THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 13, Season 5
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Host: Tom Clark
Guests: Christy Clark, Andrew Scheer, Vassy Kapelos, Mark Kennedy, Evan Solomon
On this Sunday, the shape of things to come: the Liberals recall the House of Commons and redesign the Senate, but not without opposition. BC Premier Christy Clark says she wants nothing to do with the proposed changes. She joins us from Vancouver.
The new House Leader of the Conservatives and the Former Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Sheer speaks out on the throne speech and whether the Commons can be better than it was.
And, unpacking the politics of the launch of the new Trudeau era: our panel of journalists read the signals.
It is Sunday, December the 6th, I’m Tom Clark and from the nation’s capital, this is The West Block.
Tom Clark: Well, Parliament is back in session and the first thing the government announced was a plan to change the way senators are chosen. Until now, senators were picked by the prime minister alone. The only exception was a brief period in Alberta when senators were elected and then appointed, but Justin Trudeau wants all that to change. In future, there will be an independent panel that will recommend who should be appointed to the Upper Chamber. Candidates to be chosen by merit rather than political patronage and all will sit as independents, no party affiliation allowed. But the plan is already under fire. One of the first to raise a red flag was B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
And joining me now from Vancouver is B.C. Premier Christy Clark. Premier thanks very much for being here. I want to talk a little bit about the throne speech, but I want to talk about Senate reform first of all. And you tweeted out the day, and I quote you on this, it says, “B.C. will not participate in the process outlined today to appoint senators. Today’s changes don’t address our concerns.” So the question to you is this: what is the advantage to British Columbia in not participating in this process?
Christy Clark: Well the process doesn’t make the Senate any better. I would argue that it actually makes it worse because the Senate is completely unrepresentative of the provinces. B.C. has six seats and we will never get to change that. Then, add to the fact, that the Senate are patronage appointments, still unelected. There is no accountability. They sit until they’re 75. I just couldn’t see how British Columbia could feel comfortable validating that in any way.
Tom Clark: But wouldn’t the whole idea of the process though (be) to weed out that sense of patronage, because you actually would have a say in who was proposed as a senator, as would presumably every other premier in the country? I just can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do that, why you wouldn’t want to have a say?
Christy Clark: Because we would be validating what are unaccountable, unelected patronage appointments that people would hold until they were 75 and the Senate doesn’t work now. The only other thing that could make the Senate worse would be having all of these unaccountable, unelected patronage appointments starting to think that they are somehow legitimate and have the power to make decisions on behalf of our country. They don’t, they shouldn’t, they can’t be held accountable and we won’t endorse it.
Tom Clark: Well, and you know what that means though, that you are then de facto endorsing the old system practiced under the old government where the appointments were just made by the prime minister with no consultation with anybody and handing it to friends and pals and people who raised money for him. Because that’s really the alternative, right?
Christy Clark: Well, I mean my view is we should either fix it properly or we should fold it. and I understand from the federal government’s perspective, it’s going to be hard to do, but I don’t think that giving unelected people more legitimacy, giving people who will never be held accountable until they turn 75 and age out, the idea that they can somehow make legitimate decisions on behalf of the country, it’s just, I think it’s wrong. I don’t think it’s going to serve the country any better. I actually think that these changes may make the Senate worse.
Christy Clark: Let’s move onto the throne speech and a couple of specifics in there. One of the things that was promised during the campaign, and is in the throne speech, is the process of the legalization of marijuana in Canada. As premier of British Columbia, are you supportive of that move to legalize marijuana?
Christy Clark: Well, I mean we’re happy to work with whatever the federal government decides on that. You know they were really clear – and it was a big election issue in B.C. – about their position on this. And so we’re prepared to move forward on it, and I know lots of ideas about how we might regulate it. One of the things that I was pleased to see in the throne speech was recognition that there needs to be control over this substance, that we need to make sure that young people whose brains are growing, will not be allowed unfettered access to getting marijuana. I think, you know, as a society, if we’re going to—just like we have with alcohol, say you know, it’s something that government is prepared to endorse and allow, we should make sure that the rules are very clear that we don’t want young people to be using it.
Tom Clark: I want to jump to one other thing. You’ve just come back from Paris literally in the last day or so. B.C. has a carbon tax right now, but to meet the goals of an increase in temperature of 2 degrees Celsius which is the aim of the Paris summit right now, inevitably is the price of carbon in B.C. going to have to jump?
Christy Clark: I don’t know the answer to that yet. I mean we have made huge—across the country, while fuel use has gone up by 16 per cent, it’s dropped by 3 per cent in British Columbia, so we’ve already seen huge positive impacts from the carbon tax. Now, we’re unique also in the country because we collected something like $6 billion in carbon tax and we returned that directly in tax cuts to people. So we taxed pollution and we cut taxes for individuals to the tune of $7 billion. So—
Tom Clark: But are you prepared to use the tax code to affect behaviour? I mean in the same way that carbon tax is meant to affect the behaviour of companies, manufacturers, are you prepared to use the tax code to affect the behaviour say of motorists, putting on bigger gas taxes to convince people to drive less, for instance?
