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The West Block – Episode 2, Season 9

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, September 15, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.

THE WEST BLOCK

Episode 2, Season 9

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Anne McGrath, Fred DeLorey, Richard Mahoney, Stephanie Carvin,

Susan Delacourt, Joel-Denis Bellavance

Location: Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We’ve done a lot together these past four years, but the truth is we’re just getting started. So Canadians have an important choice to make. Will we go back to the failed policies of the past, or will we continue to move forward? That’s the choice.”

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer: “And we’re going to make the case to Canadians for the next 39 days that the Liberals have lost the moral authority to govern and it’s time for a Conservative government that will be ethical and honest.”

NDP Party Leader Jagmeet Singh: “But rest assured that by Election Day, everyone in Canada can vote for New Democrat, no matter where they live.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: “This election is about telling the truth to Canadians about how serious the climate emergency really is and we do that in order not to create fear, we do that in order to give everyone hope. We have a plan.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, September 15th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Party leaders hit the campaign trail this week, fanning out across the country as the federal election kicked off. So far, allegations of lying over the SNC-Lavalin affair, homophobia, racism, and controversy over abortion, religion and Quebec separatism have dominated the agenda. All this in just the first five days of the campaign, what does it all say about what to expect?

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Joining me now is our panel of party strategists: for the NDP, Anne McGrath; for the Conservatives, Fred DeLorey; and Richard Mahoney for the Liberals.

Richard, campaign started on a foot, I think Justin Trudeau probably would not have chosen: SNC-Lavalin revelations that the RCMP had been speaking to Jody Wilson-Raybould about possible obstruction of justice, that they’d actually asked the most senior bureaucrat in Canada to have access to witnesses and documents, and that he said no. Justin Trudeau says he won’t overrule that decision to give the RCMP access. Why not?

Richard Mahoney: Well, first of all, I think you’re right to say that would not be the way he would have wanted to start the campaign, that’s fair. I’m not sure exactly that what we learned there was particularly hugely different from what we knew the day before, in the sense that there has been a waiver of privilege granted. It is a fairly extensive waiver of privilege. It doesn’t go the events after—

Mercedes Stephenson: Her being shuffled from cabinet.

Richard Mahoney: Her being shuffled from cabinet, but how do I say this without being overly partisan? The idea that any serious legal expert that would look at this has told us and will tell us that the idea that there’s obstruction of justice involved is just completely wrong. So, and if there was—

Mercedes Stephenson: But isn’t that up to the police to determine that?

Richard Mohoney: By the way, it would be in the efforts to see whether or not an alternative prosecution, like what could have happened after? I mean I can’t even imagine what it would be. Secondly, we should know—sorry. Mr. Scheer wrote the RCMP commissioner twice and publicly demanded, so of course they’re going to make an inquiry. They have to do that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well hang on.

Richard Mahoney: They have to do that.

Mercedes Stephenson: No, they don’t have to make an inquiry because a politician asks them. The RCMP, have been very clear that they determine it.

Richard Mahoney: Of course they do.

Mercedes Stephenson: Previous prime minsters’ have waived privilege, when the police have asked for it. This was the police asking for it, which made it new. Is it smart to say no and not let them come in and say yes there’s something here or no there’s not?

Richard Mahoney: As I said, a wide waiver privilege has been granted. So, I don’t know that we learned a whole bunch of new things. I think that story got torqued into something. Obviously, it’s not the way you want to start your campaign having to answer those questions, but I think a lot of opposition politicians, Mr. Scheer included, tried to make it into something that it wasn’t.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and let’s talk about that. You know, we’ve seen Andrew Scheer go pretty far with his before. Initially, he was calling for the prime minister’s resignation. A lot of people thought that was too much. This week, he said that he’s a liar. Is that a risk? Do you think that this is really resonating with Canadians if you come out and call the Liberal leader a liar? Or do they just kind of go this is more politics as usual. There hasn’t been any evidence of wrongdoing that’s been publicly produced in a criminal sense, leave it alone.

Fred DeLorey: Well I think what Mr. Trudeau needs to do, if he wants this story to go away, is to let the RCMP do their job here. Let them interview the people they want to interview and hand over those documents. The fact that they’re hiding it, certainly doesn’t make Mr. Trudeau look good. You know, he’s ducking debates, he’s not addressing this issue head-on and he should.

