The West Block — Episode 51, Season 9

The West Block: Aug 23
Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, August 23, 2020 with Mercedes Stephenson.


Episode 51, Season 9

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guests: Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough,

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, NDP MP Matthew Green,

Darrell Bricker 

Location: Ottawa, Ontario


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Bill Morneau resigns as finance minister.

Bill Morneau, Former Finance Minister: “I’ll be stepping down as finance minister and as Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: Chrystia Freeland becomes the first female finance minister.

Chrystia Freeland, Deputy-Prime Minister and Finance Minister: “It’s about time that we broke that glass ceiling.”

Doug Ford, Ontario Premier: “Chrystia, you and I are blazing a new trail that this country’s never seen before.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Thousands of documents dumped on the WE Charity controversy.

Pierre Poilievre, Conservative MP: “This page, blacked out. This page, blacked out.”

Mercedes Stephenson: And Parliament prorogued. 

Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “We need to have Parliament sitting so that we can get help to Canadians.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Tonight’s Conservative leadership announcement caps a very busy week on Parliament Hill.

On Monday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau resigned. On Tuesday, the prime minister appointed the first female finance minister for Canada in Chrystia Freeland, and prorogued Parliament. On Wednesday, we had the WE document dump, and on Thursday, the government rolled out a $37 billion income support plan for workers. To find out more about what’s next and why the government decided to suspend Parliament, I spoke with Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Story continues below advertisement

You know, you had a big job this week to make some pretty serious announcements: overhauling EI, which is something people have been talking about forever. But, I think a lot of folks are wondering why you would introduce such major changes just two days after your government has prorogued Parliament, which means that MPs can’t have a look at this and debate it. It can’t go to committees. It’s essentially twisting the oppositions’ arm into voting for it very quickly. Why would you prorogue Parliament and then introduce this kind of a massive overhaul?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: Well first of all, I think we have to decouple these two things. They’re happening in the same week, but not at the same time, I guess is the best way to say it. So, the prorogation is a recognition how substantively the world has changed since our last speech from the throne. And these changes to EI, the extension of CERB, the additional four weeks, that had to be delivered this week. It just had to be so Canadians had certainty going into September of what they could expect for the year to come.

Mercedes Stephenson: I understand the argument that it had to be delivered this week, but then why didn’t the prime minister wait until next week or until later? I mean, if proroguing Parliament is just to hit the reset button so that you can have a throne speech and it’s not to shut down committees or prevent Parliament from meeting, then why not do that closer to the date in September?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: I think we wanted to give Canadians assurances that we know that the world has changed, and we’re going to share with the country our vision in this new world of living with COVID. And to be honest, the changes to EI, freezing of EI premiums, creating an additional four weeks of CERB, that’s not a parliamentary process initiative. That’s not in that world. The new recovery benefits, absolutely they need to be legislated and they will be, because I have every confidence the oppositions’ going to see their suggestions reflected in these programs and I think we’ll find a common ground on them. But the EI piece is completely separate from legislation or Parliament.

Mercedes Stephenson: But I think the legislation side on the recovery benefits raises the same question of why not have parliamentarians take a careful look at this, especially after what happened when your government rushed the last time with WE?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: Well we’ve worked with the Opposition Party now on two benefits, so the CERB and the student benefits. We also know very clearly what their criticisms were of those benefits and the processes. So partially announcing this yesterday was to give us a chance to work together, and I’ve already had conversations with critics about what we—you know, how we can move forward on this. We always knew that our emergency authorities were ending at the end of September so we have to have a conversation given that we’re still in this crisis about what comes next. And this is very much about what comes next. This isn’t a short term bridge. This is a long term plan for supporting workers.

Mercedes Stephenson: But is the way you’re doing that antidemocratic?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: I personally don’t think so. I’m very confident that we’re going to allow MPs to dig in on this over the month: work with critics, work with opposition parties. Our own Liberal MPs, talking to them and just seeing the way forward and you’re going to see how this fits into the bigger economic picture that we’re going to present for Canadians on September 23rd.

Mercedes Stephenson: And on that bigger economic picture, right now there is—there are some things in here that I think will be easing for some people’s minds, especially things like the caregiver benefit for parents who are at home with children. But what I didn’t see in here was things to help get people back into the workforce. I saw a lot for folks who aren’t back, but for those who might need new skills training to transition to a different sort of career, there’s still nothing that actually puts people back at work. So what are you planning for that?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: Really good point. So first of all, absolutely there are Canadians who aren’t working, who can’t find work and that very clearly is laid out in this. But the idea of transitioning 3 million people into EI means they have access to all the opportunities that particular system has: training, working while on claim, work sharing, working with the provinces, working with unions. The things that we didn’t have in CERB, we have in EI because it’s a sophisticated, well-developed system. Still not perfect, and we’re going to have lots of conversations about that moving forward, but I think that there will be training and what I did signal yesterday was we’re going to provide training opportunities for people on these new benefits as well, working with the provinces who deliver most of the training in the country and very, very good point. And I think getting people into EI allows us to really address that.

Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things when you look at this as well is there’s not the transition back into the workforce, but there’s folks who are looking and wondering how long the CERB is going to go on. Of course, it is ending. It is transitioning to EI. You’re going to be paying people less when it transitions and the CERB is paying less. Is that because you were concerned that some people were staying on the CERB and not returning to work?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: You know, no. I think it’s a combination of two things, if you don’t mind? So first of all, EI by definition gives people 55 per cent of their income to a maximum of $573 a week. CERB, for many people was 100 per cent income replacement. So, naturally when you transition to a system that’s 55 per cent, you’re going to have less. We looked at the numbers. We looked at the availability of work. When we were offering $500 a week for CERB, it was when there was very little work available. Now there’s more available work. And the other thing is, is unlike the CERB, on these new benefits you’re not restricted in how much income you can earn because it’s going to have a working while on claim model, like EI, so that you get to keep 50 cents of every dollar earned on this benefit, which will be clawed back at tax time to the maximum. So you’re always better off working on both EI and on this.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, I guess I wonder where all the money’s coming from eventually, because we had the prime minister say that there’s no way they’re going to raise taxes, but we’re now talking about billions more going out the door.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: Yeah, and absolutely, the finance minister spoke briefly to that yesterday. She’s well aware, but she’s very confident in our economic situation here in Canada, particularly in relation to other G7 countries, and believes very fundamentally that these investments are setting up Canada to recover quicker and thinks that the success of our country economically during this crisis is a result of the investments we’ve made. Quite frankly, you know, we took on the debt as she said so that Canadians didn’t individually have to incur that debt. We know people have mortgages to pay. We know people have rent and food and other bills. And this was our—you know, this is how we decided to help people and we think it will serve the country well moving forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister, are you worried that after what surfaced this week Canadians will think is the old Liberal party with the allegations of cronyism and doing favours for friends?

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: You know, I think Canadians see the big picture. I think Canadians will look back and how we’ve managed this crisis over the past months and see that we dug in and we did our very best for them. We weren’t perfect. We knew we would have to course correct. You know, we knew things wouldn’t be—we had ideas and we tried them. Some didn’t work, some did. Maybe we didn’t pay attention on particular files as much as we could have, but I think Canadians will understand the context of what was going on when all of this was going down. And the things that were being thrown at us every day as a government were really big and we did our very best. And I think they’ll see that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Qualtrough, thank you so much for joining us and for your time today.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough: Take care.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, MPs on the Hill join me to talk about the WE Charity controversy document dump from last week.

Story continues below advertisement

Mercedes Stephenson: After weeks of parliamentary committees probing for more details on the WE Charity controversy, thousands of pages of documents were dumped last week. They were filled with emails and proposals and notes that showed cabinet ministers attempting to intervene to push the WE Charity to the attention of bureaucrats, and there are questions about the organization’s ability to even do the job in those documents.

Joining me now to talk more about this and the latest political developments from the week that was, is Conservative MP, Pierre Poilievre and NDP MP Matthew Green. Thank you both for joining us. Let’s start off with these documents. Pierre, I know you went through them. You had that moment where you throwing the redacted documents out, so I know the redactions stood out for you. But what content wise in these documents caught your attention?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: The speed dial that the Kielburgers seemed to have with anyone in the PMO, in the finance minister’s office, in the office of the minister of diversity. They were clearly concocting this Canada student service grant scheme, half a billion dollar scheme, in coordination with top level political operatives. Not public servants in the bureaucracy, but political operatives that were directly for Justin Trudeau or his ministers, which raises the question about why they thought it was appropriate that is these political operatives and the WE organization, to have a half billion dollar grant go to from the Trudeau government to a group that had paid Trudeau’s family a half a million dollars.

Mercedes Stephenson: Matthew, you know, the government says that’s not true. This is a mischaracterization of what happened. What’s your takeaway from the documents?

NDP MP Matthew Green: I believe that the documents do show the prime minister’s family was paid to fundraise and promote WE. In fact, their names and photos were even used on WE’s proposal to the government, and it was very clear that WE needed government help to stay afloat. The prime minister’s claim that this was all independently proposed by the public service is simply not supported by the facts.

