The West Block – Episode 18, Season 9

The West Block: Jan 5
Watch the full broadcast of 'The West Block' from Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 with Mercedes Stephenson


Episode 18, Season 9

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Strategist Panel: Richard Mahoney, Anne McGrath, Fred DeLorey

Guests: Matthew Fisher, Professor Katharine Hayhoe

Location: Ottawa

It’s Sunday, January 5th. Happy New Year, I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

U.S. President Donald Trump: “He was plotting attacks against Americans, but now we’ve endured that his atrocities have been stopped for good. They are stopped for good. I don’t know if you know what was happening but he was planning a very major attack and we got him.”

“Let this be a warning to terrorists, if you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our citizens.”

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Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations: “There definitely—there will be some retaliation because it was an act of aggression by the United States and we cannot just close our eyes.”

Mercedes Stephenson: That was President Trump late last week, talking about the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, and Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations vowing revenge for the attack.

Late Friday, a second airstrike on forces north of Bagdad, and now the NATO mission in Iraq led by Canada, is suspending its training operation. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending more troops to the Middle East. What does it mean for Canada and for the region?

Joining me now to break this all down is someone who knows the area, the region and of course, the Canadian Forces former foreign correspondent, Matthew Fisher, who is now a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Matthew, take us through a little bit of the background on this because we’ve all heard that Suleimani was not a good guy, Iranian general, was in charge of an awful lot of forces and operations, but who exactly was he? What did he do? And why was he targeted by the U.S.?

Matthew Fisher, Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow: Well he’s been involved in terrorism up to his eyeballs, literally, for decades and that’s who he was. He was the world’s number one terrorist. He had a special function within the Iranian government, something that does not exist in a western government. He was not only a general, commanding terrorist forces but he was also an envoy. He was the guy who pulled all the strings with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, with Bashar al-Assad in Syria and with the Shia militias in Iraq. He also had a lot to do with stirring the pot in Afghanistan. He has his enemies in the Arab world, famously the Gulf States in Saudi Arabia. Frankly, anybody who’s a Sunni is against him. Most of the Shia’s are for him. He is hugely influential among those Iranians that support the government. A lot of Iranians hate the man. The problem is they have no power. Anybody with power in Iran looked to him, it is said he was the number two guy in the country. Some people think he actually might have even been the number one, but so a larger than life figure and the kind of general that the Americans probably haven’t had since the Second World War in terms of his involvement in so many different things.

Mercedes Stephenson: And obviously, some very nasty handy work that he was responsible for but still highly unusual for the United States to kill a general, a top general of another country. Yes, involvement in terrorism, but typically there’s sort of a difference between the willingness to kill someone who is the head of a terrorist organization and someone who is an actual general in a military in a country that they recognize. Why strike him now and why take that risk?

Matthew Fisher, Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow: Well, you’re quite right that it is special. One of the reasons Iran gets away with so much is that it’s a recognized country at the United Nations, and so Canada, the United States, everyone, treats them differently. The Americans went after Osama Bin Laden. The Americans went after AlBaghdadi. They did not go after to the Iranian terrorist leadership for the reasons you spelled out. Now as to why—now, if I were being cynical, Mercedes, I’d say that Donald Trump is facing an impeachment hearing and a lot of politicians divert attention when they’re in trouble and there is no better way to do that for a western leader than to wrap themselves in the flag. And that literally is what President Trump did in a tweet on Friday. He—the whole tweet was the U.S. flag and he’s attaching himself to the flag, probably, if I were a cynic, I would say to avoid that. Otherwise, the timing really doesn’t make that much sense because this man has been reviled by the United States, by the West, by Israel, for decades and he’s never been touched. A lot of people are happy he’s dead. The problem for all of us is what happens next?

Mercedes Stephenson: And what does happen next?

Matthew Fisher, Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow: Ha, there are a million theories. I guess there are as many theories as there are people. Iran will probably use Hezbollah. They may use them to rain fresh rocket barrages on Israel. They may use them as sort of the starting point for a terrorist campaign, particularly in Europe; Hezbollah is particularly good at that. Bashar al-Assad may go on another killing spree in Syria. There will be a lot of friction in Iraq. The Shea’s and Sunni’s don’t like each other. The government there is very precarious, it’s very unstable. We can expect perhaps attacks on Saudi Arabia, more stirring of the pot in Yemen. There are so many different ways and it could be global because don’t forget that he has already directed terrorist attacks in countries such as Argentina and Germania.

Mercedes Stephenson: So it could potentially be here in Canada. I know in the U.S., they’re ramping up security in American cities. The department of Homeland Security says they’re watching carefully, but there are also Canadian troops very close to the danger zone, that there are a number of Canadians actually deployed to Iraq. Can you tell us what those Canadians are doing and what is the risk level for them now that we’re seeing increased violence and questions about what could happen next?

