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Ambassador David MacNaughton, Kevin Vickers,
Josh Wingrove, David Akin

Location: Ottawa

Pierre Poilievre, Conservative MP: “She witnessed events that were so egregious she considered it warranted her resignation from cabinet. Canadians deserve to know what those events were.”

Story continues below

Tracey Ramsey, NDP MP: “This is about transparency. This is about accountability.”

Anthony Housefather, Liberal MP: “The clerk has advised me it’s a non-debatable motion. That being said, the motion is adopted. The meeting is adjourned.”

Unidentified Speaker: “You should be ashamed.”

Unidentified Speaker: “It’s disgusting.”

Pierre Poilievre, Conservative MP: “Trudeau has transformed the justice committee into the Justin committee.”

Kevin Vickers, New Brunswick Liberal leadership hopeful: “I love the people of New Brunswick. I seek this position humbly.”

Bill Morneau, Finance Minister: “What a budget is, I’m thinking about all the money that we have and how do we best use it so that your families are more successful.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, March 17th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

The SNC-Lavalin affair is drawing international scrutiny as the OECD monitors allegations that the Canadian government tried to politically interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

The attention from the OECD’s anti-bribery unit has drawn further criticism of Justin Trudeau on the world stage. Meanwhile, here in Ottawa, the Opposition is outraged their efforts to bring Jody Wilson-Raybould back to testify a second time have made no progress. They say it’s a cover up.

Joining me now from Toronto is Canada’s ambassador to the United States and a senior advisor to Justin Trudeau, David MacNaughton. Welcome to the show, ambassador.

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Thank you very much, good to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: You advised Justin Trudeau on the SNC-Lavalin affair. You were hunkered down in his office for a day when you were visiting Ottawa giving him advice. How is the prime minister handling the fallout from the scandal?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Well I think, you know, to begin with, I was in Ottawa to talk to the prime minister about a variety of things, including the things that are really important in terms of my primary function, which is to deal with Canada’s most important economic relationship and that is with the United States. So we talked about 232 tariffs and the approval of the new NAFTA agreement and a variety of things, and obviously because of my relationship with the prime minister, you know, he sought my advice on other matters also and, you know, I’m happy to do so. But, you know, I am really focused on trying to get rid of 232 tariffs and to do the things that I need to do in terms of improving our relationship with the United States.

Mercedes Stephenson: And I do want to get to those tariffs later on, but he gave a press conference later that week after you advised him. Do you think he should have apologized?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Do you know, I think the prime minister seeks advice from a variety of people and I was quite happy to give my advice and it was private advice and it will stay that way. And then he, as I found, frequently makes up his own mind, makes his own decisions and he did what he did and I think we’ll, you know, we’ve got a budget coming up next week. There are an awful lot of things on the agenda and I know he’s pretty focused on all those things.