Christy Clark: Well, we already do. The question for us is: will there be an increase? There won’t be one until at least 2018 and we certainly wouldn’t increase it without really doing a broad consultation with the province. The thing for us is we have had a $30 a ton carbon tax for eight years. In Alberta, theirs won’t take effect until 2018, so we don’t want to become uncompetitive with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. So we’re keeping an eye to see what are Washington, Oregon, California, Alberta, Ontario doing to try and catch up with us? Because any increases that we affect in British Columbia need to be in that context.
Tom Clark: Premier Christy Clark in British Columbia, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks very much for coming on this morning, I appreciate it.
Christy Clark: Nice to see you, Tom. Thank you.
Tom Clark: Coming up, we’ll unpack the politics of the throne speech, but first, what does the Opposition think of the government’s new plans?
Tom Clark: Welcome back. Well, parliamentary regime change means a lot of personal changes as well. Cabinet ministers become Opposition backbenchers and in the case of my next guest, non-partisans become hard-core partisans overnight. Andrew Scheer was the Speaker of the House; he is now the House Leader for the official Opposition Conservatives.
Welcome Mr. Scheer, good to have you here.
Andrew Scheer: Great to be here, Tom.
Tom Clark: Let me start off with a partisan question, one that you haven’t had to face for the past four years when you were Speaker. Will your party be supporting the throne speech when it comes to a vote?
Andrew Scheer: Well you know, as it will not come to a surprise to you, there’s a lot of concerns that we have from the throne speech, not only what it mentions, but what it doesn’t mention. There are a lot of talk about higher taxes, higher payroll taxes on job creators, not a lot of mention on the private sector. This is a speech from the throne that’s a lot about big government, big spending, but nothing on agriculture, which is important in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, all over the country really, and that contributes over $100 billion to the economy.
Tom Clark: But if you vote against the throne speech, there is a tax cut promised in the throne speech, so you’d be voting against a tax cut?
Andrew Scheer: Well the so-called tax cut isn’t in the throne speech, it’ll come later on.
Tom Clark: Right.
Andrew Scheer: But when you look at the Liberal tax platform, it is a bit of a shell game, you know. They raise taxes here, they may claim to lower them there, but on the whole, they don’t have a fiscal plan. Their promise during the campaign was to run $10 billion deficits. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has already said that they won’t meet that; the deficits will be much higher. So anything they do along the tax cut, we know will add to more debt, which means higher taxes in the future. So it’s not a rock-solid tax measure as we had when we were in government. Our tax cuts were always measured and in the fiscal framework, always helped us get back to balanced budgets. Theirs don’t.
Tom Clark: Is there nothing in the throne speech that you like?
Andrew Scheer: Well there’s a sentence here or there that had some nice intentions, but—
Tom Clark: Like what?
Andrew Scheer: Well, you know, every party supports a cleaner environment in trying to find ways that we can balance that off, but we have a very important energy sector in this country that’s suffering. A lot of job losses in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the past little bit, no mention in the throne speech about how we’re going to balance that so that we can see a resurgence in that energy sector.
Tom Clark: Let me just switch back to the House of Commons for a minute and get your take on it because a lot of people have said that this is a time to make the House a much more positive place, much more civil place. In your four years as Speaker, is there anything that you wished that you had done that you didn’t do to make it a better place?
Andrew Scheer: You know, I guess it’s always to look back in retrospect and look at that. I look back to the past four years and we had some great sessions. We had some good debates, but the media tends to focus on the negative, you know, you’ll never see—
Tom Clark: Well it got pretty nasty in the House.
Andrew Scheer: At times, for sure, but you know, you’ll never see a headline that says: Substantive Debate Held, you know, Good Questions Asked. [Chuckles]. So I think sometimes the focus was on when it did get nasty. I do believe that because that was the first Parliament we had with a fixed election date that towards the end of the session people knew it was inevitable and emotions always get higher around potential elections and I think that had something to do with it. But, I think, you know, I had a ruling on the rights of backbench MPs to give speeches to be recognized by the Speaker. I think that was a good rule. I mean, obviously I think that was a good ruling, [chuckles] but I think it was an important ruling to maintain the rights of individual MPs. I think we did a lot around decorum on the whole. We did have some days when we’d have some times where we didn’t meet that test, but one thing I do have to say on that, it does take a partnership of all MPs and no Speaker can just come in and do it on his own.
Tom Clark: Okay, that brings me to my next point because as now the Opposition, would you support, for example, your member, Jason Kenney, has suggested that applause be prohibited in the House. That would fall into your category, would you go to the Speaker and say we would support the idea of getting rid of anybody applauding in the House of Commons?