Mercedes Stephenson: Anne, there’s a political risk, potentially always to saying you’re sorry, or to opening things up during an election campaign. What is the calculation here? I know you’re the NDP, so you would love to see this opened up, but if you were advising the Liberal campaign, what would you tell them to do?

Anne McGrath: I think that they should be allowing an investigation and waiving confidence and all of those kinds of things. I think that that’s what they should do. Most Canadians watching this, though, are not following the ins and outs of, you know, differed prosecution agreements and confidence and all of those kinds of things. They just know, I believe, that this is not who they thought they were voting for last time. They know that this is not a good story, that there’s a kind of a whiff around it that is problematic. I also believe, though—so I think Richard’s right. I mean, it is not necessarily the way that they wanted to start out the campaign. I also believe, though, that Andrew Scheer did go a bit too far.  I thought he came off in that very first opening out of the gate gambit as a bit sort of overly angry, and I thought he torqued it a little bit too hard. I think that what he should be going after is more this idea of the slogan that they had before, the “Not as advertised.” I think it should be more that kind of tone for him.

Mercedes Stephenson: More of a brand issue. And on brand, let’s talk about the debate that happened this week. The Liberal leader wasn’t there. They left an empty podium. The other leaders were there. Incumbents tend to not like to do debates, but when Justin Trudeau is battling with an image issue in terms of transparency, sunny ways, why not show up at the debate? What is the concern from the campaign’s perspective where you decide that the calculus is it’s better not to have him take that risk than to go in when he’s traditionally actually done pretty well at the debates?

Richard Mahoney: And was it a mistake to miss the opportunity to speak to Canadians? I don’t think it was. I don’t think it was because what you did have this week was Mr. Trudeau out there doing some disciplined policy announcements on helping homemakers on Victoria Island, on small business in Quebec, big crowds in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton. He wouldn’t have got to do any of that if he was like the other leaders, locked up in a hotel room getting ready for the attacks from the other guys. So, he is going to have the chance. Canadians are going to have the chance to see him at least three times debating the others leaders. That’s a lot and it’s more than we traditionally have. And I think he actually did well probably by missing the Maclean’s thing on Thursday night.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well there’s the debate about democracy. Go ahead, Anne. 

Anne McGrath: Yeah. I mean I think the problem is that the story doesn’t hold together. You can’t say on the one hand, we’re going to go with the debates commission and just have the two that they’re proposing and then accept a third one. That’s the problem here, I think is that it just doesn’t hold together.

Richard Mahoney: So he shouldn’t have accepted the third one?

Anne McGrath: I think he should have accepted the third one and he should have accepted the first one.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to give Fred a chance to get in here, though, Fred.

Fred DeLorey: I’m enjoying this.

Richard Mahoney: As you would.

Fred DeLorey: But look, Justin Trudeau is actually very good at debates, so it’s surprising that he’s ducking them. And I think the answer is he doesn’t want to talk about his record.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do average people care, though? Do debates still matter to the average voter? I know there’s the argument about democracy, but does it really register?

Richard Mahoney: I think they certainly do because they dictate a lot about what we talk afterwards, what happens at these debates is crucial and I think the more, the better in a lot of cases. We had five, last time that the leaders participated in and it would be good if Mr. Trudeau would participate in more.

Anne McGrath: And it’s when the most people, the most voters are watching. And I would argue that in the last campaign, it’s when Mr. Trudeau started to take off was because he outperformed expectations in that first debate and it set a tone for the campaign. So that’s why I think it makes it even more risky this time. I don’t think people are going to remember that he didn’t participate in the debate or that that is important, but it does set a tone for the campaign that I think is going to be problematic.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to do a quick round robin. We don’t have much time left, but a little bit of a recap of the campaign, because we did have issues like abortion, we had issues like racism popping up, some pretty serious stuff this week on the trail. How do you think each of the parties did? Strengths and weaknesses, starting with you, Richard.