Mercedes Stephenson: In 2015, you were one of the Liberal campaign co-chairs. The campaign was about transparency, about doing politics differently. Many are looking at what happened here and the access the powerful have to the Prime Minister’s Office and the allegations being made, and they’re questioning if this is the stereotypical old-style Liberal politics. What do you say to voters who are heading to the polls and say this isn’t what we voted for?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Well, I’m not saying anything to voters. You know, I have—in my position, I have to be non-partisan and have said I was going to be and I will be. But I should also say that, you know, one of the things that, you know, was campaigned on when I was in that position was also improving our relationship with the United States, securing our access to the U.S. market, expanding opportunities for Canadian business and Canadians to do business abroad and I think, you know, we worked really hard at that and I know for sure, I have the last two years have been as challenging a time physically, emotionally and every other way in terms of trying to make sure that Canadians had continued to have opportunities to have open and free access to our largest market: 72 per cent of our exports go to the United States. And so that’s really been the focus of my attention and I’m quite proud of what we’ve done.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, let’s turn our attention to that. When it comes to USMCA, some of the Democrats have been suggesting that they are not at all in favour of it and they may not sign on to it. What reassurances do you have that USMCA is actually going to happen?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Well, you know, in the U.S. system there’s never any, particularly these days, there’s never any guarantee about what outcomes are going to come out of Washington. But I’m quite confident that it will pass through eventually, particularly if the Americans remove the 232 tariffs on Canada and Mexico. You know, when you look at it in—and I have said to Democrats who’ve asked me about the agreement, you know, there is a labour chapter. There is an environment chapter. In the rules of origin, 70 per cent comes from—the content comes from North America. There’s a clause that talks about, you know, $16 an hour wages. It’s—all of these things are new things. There’s, you know, the elimination of some of the ISDS provisions. I mean all of these things are things that I know many Democrats have been asking for and seeking over the last several years and they’re actually in the agreement. Now one can always argue whether the provisions are perfect, but I don’t think one should let the perfect get in the way of the good and this is a good agreement. It’s a good agreement for Canada and I think the Americans will come to the realization when it actually comes to a vote that it’s a good deal for them too. And, you know, a lot of the people you hear talking about how difficult it is going to be to get it through the U.S. Congress are people that are selling their services to business, saying that they would like to help get it through. And, you know, having been in that business once before in my life, I sometimes take all of those comments with a grain of salt. I’m confident that when it comes to a vote, you know, the U.S. Congress will pass it. That’s up to them to do, but I think, you know, when asked by members of Congress, I’ve told them what I think are the benefits of the agreement and it’s a good deal.

Mercedes Stephenson: But ambassador, back in February you said that you were convinced the tariffs would be lifted on steel and aluminum in the next few weeks, but you were pretty confident that as well. That hasn’t happened. Do you have any indication that those tariffs on steel and aluminum are drawing to an end?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: I continue to be confident that they will be removed within the next few weeks. My position hasn’t changed. It’s just that the few weeks of—

Mercedes Stephenson: Why are you confident about that?

Ambassador David MacNaughton: Well because I think, you know, if you look even yesterday, I mean Senator Grassley, who is the chairman of the Senate finance committee, so he’s a pretty powerful guy in the United States system. And he was saying, you know, that these tariffs need to go and that he does not believe that the trade agreement will get passed unless these tariffs are removed. And not only is—he believes they should because they’re harming U.S. businesses, U.S. consumers, U.S. communities. That’s why I’m confident. It’s not just because, you know, I think we’ve done a good job of improving our relationship with the United States. It’s also that these tariffs are hurting them. You know, for 16 years in a row, the United States has had a surplus in steel with Canada. Last year, the United States had an $835 million deficit with Canada in steel trade. So, for those who say to me well, the tariff program’s working. It’s not really working very well because U.S. exports to Canada and steel went down by $800 million last year.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador MacNaughton, thank you so much for your time today.

Ambassador David MacNaughton: That’s why I think it’s going to get approved. No problem at all. Thanks, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, why is Kevin Vickers, the hero from Parliament Hill, adding his name to New Brunswick’s Liberal leadership race?


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. He was hailed as the hero on Parliament Hill for helping to end the attack there nearly five years ago. Kevin Vickers was the Sergeant at Arms at the time. He then went on to become Canada’s ambassador to Ireland. And since former New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, has announced that he’s leaving as Liberal leader for the province. Many have been urging Kevin Vickers to step up and join the leadership race. I spoke to Mr. Vickers, Friday, shortly after he announced his decision.

Welcome to the show, Kevin. Welcome back to Canada.

Kevin Vickers: Hi Mercedes, very nice to hear you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Before we begin, I wanted to touch on what happened in Christ Church this past week. Obviously, you had such a personal and close experience with that on Parliament Hill: your thoughts on the events in Christ Church, Kevin.