Matthew Fisher, Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow: I don’t think the risk level for most of them, is that high; they live within highly or heavily fortified bases. They do their work there. They live there. They’re not out and about in town. They’re not going to shopping malls or anything like that. I think a far greater risk is Canadian civilians, the oil workers. There are quite a few of them and Canadian companies operating in Iraq in the oil business and they will be vulnerable as will Canadians who go to the Middle East on tourism to places such as Dubai. I think the UAE is strongly opposed to Iran and Iran may decide to undermine the government and the UAE by doing something to foreign tourist in Dubai.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Matthew Fisher, very interesting. Thank you so much for joining us.

Matthew Fisher, Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow: Nice to see you this morning.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll take a look at some of the big political issues expected to dominate the agenda this year in Ottawa.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Late last week, the Conservative Party announced when its leadership race will see a vote. A new leader will be chosen on June 27th in Toronto. Will Andrew Scheer be able to stay on until then? The year begins with the Conservatives in disarray as Parliament is set to return later this month. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leads a minority government, and the NDP is searching for a way to have their voice heard from fourth party status. So, what can we expect in the coming weeks?

Joining me now, our panel of expert strategists: for the Liberals, Richard Mahoney; for the Conservatives, Fred DeLorey; and for the NDP, Anne McGrath. Difficult times for any government to be governing in, no matter the political stripe. This is a minority government, Richard. The prime minister has to face the facts that he can’t just put through legislation. He has to deal with provinces who aren’t happy, Wexit, a multi-billion dollar deficit that could be ballooning, demands for pharmacare and also, the reality that the international agenda and waters right now aren’t easy with what we’ve seen in Iraq in recent days in other cases. What do you think is the biggest priority for the Liberal government as they head into this year and the biggest challenge?

Richard Mahoney: I think you kind of said it all out in that question, Mercedes. First of all, the biggest challenge of every minority government is simple survival and getting legislation through. So that’s a different world as you point out for Justin Trudeau than it has been. Secondly, as you very expertly point out, being prime minister is dealing with stuff that comes up. And as of this week we have a different situation in the Middle East and we have, it looks like we’re escalating towards war there. Canada has troops on the ground deployed there under the NATO mission, of course, but so we’re involved whether we like it or not.

Mercedes Stephenson: In command of the mission.

Richard Mahoney: In the command of the mission, as you say, so dealing with that’s going to be a challenge. But I think taking out the immediate things, the really big thing, I think, for the Trudeau government is one that I think came up in the election a lot, there’s forces at work in the world, I think, that are kind of spinning our world apart in a whole bunch of different ways, most notably on income equality. And I think if you look underneath what’s happening in Canadian politics that’s a dynamic thread in our politics and dealing with that, helping people live in a life where income equality—inequality is increasing, helping people get by, helping people feel that the sense that our institutions work.

Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, it’s a challenging time to be Justin Trudeau, but on the other hand, he has the advantage of a weak opposition in the Conservatives and the Bloc backing him. What do you think will be the oppositions’ strategy to try to push the government as they head into this very new, still, situation?

Fred DeLorey: Well, to your point on that, I mean, the Conservatives are focused almost squarely on a leadership race right now. We are in leadership world, that’s where everyone is focused on so it’s a challenge to really focus on the government when you have your own—got to get your own house in order. So that’s something that we’re going to be dealing with over the next six months or so. At that time, though, this is a minority government and there is a responsibility, and I know Mr. Scheer and the team around him are going to be doing what they can to focus on holding Mr. Trudeau to account.

Mercedes Stephenson: Anne, does that mean that the PM, to a certain degree, has a carte blanche here? Because the Conservatives certainly going to bring him down. He’s being very much backed by the Bloc who say that they’re not interested in bringing the government down. How does the NDP push for their priorities? Things like pharmacare that you’d like to see coming in this budget, income equality, when you’re in that fourth party status?

Anne McGrath: Well, I think it’s true that if Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals decide that they don’t want to do anything in this parliament, then they can survive. That’s absolutely true. But if they want to do things on the priorities that were identified by a lot of Canadians during this election, then they can work with the NDP to actually move those things forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: What would be those sort of top three priorities for the NDP?

Anne McGrath: Well, I would say that it would be affordability in the way that—in a bigger way than just kind of little bits and pieces. Affordability like pharmacare, dental care, you know improvements to the health care—public health care system would be a big one, for sure. Climate change action, like real climate change action with accountability and with timelines and real emission targets and that sort of thing and reconciliation with Indigenous people, those three things, I think, in an election campaign where people said that there weren’t any big issues being talked about, those are big issues, and they were talked about. And I think Canadians made a very clear choice and they did it in a way that actually we have this minority, which gives us the opportunity to actually move forward on a lot of them.