Richard Mahoney: Well, Mr. Trudeau was doing those discipline policy announcements I talked about. The other leaders were sort of fending off all sorts of things, as you say, allegations of racism, spousal abuse and so forth. In each—I mean, I think just as we just assessed Mr. Trudeau’s reaction to the story on the opening day, we will assess of Mr. Singh and Mr. Scheer and no doubt, everybody as the campaign goes on. There’ll be these “bozo eruptions” as we call them, and it’s really how you deal with them that deal with that. You know, Mr. Scheer is walking a very fine line on the choice and same sex issue because he has a lot of people in his caucus who have a view on that. So it’s, you know, people say why doesn’t he just cut it off and say no? Because he can’t. Same with Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh is introducing himself to Canadians for the first time in many, many ways, so how he deals with these things as they happen will have a huge impact on how Canadians assess him and whether they give him a shot about being PM.

Anne McGrath: My takeaway from this few days of the campaign, it feels like longer, I know, but for the first few days of the campaign is that Mr. Singh and the NDP have done what I was hoping that they would do, which is having a strong opening launch, some good visuals and some good announcements and outperforming expectations in the debate. I think that the story of that debate was how well Jagmeet Singh did.

Mercedes Stephenson: Fred.

Fred DeLorey: On the week that was, you know, we started out Mr. Scheer was talking about affordability and I think the week that’s going to come, we’re going to see more of that. We’re going to see actual policy announcements coming from him, telling Canadians how we’re going to get ahead under a Conservative government.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you next week after whatever unpredictable adventures on the campaign trail.

Anne McGrath: We’ll predict that things will happen.

[Group laughter]
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Mercedes Stephenson: A safe prediction, and there’s not many of those in politics.

Anne McGrath: Yeah.

Mercedes Stephenson: up next, what’s at stake? A senior member of the RCMP charged accused of trying to pass on top-secret information.

[Break]

The allegations are that he obtained stored process sensitive information, we believe with the intent to communicate it to people that he shouldn’t be communicating it to.

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was Crown Counsel John McFarland outside the federal courthouse here in Ottawa on Friday, explaining the details of one of the most significant national security leaks, potentially in Canadian history. Certainly one, if it is true and these allegations are true that could change the international security environment.

Joining me now to talk about the allegations is Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert and professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Stephanie, Global News has obtained some exclusive information about some of what he had. We’re told it’s terabytes of information, information that was so highly classified that when it was seized, the investigators couldn’t even look at it because it was classified above them. But he had access to, if you’ve seen Mission Impossible, they call it the NOC List: undercover identities of agents in Canada and abroad, RCMP officers, CSIS officers operating under alternate identities. He had access to every criminal operation, every counter-terrorism operation—every counter-narcotics operation. How does a breach like that happen with somebody so senior?

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Stephanie Carvin: This is a really big point that the investigation is going to have to look at. It’s not just determining what this person did, but also how was this allowed to happen in the first place? And it’s a real problem because, you know, we just went past September 11th when the emphasis was we need to share more information broadly across agencies. But at the same time, you want to compartmentalize information within so not everyone has access to all this information. But, he was senior enough that, you know, it’s interesting—like they’re saying in this investigation—

Mercedes Stephenson: He was the director general of intelligence.

Stephanie Carvin: Exactly, and, you know, these activities which started four years ago, he’s been promoted since, right? So he’s going through a series of promotions. So there’s going to be a lot of questions asked about how this happened, what his motivations were and could they be doing their procedures differently with regards to who has access to what information? But once you get to that level, you’re going to have to have access to all that information. It was a part of his job.

Mercedes Stephenson: Walk me through. What are some of the national security consequences, potentially both here in Canada and abroad, because he did have access to allied intelligence from NATO countries, from Five Eyes countries? It wasn’t just Canada.

Stephanie Carvin: So the concern is that this person is able to then, either sell or pass on information about active investigations about like who the intelligence officers in other countries are to compromise their investigations who potentially their sources were. So those individuals who are coming forward to help Canadian officers, Canadian RCMP officers or other allied officers collect their information passing those on, those individuals are putting their lives on the line. So if that information is actually leaked, this is very, very, very serious for them and again, our ability to actually collect information, and potentially, in a worst-case scenario, allies might think twice about what they then share with Canadians If they feel that we actually can’t manage our information.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it that Canada seems to struggle with this so much? I was talking to Don Mahar. He’s the former head of counter intelligence for CSIS. This is all he did. And he said, you know, Mercedes, insider threats are probably the biggest threat we face and we’re really not that good at tracking them. And in this case we had to learn about it from the Americans. They actually managed to flip somebody who gave up the name. The Canadians had no idea that this was an issue. The same thing happened in the case of the want-to-be suicide bomber, Erin Driver, who had explosives strapped to him. The FBI alerted us. What does it say about the resources in our Canadian national security establishment that we constantly have to rely on the U.S., and what does that do to their faith in us?