Kevin Vickers: Obviously Mercedes, these are always tragic and troubling events that happen. I guess it’s the dark side of humanity. I guess we just have to realize that from time to time, the lesser good is going to come forth in us. You know, in my RCMP career, I’ve taken confessions from 17 men who’ve killed people and their backgrounds and what they’ve went through in their lives was always troubling to me. But if I learned anything from the incident in Ottawa, I had occasion to be at the Simon Wiesenthal Center to see a young Druze mother receive her husband’s award posthumously. He was killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. But just prior to the attack, they were married and she delivered their fourth son. And she started her speech like this: “I do not seek revenge, nor do I hate these gentlemen, for I want our son to know the power of forgiveness and the weakness of hate.” So I’m always hopeful, having heard that and learned that. That having that power and that great side of humanity will overcome these things and be better off overall.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that politicians here in Canada are doing enough to condemn the kind of hate that drives these attacks?

Kevin Vickers: Well I think we, in Canada, is a really shining light among the constellation of nations. Canada, as I’ve travelled around Europe as the ambassador of Canada to Ireland, wherever I go, we’re so looked up to. That people so cherish and value our country and our values. So I think Canada is out there in the forefront, Mercedes. We really have something magical going here. We’re a nation of immigrants, other than of course, our first Aboriginal peoples. But we have something very great going on here. I used to call it the “Great Canadian Experiment.” And here we are, peoples from all over the world, getting along with one another. We Canadians have a lot to be very, very proud of.

Mercedes Stephenson: And part of that pride, I imagine, being reflected in your decision to run for Liberal leader. Tell us about how you decided to make the big dive into politics?

Kevin Vickers: Well this first came about with phone calls from my friends in the Canadian community, as well as some English friends, asking me to think about it. Briefly in the beginning, I thought it was a compliment, but the more I looked into it, the more passionate and driven I became about it. You know, having worked across Canada and in the senior executive of the RCMP, as well as being the sergeant at arms at the House of Commons and my experience as ambassador, I was able to gain the vast experience in a wide range of areas and it’s my turn to pay back to this wonderful province. I was—I have so much to be thankful for coming from a place like this. This province is a great province with great people and it’s my turn to pay back and I offer myself and my service to the province and to the citizens of this province.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the big questions I think people at home might have is whether you are pro or anti Energy East if that were to raise its head again.

Kevin Vickers: Well Energy East and all these issues, what I’ve been doing, Mercedes, the last few weeks is driving around, listening to all New Brunswickers in every part of the province and I will continue to do that and consult with caucus and consult with the Liberal Party to come up with specific things. I guess the only thing that I find a little bit confusing with Energy East is I’m not sure who would champion that. My understanding is Trans Canada pipeline is no longer interested. My sense is as well, Irving Oil is no longer interested. So I think it would be very important to identify as to who is actually going to build and are they going to come forward to make the East coast pipeline a viable action.

Mercedes Stephenson: And you’ve just come back from Ireland where you were the ambassador. I’m curious to know your thoughts on what’s going to happen with Brexit in the coming days there.

Kevin Vickers: Well Brexit is very worrisome and very troublesome. Ireland just finished celebrating—I think it’s the 30 year history of the Good Friday agreements, which brought peace to Northern Ireland and Ireland. And a big part of that agreement was the free movement of people and good. That people from the South Ireland could go up to Northern Ireland and vice versa and share European passports and it was a vital thing, which Canada played a role. General John de Chastelain, again, Canada being at the forefront of those serious situations. But should there be a hard Brexit, it’ll be very difficult to avoid what is called a hard border. And if that interrupts the movement of people and goods, the danger is that we could very quickly fall back into the tensions that had been so troubling in the past.

Mercedes Stephenson: Kevin Vickers, that’s all the time we have for today but thank you so much for joining us, sir.

Kevin Vickers: Thank you very much, Mercedes.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the federal government brings down the budget on Tuesday. We’ll unpack the politics behind the pre-election budget.


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. On Tuesday, the federal government will announce its last budget before the fall election. What can we expect to see?