Mercedes Stephenson: So now that Parliament has been prorogued and the committees are shutdown, what’s your next step? What’s your next plan for trying to hold the government accountable, Pierre?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Well, we’re going to create a full inventory of all of the mysteries that these documents have engendered. We want to know what’s behind those countless redactions that I highlighted in my press conference. We want to know what happened in those multiple conversations between Mr. Kielburger and two senior advisors in the Prime Minister’s Office, one of whom Mr. Kileburger gave credit for having designed the half billion dollar grant to WE. So we have a top level Trudeau insider who helped design this program that went to a group that paid the prime minister’s family half a million dollars. We want to know exactly what involvement the prime minister might have had directly or indirectly in helping to design this grant to the group that had paid his family. Those are just among a few of the mysteries that we want to solve when Parliament gets back, and we’re going to reunite those committees that the prime minister shutdown to use our power as parliamentarians, to get full disclosure of those facts.

 Mercedes Stephenson: Now, you know, Pierre, people look at these documents and you do also see, in fairness, that it was who the government, in terms that I mean the bureaucrats, not the political side of the government but the public servants recommended WE.

Story continues below advertisement

Matthew, the NDP has been kind of lukewarm on the whole prorogation thing. They don’t like it, but neither the Conservatives nor your party, are saying that you’re going to bring the government down over We or you’re going to bring the government down over the lack of transparency in the proroguing. I think a lot of people at home wonder if at the end of the day this is just political grandstanding, but the opposition parties don’t want to put their money where their mouth is other than the Bloc.

NDP MP Matthew Green: Well, I think there’s a couple of considerations there. First, Canadians are struggling in this pandemic and they deserve a government that is committed to actually focusing on and working to deliver to help people across this country in need, many whom have been left out from these Liberal programs.  The second piece is that Canadians shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for Mr. Trudeau’s scandals. People deserve a government that’s focused on helping them.

One of the considerations that hasn’t been talked about is the fact that Elections Canada has said they are ill-prepared to handle an election in COVID. And so, until all of our parties can get together and actually hash out what a clear, free and fair and democratic process would look like in an election, in a hypothetical election, I don’t think we should even be flirting with it, quite frankly. Otherwise, we’re going to end up in a scenario, which is the dumpster fire that we see down to the south.

Story continues below advertisement

Mercedes Stephenson: Pierre, obviously, it depends on who the new leader is for your party, but do you think there should be a fall election?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Well, the timing will come—depend on when Canadians have all of the facts. The Canadian voters are kind of like a jury and a trial, in this case, a corruption trial. But we wouldn’t ask the jury to go forward and render a verdict until they had seen all the evidence. So far, only a tiny fraction of the evidence has been made available, much of it hidden behind black ink, much more of it hidden behind ministers who are—who have thus far, dodged testimony at our committees. So, should the Canadian people have the ability to render a verdict on Justin Trudeau? Absolutely. When will they have—when will they render that verdict? Once they have all the evidence.

NDP MP Matthew Green: I was just going to say, like I think what we haven’t really fully explored here, is the fact that the ethics committee, next week, on next Wednesday, was supposed to receive a trove of documents relating to the financial disclosures of the Trudeau and the Morneau families. We have to remember the codes of conduct, the conflicts of interest, the breaches of trust that have happened throughout this process, they don’t simply go away because the prime minister decides to cut and run. I think we’ve watched this story long enough to watch the hero become the villain, and Justin Trudeau actually used the tactics that Harper used that Trudeau ran against in 2015, to win his first mandate.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that these arguments—

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Well, on that point—

Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, go ahead, Pierre.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: I just want to jump in on the ethics committee issue. Mr. Green is quite right to point out that there was about to be a major disclosure from Speaker Spotlight, which is the speaking agency that the Trudeau family uses. We were going to find out all the payments made to the Trudeau family, to find out if it’s just a half a million dollars that they got.

NDP MP Matthew Green: To finish that thought, government operations was also supposed to be studying this. We were going to be looking at all these claims of due diligence this government made because again, this stories voracity hangs on the prime minister’s claim that it was the public sector who actually suggested this program. And what we found time and time again every email after email is that the clearest concern for the Liberals was not about the students, but how they could get these students to work for less than minimum wage, for an organization that they had an explicitly close and personal “besties” relationship with.

Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask both of you, though, if you feel like Canadians are hearing this. Is this resonating with them? Because the Liberals rolled out a $37 billion package, changes to EI, overhaul of the EI system, extension of the CERB, sickness benefits, child care benefits that for a lot of Canadians, they’ll look at that and say that makes me feel more secure or I need that. You know, Pierre, people are accusing them of trying to change the channel, but isn’t it fair to say that there is a real need for that kind of economic support right now?