Mercedes Stephenson: How does Bill Morneau calculate how deep in deficit he’s willing to go? It sounds like the budget is a ways away, but it’s usually March. That’s actually not that far off.

Richard Mahoney: No. No, in fact, it’s usually March, which means that essentially if it’s March or April, budget decisions will be made in the next month or two, because you need lead in time for all these things. So those decisions have to be made over the next 30-60 days, essentially, no matter when the budget is really, number one. Number two, you’re absolutely right, the governed has to—walked a fairly fine line on this. While the Canadian deficit is increasing, our debt as a percentage of GDP is going down. So we do have—the government does have some fiscal room to manoeuvre if the economy worsens. We are in for some times of flatter growth and everybody sort of acknowledges that and that we’re saying things like 1.5 and 2 per cent are decent growth. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago. And so, I think he’s got some room to manoeuvre, but he’s got to really focus on the things that we’ve been saying. Anne mentioned climate change, obviously a big issue. We know what the price of carbon’s going to be between now and 2022, but there’s a bunch of other stuff they need to do and I do believe Anne’s right. There is support in the opposition benches for those kind of initiatives, and you’ve got to leave yourself some room to manoeuvre on the economic side and we know that’s going to be in a time of at least modest deficits.

Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, to come back to the Conservative leadership race, which really is going to be the other big political story of the year. Some people say it’s about who will lead the Conservative Party. Other people say no, it’s about the soul of the Conservative Party. How important is finding the right person and the right perspective?

Fred DeLorey: Or you need the right person that can lead the party that can keep all the coalitions united. We are a party made up of social Conservatives, libertarians, Quebec nationalists, Western Conservatives, Red Tories, fiscal Conservatives, there’s a big coalition of the Conservative Party so you need someone that can unite those factions under their leadership, and then of course, win a general election. Not always easy to find the one person to do it. I think Erin O’Toole is the person to do that and that’s why if he runs I’ll be supporting him because he’s—you know this is an Irish Quebecer. He’s won in GTA three elections in a row. He’s got real-life experience working the oil and gas sector, served in the military. He’s the type of leader, I think, that can keep the coalition united and win a majority government.

Mercedes Stephenson: So Erin O’Toole, clearly running. I’m going to guess you’re going to be on his campaign by what you’ve just said there.

Fred DeLorey:  If he runs, I will be.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think of Pierre Poilievre? Because a lot of people are saying this is the guy, he’s going to win the leadership race.

Fred DeLorey:  Well, I think it comes down to what I said originally, you know, Erin can keep the coalition together and win a general election. I’m not sure Pierre can do that. Pierre’s going to have a hard time winning a general, potentially. There’s, you know, some would say do we want a leader with less experience than Justin Trudeau? And that’s where Pierre would fall in.

Mercedes Stephenson: Anne?

Anne McGrath:  Federal-provincial tensions are going to be key, I think, in the leadership race as well. I mean, you know, they have quite a few Conservative premiers across the province who are not incredibly popular, and so that is also going to be an issue, like I saw that in the general election, the decision to basically shun Ford and his people. You can see that playing out now in the leadership race, right? And the other thing is leadership races are difficult for any political party because it’s a time when you’re focused inward and at a time when we have a lot of big issues to deal with in the country, you know, the Conservative Party, I think, is going to have to grapple with who are they and not only how do they win elections, but how do they present a conservatism that is not so extreme that it basically cuts out a big, big portion of the electorate.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and obviously, Richard, you’re not a Conservative advisor.

Richard Mahoney: I’m not.

Mercedes Stephenson: But I’m going to ask you to put your other hat on right now. If you were advising the Conservative Party, what kind of leader, who specifically, do you think should lead, and what kind of characteristics would they need to bring to the table?

Richard Mahoney: So I think you just—you put your finger on it, as did Fred. I think that there is a coalition there that someone like a Poilievre is almost a perfect person to appeal to the number of threads that make up the Conservative Party base. He has all the tools that you need to win that, but I don’t think he has the tools to win a general election. I think he is a hyper-partisan politician, sort of Andrew Scheer without the charm, and you know, that is not the kind of person that you would choose to win a general election. You would choose someone more moderate, more open to people, more of a connection with the average person, right? That would be what my advice to them. I don’t expect them to take my advice.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a couple of seconds left, Anne.

Anne McGrath: And during this period of time, they’re going to have a lot of pressure son them because they’re going to have a caucus that will be pushing the boundaries of control and discipline, to kind of get their mark out there.

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll keep a close look on that. Thank you very much to our strats for joining us.