Joining me now is Josh Wingrove from Bloomberg News and our own chief political correspondent, David Akin. Welcome to the show, gentlemen.

David, what are you expecting to see in the budget this year?

David Akin: I think we’re just going to see an extension of the narrative we’ve heard from this government throughout its term, which is this budget, will be all about the middle class and those who wanted to join it. We expect there to be some new spending programs or additions to existing spending programs, all within the framework as one source in the PMO mentioned the other day, a responsible fiscal track, which says to me that we’re still not going to hear about balanced budgets, that debt to GDP ratio will still be the rough anchor. But I think it’s going to disappoint some fiscal Conservatives who would have liked to see a return to balance.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and Josh, this is a government that has not been afraid to have run a deficit and run a substantially larger one than they had initially promised. Do you think they’re going to pull it back a little bit this year, or is the feeling just go full boar ahead and keep spend, spend, spending?

Josh Wingrove: Well, you know, I guess we’ll see. But the revenues are really good. The money’s been pouring in to federal coffers, so if they wanted to tighten their belts would have some reason to do that. But on the flipside, the economy is not as great as we once thought it was. The most recent data, other than jobs numbers, looks pretty crummy and so economists across the country would say they have cover fire to spend even more, believe it or not. So they can really try to spin this both ways. I agree with David, I think we’ll see sort of a continued track. This government just simply doesn’t seem to believe the people care about deficits. And they might be right, and I’ll put my Bloomberg hat on in saying Canada’s deficits aren’t that big by global standards, so they’re manageable. So I don’t think we’ll see a lot of that. I think we’ll see a lot of goodies in the window. They’ve talked about Pharmacare. They’ve hinted at maybe help for first-time home buyers or new help. Skills training will be a big thing. So we’re going to see all that, things you can put on a placard in an election campaign and hand to a voter.

David Akin: Yeah, the homebuyer’s thing, I think is interesting because the biggest group of voters in 2019 will be millennials, for the first time, bigger than boomers. Millennials: people 19 to 37 and many of them are looking to buy a home, have been frustrated by previous changes that the finance department made to tighten restrictions on first-time home buyers, so to the extent that there’s something to address that. That could be politically interesting. And on the other hand, we saw some data this week, remember this, that shows household debt in Canada is actually moving a little higher and assets of households is dropping. And that may have some a bit worried that should we be goosing up or loosening home buying restrictions when in fact we’re seeing some issues around household debt get worse?

Mercedes Stephenson: Well I know we’re all going to be keeping a close on the budget. Something else happening on budget day, which is completely unrelated, will be the decision on whether or not Jody Wilson-Raybould’s able to return to the Justice Committee to testify again. The Liberals shut the committee down this week. They punted it to Tuesday, when the budget is happening and will be an in-camera meeting, which means behind closed doors, smart strategy or dumb strategy?

Josh Wingrove: Well behind two sets of closed doors because the press will be locked up in a budget lockup at the same time. So even if they wanted to get there, impossible.

Mercedes Stephenson: Safely out of the way.

Josh Wingrove: I think that they are trying to ride it out. I think that Wednesday was a trial balloon to see hey, if we brazenly cut this meeting short, what happens? So I, you know, I’m sure they’re polling over the weekend, right now, to see how that goes. But there will be continued pressure to get Jody Wilson-Raybould to talk about what happened after she was attorney general but still in cabinet. This government simply doesn’t seem to have an appetite to want her to do that.

David Akin: And this has been going on since what, February the 20th, when our friends at the Globe first broke this—

Josh Wingrove: February 7th, I think.

David Akin: February 7th? Pardon me, 20th was when we first heard some testimony, that’s right.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well over a month now.

Josh Wingrove: It feels like years.