Stephanie Carvin: Our allies suffer from these problems as well. But you’re right. I think it is a concern that many of our counter-terrorism leaders are, in this case, a counter intelligence lead. This also appears to have been the case in Delisle that the Americans are alerting us to threats that we have within our own community. And I think that has to do with the capacity, the fact that our intelligence and national security community is very small and there’s only so much we can do. Canada is, by-enlarge an intelligence consumer. We consume far more than we produce. Our capacities are very limited. I think this is actually something that, you know, political parties, politicians should be thinking about. You know, we’re in a different era now. We’re facing different threats. Do we actually need to have a greater capacity in order to actually manage this new world that we’re in?

Mercedes Stephenson: Stephanie, I can tell you that my sources tell me that the entity in one case, in 2015, who Mr. Ortis tried to sell to is a non-state actor. There could potentially be other actors involved. That particular case was one where there was going to be a financial exchange. What kinds of things motivate someone who seems to be serving their country at such a high level to betray people and potentially risk their lives?

Stephanie Carvin: So research on insider threats—that’s what we call this, insider threats—suggests that these individuals are motivated by a number of factors. Sometimes it’s revenge. You know, perhaps they’re passed over for a promotion. Sometimes it’s financial. They just want to get money. Sometimes it’s there’s trouble in their personal life and they just want to get a thrill out of doing something perhaps that they shouldn’t do. There’s a number of reasons why these people actually act the way they do. You know, I’ve been in touch with some of my former colleagues and this is the main question on their mind. What caused this person to actually do this? And this has to be a major source of investigation going forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: What caused it? And how did we miss it? Certainly big questions ahead. Thank you so much for joining us, Stephanie.

Stephanie Carvin: Thanks for having me on.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll unpack the politics of the election campaign as we head into week two.

[Break]
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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Party leaders are out on the campaign trail this week, as we head into the first full week of campaigning.

Joining me now to take a look at how it’s all playing out: Susan Delacourt, who is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star; and Joel-Denis Bellavance, the Ottawa Bureau Chief for La Presse. We always say on the campaign trail you can’t predict what’s going to happen, including perhaps, media buses clipping the left wing of your plane, which I was aboard when that happened, unexpected. Or, this news at the end of the week which really blew up and is not so political, but a huge national security story: the director of strategic intelligence at the RCMP was trying to sell information. They’re saying that this could have compromised—my sources say it could have compromised untold number of investigation. Susan, does that impact the election campaign in any way?

Susan Delacourt: It’s hard to see how it does because it spans the years before Justin Trudeau became prime minister and these stories. You have very good sources, but a lot of Canadians are not going to know the details of all of this as well. And it’s very hard to tell all the details of that story. So, as we saw, even in a complicated story like SNC-Lavalin, the Canadian public can only sort of take in so much. So I think this one, I hope people are concerned, because they should be. But I find it hard to see how any of the political leaders or the public could make it into an election issue.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and it’s interesting to me, because in the U.S., national security is always such a big issue during elections, but we really don’t talk about it in Canada. Why not?

Joel-Denis Bellavance: That’s true. I guess we take for granted that we have national security but that’s a reminder that it could be at risk at any moment. And I agree with Susan, everybody sang from the same song on that file, the national security is very important. But I think the other element that we may hear later in this campaign is whether any foreign country is trying to intervene in our election. And we know that there is a special committee set up by Ottawa, by, you know, high senior bureaucrats looking at that, and eventually we learn something and that should be more of a concern also, as much as this file. I mean, that’s a big file and as I said, I think everybody agrees that should be saying the same thing on that one.