Up next, a religious call to action, calling on Christians to fight climate change.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back.  Bush fires continue to rage on in Australia with no end in sight. Thousands Down Under have fled their homes, communities have been destroyed and animals are perishing in the flames with no relief on the horizon. Some climate scientists are warning that this could be the new normal: extreme fires, floods and droughts. Meanwhile, in the United States, one Canadian scientist recently made headlines when she called on her Christian colleagues to act now to fight climate change, crossing the often dug-in divide between the faith and science communities.

Joining me now from Toronto is Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University in the United States.

Katharine, late last year you wrote an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times and you began by writing, “I’m a climate scientist. I’m also an evangelical Christian. And I’m Canadian.” What led you to write that?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: Well, in the U.S., and sadly, increasingly here in our own country as well, people are starting to say oh, if I’m a certain type of person then I can’t care about climate change. If I am a Conservative, if I’m a Christian, then I have to reject the science that we’ve known for over 200 years because it isn’t consistent with my ideology or my theology.

Mercedes Stephenson: What kind of pushback have you received since you published that article?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: I was scared. I was worried that I would be flushing my scientific career down the toilet that I had worked so hard for, for so many years. But in fact, the opposite has happened over the last 10 years. Instead, colleagues, scientific colleagues in our community have been overwhelming supportive, whether they share my faith or not. But in contrast, the level of hatred that I get from people, who identify themselves as Christians, has ratcheted up exponentially. Initially, it was mostly coming from people in the States, but these days, I get it, especially on social media but sometimes even via phone call or letter, from people in Canada, Australia, the U.K., and beyond.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve travelled extensively around the world, talking about climate change and climate action, and we know that scientists are telling us climate change disproportionately affects the poor. So what do you say to people who would consider themselves middle-class? How is climate change affecting them?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: Here in Canada, we often think well, we’re a cold country; wouldn’t we like a little global warming? But the reality is, is we are perfectly adapted for the climate we have. Our buildings and our infrastructure, our water, our energy, our food systems, all of it is perfect for the conditions that we’ve had over the last one or 200 years. Now, as climate is changing, we see that sea level is rising, threatening our coastal cities. We see that permafrost is thawing, putting many of our remote northern communities at risk. We see that wild fires are burning greater and greater area, the hotter and drier it gets. Our heavy rainfall is increasing. Our summer heat waves are getting stronger. We’ve always had these extreme weather events, they’re a normal part of life on this planet. But as the planet warms, it is loading the weather dice against us.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’re based in Texas, a state well-known for oil and gas production. Here in Canada, we, of course, have Alberta, and to some extent, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. They all produce oil and gas as well like Texas. What do you say to people in those provinces whose incomes rely on the production and sale of these resources?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: I’m a big fan of a concept called “Just Transition” that’s the idea that recognizes that we are transitioning. We can’t hold it back. Trying to cling to the energy of the past and assuming it will continue to meet our needs in the same way 50 years in the future, as it did 50 years ago, is like saying that we’re investing in building better buggies and growing better horses, when Henry Ford is already turning out the Model T-Ford. Around the world now, over 70 per cent of new energy that’s being installed is clean energy, energy that is powered by the wind or the sun or the tides. The world is changing, but those of us who depend on fossil fuels, who have worked hard to support our families in that industry should not be left behind. So the concept of a just transition is providing opportunities for people to transition not only our sources of energy but to transition our economy, our jobs, our businesses, to the new clean energy economy.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that we’re doing enough when it comes to the kind of climate change that you’re talking about?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: Change is scary, and especially when our income and our prosperity, depends on the old ways and not the new ways, it’s even scarier. But living in Texas as I do, which is the Alberta of the United States, I see that change already happening and that gives me hope. In Texas, nearly 20 per cent of the electricity produced on the Texas grid comes from the wind and the sun.

Mercedes Stephenson: Finally, let’s have a look at what’s happening in Australia. We’ve all been talking about it, seeing it in the headlines these past few weeks. Horrific reports about bush fires, record temperatures. As a climate scientist, what does that say to you?

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: The two most dangerous myths that the largest number of us have bought into, are the myths that first of all, climate change is a distant issue. It only matters to polar bears or to future generations, and on the other side, the solutions present an imminent threat to us, affecting our economy, our way of life, our security. The reality is the opposite. Climate change is here and now. It is affecting us today in the places where we live. It is loading the weather dice against us and where do we see this more right now than in Australia? Bush fires are a normal part of the ecosystem in Australia. But bush fires this big, this strong, this dangerous, no. Why? Because climate change is loading the dice against us. We see this here in Canada as well. We see it all around the world. The impacts are here and now but there are solutions.

Mercedes Stephenson: Katharine Hayhoe, thank you for joining us.

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist: Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today, thanks for joining us. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Have a great week.