David Akin: So, you wonder about the issues management strategy inside the PMO, as I’ve heard some people who have done issues management, usually the goal of issues management is to make the issue go away. And to the extent that the Liberals haven’t figured out how do we pull Jody Wilson-Raybould and/or Jane Philpott back in the tent and figure something out here, it finds me—it strikes me as very odd. And until they do, there’s lots of—I think the Opposition’s going to keep beating them up, some Liberals are unhappy. Not, you know, majority, but there are some Liberals unhappy with the way their prime minister is behaving here. And in an election year when you’re looking for volunteers and donors who are excited about your guy, even any weakening of that enthusiasm is an issue for the Liberal Party as it seeks re-election.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and Josh, you’re the business guy. There’s been this—

Josh Wingrove: I fake it a bit.

Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been this big question—very well, though.

Josh Wingrove: Well thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Very convincing. This big question about whether or not there was any evidence SNC-Lavalin actually would go under. And it doesn’t seem the government’s been able to produce a single study, anything other than the company saying this, even though about a third of their business is in Canada. The rest is elsewhere. How big of a problem does that become for the Liberals if they keep saying jobs, jobs, jobs, but they can’t produce any evidence that it was about jobs?

Josh Wingrove: Yeah, people are going to want to know. Remember a lot of these jobs are engineers and this kind of thing. So if the company was taken, you’d still need engineers. You wouldn’t buy a company that—an engineering company that did not do any engineering. And even if they weren’t, those engineers might get hired by other firms. So there’s a lot of questions about whether those job numbers are real. One of the other fears was the company could move, the company could be vulnerable—

Mercedes Stephenson: Right, the headquarters.

Josh Wingrove: To a takeover. Yes, absolutely. If they were scared about that, and I think there’s some question as to whether they’ve had grounds to be. But if they were, that fear is amplified now because the company is more vulnerable to takeover if you measure it just on their share price that it was when all this was happening.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that makes a DPA more likely right now because they’re not ruling it out. It’s still on the table.

David Akin: I suppose. I mean there are some who say that David Lametti, the current justice minister who replaced Jody Wilson-Raybould, has already told the DPP, the director of public prosecutions, to start negotiating. I would assume SNC-Lavalin, that’s kind of a material event that we’re negotiating and they’re going to have to tell us, but nonetheless, there’s a lot of thinking about this. And one other thing to point out, I think, Mercedes is, right across the river behind us, Quebecers are looking at this in a fundamentally different way than English Canada is. Quebecers believe Quebec Inc. is under attack by English Canada, that SNC-Lavalin is being singled out because it’s from Quebec. And whether that’s right or wrong or people in Quebec are just whatever, I think that’s a problem for a federal party to manage that. We’re going to have issues. We’ve seen Albertans are upset at the rest of the country because of oil and gas. Now Quebecers are upset at the rest of the country and that starts to [00:22:15 brew] some cracks and fissures that the governing party, the Liberals, or a party that wants power, Conservatives, New Democrats are all going to have to deal with it.

Josh Wingrove: The company also isn’t making the same warnings publicly that we know now they were making privately to the Trudeau government. So if they were telling the Trudeau government that we’re worried about jobs, they’re not saying that publicly right now. They’re in fact saying they’re sort of moving on. They’re focused on fighting the charges, fighting their court case rather than pressing for a DPA. But if one fell from the sky, I’m sure they’d take it.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few seconds left, but David, Jody Wilson-Raybould, some are saying could speak in Parliament. She could stand up in the House and be protected by parliamentary privilege. Do you think that’s something there’s going to be increasing pressure for her to do?

David Akin: I think there’s pressure on it. I think she has to make decisions. Does she want to be essentially challenged—is quite publicly challenging her leader in an election year. Does she want to lead an independent rump of Liberal MPs who are disgruntled for any number of reasons? And that’s a big choice to make.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well she was just confirmed on Thursday as the Liberal candidate for her riding. So she’s staying in.

David Akin: And that can be any time by the leader, so, you know, we’ll see. But she has some thinking to do as well with her supporters.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. Well that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you both very much for joining us, and of course, we’ll keep an eye on the budget and Jody Wilson-Raybould this week.

Josh Wingrove: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.

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