Mercedes Stephenson: And intelligence that this individual would have had access to, because he dealt with cyber threats and foreign threats and elections. So, all of that coming together, but drilling back down into Canadian politics: Quebec was a big campaign ground for both the Tories who launched their campaign from there. Justin Trudeau, he was there for two days, including campaigning on a Saturday picking out NDP ridings that he hopes to pick off. But one of the things that it seemed like none of the leaders really were keen to talk about is Bill-21. It’s the religious symbols bill that says people who wear religious symbols like a hijab or a kippah cannot work in the public sector. It’s overtly discriminatory, but it’s very popular in Quebec and it seems like the leaders don’t want to take it on.

Susan Delacourt: Yeah, I think all the leaders were sort of hoping, fingers crossed, let’s hope that this just stays inside Quebec, say as little about it as possible. I’m actually glad that we’re having a national conversation about it. I’m a big believer in the charter. I think this one has functioned below the radar, I think, too much in Canadian politics up to now, too. And Joe Denis will know this better than I do, but I think we’re only starting to see the effects of it as well. So, I think there are always sleeper issues. This issue, we’ll remember, did play out a bit in the last campaign with the wearing of the niqab, but that as a much—

Mercedes Stephenson: And it became a real problem for the Tories.

Susan Delacourt: Huge, right. And I think that there should be a conversation about this. So I’m kind of happy to see it on the front burner.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: This issue is about, I would say, I would describe it as a mine field for every political party in Quebec. They have to walk around it so that it doesn’t explode and make their campaign go down. And for the prime minister also, it could be one issue that may bring down his campaign for the following reason: he is, you know, getting harder and harder, taking a harder and harder stand on it. But, as you mentioned that law is popular in the regions of Quebec and—

Mercedes Stephenson: Why is it popular?

Joel-Denis Bellavance: That’s a very good question. I guess it’s the fear of others. You know, in some regions, there’s no—nobody has seen a person with a turban in their life, you know, in a real person, so it’s probably the fear of the unknown and there’s also the fact that church used to have a big impact in Quebec. And now they fear that religion might be taking another impact in their lives, so they’re—they want to stay out of it. But still, the prime minister is taking a harder, harder stand on it, and that may cost him some seats, where he wants to make gains in the region of Quebec. So he’s got to walk a fine line and there will be a French debate on TVA, and I think his campaign could take off really well in Quebec, or take a bust on that night on TVA, on October the 2nd, because that issue will be front and centre, I think.

Susan Delacourt: But the rest of Canada is watching, and this is the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau who brought us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And that is no small thing in the rest of Canada, the Charter. I don’t know that there are a whole bunch of Charter haters out there. So, while that is a Quebec issue, I think what’s happened here is the rest of Canada is waking up and going wait a minute, what’s going on there? So it—as we’ve seen before, the issues at the front part of the campaign don’t always end up being the ballot box question. But I think that was one of many surprises this week.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of many surprises and Jagmeet Singh still has to go to Quebec. He hasn’t been there yet and he needs seats that are there. All the parties campaigning, when you look overall at their strategies this week, give me the big picture, bird’s eye view of how the week went and what has to happen in the week that begins now?

Joel-Denis Bellavance: I would say that the two main parties: the Liberals and the Tories were chasing the NDP seats that are, you know, the seat support collapsing in Quebec and some regions. So, the NDP is clearly on the defensive. But I would say that the debate that Jagmeet Singh had on Thursday will help him, I think, push back. And so he’s on the defensive, but I think he managed to reassure his troops that finally, he is command of his party. But clearly, the Liberals and the Tories see an opportunity to make gains at the expense of the NDP and the NDP is trying to defence those seats.

Susan Delacourt: The overall strategy for all four that I saw—maybe even five—if Maxime Bernier has confidence. I think they all were trying to radiate the idea of not only are we going to keep what we have, we’re going to get more. And that’s why Justin Trudeau chose not to go to held seats. He chose to go to places where he hopes to pick up. Andrew Scheer, same thing. As JD says, they’re trying to get the seats in Quebec and B.C., but I think every one of them are trying to show, look, I’ve—I’m not only keeping what I have going into this campaign, I’m going to come out with more, which is, I guess, what you have to do.

Mercedes Stephenson: What they have to do, but they can’t all achieve it so we’ll keep a close eye on who manages to take those seats and keep what they already have. Thank you so much for joining us.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for joining us.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block. See you next week.

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