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Well, there’s definitely a need for economic support. That’s why it’s so shocking that Prime Minister Trudeau cancelled next week’s session of Parliament when we were going to debate that. We were going to have a special meeting where any measures the government wanted to put before MPs that would presumably help Canadians would be up for debate. And if he were in a big rush to help people, he could have put that forward and he potentially even passed it with this coming week. Instead, he shutdown Parliament and delayed benefits for families. So why is he delaying these benefits for families? Well, because he’s covering up a massive scandal that saw him personally intervene to give a half billion dollars to a group that had paid his family a half a million dollars.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Matthew your thoughts. It sounds to me, from things like the government are saying, like it is the NDP not the Conservatives who they’ve been consulting on this. Do you support the changes?

NDP MP Matthew Green: Yeah, I mean so the devil’s always in the details. Liberals love to make big sticker announcements, but at the end of the day, how much support is actually being delivered to Canadians is always our primary concern. So as long as we continue to force the government to work with us so that we can deliver for people across the country, that’s what we’re going to keep doing.

Mercedes Stephenson: Pierre and Matthew, that’s all the time we have.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Yeah.

Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre: Thank you.

NDP MP Matthew Green: Thank you for having us.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Darrell Bricker will join me to talk about the Conservative leadership race and who might win.

Story continues below advertisement

 Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Tonight is the big night for Conservatives across this country as the party chooses a new leader who will lead them into the next election.

Joining us to talk about this now is Darrell Bricker from Ipsos polling. Darrell, you have been polling the populous finding out what people think, what they want. I know your polling was showing that Peter MacKay was the most likely to win. Do you believe that he will be the winner tonight?

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: Well, it really remains to be seen. It’s a combination of what people think about the electability of the various candidates, but also who’s able to get their ballots into the ballot box. So, a very interesting mail process that the party’s going through. I don’t think we’ll know until the ballots are counted.

 Mercedes Stephenson: How much does having a ranked ballot make this difficult to predict because somebody may have had a second or third choice or may have only picked one?

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: Well we saw in the last Conservative leadership convention in which Andrew Scheer won that it really did come down to how the candidates didn’t do on the first ballot but really how they did further down the ballot. And we only have four candidates this time as opposed to a multiplicity the last time. But, you know, you never know how those second and third ballots are going to go. They’re very, very difficult to poll on. They’re very difficult to figure out ahead of time, but that’s probably going to tell the tale tonight.

Mercedes Stephenson: Where do you think the social conservative support is going to go if it ends up either splitting between O’Toole or MacKay?

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: Well you can tell of the two candidates, the one that’s really positioned themselves on the second and third ballot has been Erin O’Toole. So he’s been out there putting a lot of videos on social media, spending a lot of time really courting the people who are going to be further down the ballot, so the supporters of Lewis and Sloan. So the question is whether or not he’s got enough of those people probably on the second ballot, to really move him into a position where he can win. Really, the way Peter MacKay seems to have been running his campaign, it really looks like he’s trying to win on the first ballot and he may very well do that tonight, but as the night goes on, those second and third ballots come into play, probably Erin O’Toole’s opportunity gets bigger.

Mercedes Stephenson: When you look back over the race, what jumps out at you as moments that were either potentially catastrophic mistakes or moments that defined who the winner will be?

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: Well the two campaigns have been quite a bit different. I mean one’s obviously, the one that felt that it was the frontrunner campaign and has basically glided through the campaign without doing a lot of what I would say controversial things. I mean, there’s been a few gotcha moments for the Peter MacKay campaign, but nothing I would say as being potentially fatal or really difficult with party members. The single biggest moment I thought of the campaign was actually Erin O’Toole obtaining Jason Kenney’s endorsement. Given how prominent Jason Kenney is in the party generally, but also how important he is for the West where the party is really stronger—at its strongest. I really think that that was an important moment and it put Erin O’Toole in from an also [00:03:15] position into a position where he’s really truly contending in this race. So we’ll see if it’s enough tonight. But clearly, I think one candidate has surprised in terms of his ability to really generate some opportunity around his candidacy and the other one has kind of glided along as a frontrunner.
Story continues below advertisement

Mercedes Stephenson: One last quick question, Darrell. What does the next Conservative leader have to do to win against Justin Trudeau?

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: Well they really have to position themselves as a true alternative. So we move out of the process of trying to win ballots just simply from party members, people who tend to have probably in this instance, stronger views on various issues, to try and move the number beyond the base. So, the Conservatives 49 per cent of the people in our polling tell us that they’re at least willing to consider the Conservative Party in the next election. So they’ve got to move from 33, 34 where they were in the last election to be able to bring that 49 together. So the question is whether or not they can move beyond their base and whether or not they can grow the party.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, we’ll keep an eye on that, Darrell. Thank you so much for joining us.

Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs: My pleasure. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for this morning, but we will be back here tonight on The West Block with the leadership results.

Who will lead the Conservatives through the next election? Derek Sloan, Leslyn Lewis, Erin O’Toole or Peter MacKay? Tune into a special West Block tonight to find out.

Story continues below advertisement