Andrew Scheer: You know, I’ve had a lot of questions over the past little bit about would this work and would that work. I think it’s important that if we do want to do some of these changes, if we do want to bring back some traditions that we used to have or look at other parliaments, that we really look at them comprehensively and that we allow parliamentarians to study it because we have evolved, our culture in Canada is different than the U.K. They don’t applaud in the U.K. They also don’t read speeches in the U.K. There are a number of things that they do differently there. Would that work here? Maybe it would. Maybe members would appreciate it. The one thing is that the chamber’s for members, it’s for what members feel comfortable with and what they want to see—
Tom Clark: Fair enough, but don’t you think thought that some of the rationale for the way the vote went in the last election was that people were really sick and tired of the atmosphere that they saw there? Even though the House may be for members, it’s looked at by everybody in the country.
Andrew Scheer: Yeah, I mean when I say the House is for members, the House is for Canadians. When I talk about the traditions around the House and things like that, it’s to facilitate members to do their jobs. I think there’s no question. I think Canadians—we’re held accountable by Canadians and if we don’t behave in the House of Commons the way that Canadians expect us to, we’ll face that in the election. Look, I’m open to it and I think our caucus would like to see some changes, but my only word of caution maybe just to—let’s look at it comprehensively. Let’s try to do the study. Let’s allow all parliamentarians to have input in whatever changes we make.
Tom Clark: Andrew Scheer good to talk to you without the Speaker’s hat and Speaker’s robe on.
Andrew Scheer: I won’t be putting that hat on for a [chuckles]—
Tom Clark: Not for a while. Thank you very much.
Well coming up next, we unpack the politics of regime change and take a look at the new Liberal era in Ottawa.
Tom Clark: Welcome back. Well, for the first time in nearly a decade, the government general last week read a Liberal version of a throne speech and a Liberal vision of the country. To unpack the politics of that, I’m joined by three of the best in Ottawa: Vassy Kapelos of Global National is with us, Mark Kennedy the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for the Ottawa Citizen and our pal Evan Solomon from Everything is Politics on Sirius XM Radio and also columnist for Maclean’s Magazine. Welcome to you all.
Let’s start with Senate reform. Christy Clark was on just a few moments ago saying she is not going to participate in any way, shape or form in Senate reform. With that type of opposition, coming from her and Brad Wall among others, is that seriously going to impede Senate reform?
Vassy Kapelos: Yes, I think so for sure. I think it’s not the only impediment either. I think that there’s a lot of genuine criticism about this idea that they put forth. This committee that is sort of magically going to reform the partisan nature of the Senate. I mean, in essence, the prime minister still has a full veto. You know, there’s still going to be a government representative out of the first five appointments. I’m not sure it necessarily does all the Liberals say it will do.
Tom Clark: Evan?
Evan Solomon: Look, Trudeau’s got a stacked deck, red provinces or orange provinces, outside of Saskatchewan which is not even Conservative in name, so you think, oh this will be great, Senate reform, I can work with him. Sorry, welcome to provincial-federal tensions. They always exist. His idea constitutionally has to be middle ground. I mean you talk to Dominic LeBlanc the Liberal House Leader and he’ll say look, we can’t just let this committee appoint senators, the prime minister has to have the final say constitutionally, they’re not going to open up the constitutional bag. This is the first sign, the very ambitious throne speech on Senate reform and a lot of things, the difference between rhetoric and reality is called governing and it’s going to be a lot different than writing a fancy speech.
Mark Kennedy: You know what, I know we’re all trained to be skeptics and that it’s good to be skeptical. On this one, I think it’s bold, I think it’s adventurous and I think it’s going to make a difference. We have watched that place for generations be stacked with good people and bad, and I’m talking about the Senate. I’ve watched them do good things, but I’ve also watched people who are only in there because they are a crony of the prime minister, because they’ve raised money for the party or have done service for the party. We are now going to see a system whereby there are going to be independent people going in there with stature in their community who have no ties to either the prime minister of the day or the Opposition leader in the House of Commons. I think things will be done. It’s not going to be done overnight. Give it a year, give it two, give it three, give it four, the place is going to change.
Evan Solomon: I agree it’s good branding because the Senate needs to look at little more independent, but I will say this: What about accountability? If a senator screws up, does Trudeau have to hold the bag on that, or is it this independent body? I agree, interesting—
Tom Clark: But wait a minute, if they screw up now, if a Conservative screws up, I can’t think of an example except for Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin and a couple of others, how was Stephen Harper held accountable for their actions? He wasn’t.
Vassy Kapelos: Yeah, but that’s the problem, how does that change this?
Tom Clark: Well perhaps it doesn’t, but at the same time, I’m wondering though, we’ve had two Conservative senators now quit the Conservative caucus to sit as independents and I’m just wondering, to Marks’ point, whether there is actually some momentum, almost organic momentum, within the Senate itself, to move towards the idea that it is an independent body full of independent people—
Mark Kennedy: I can see it happening. You get those 22 people in there within the next year. The people in the other caucuses are going to see the new spirit they bring. They’re going to feel public pressure to act accordingly. As I say, it’s not going to happen overnight. Give it two or three, four years, it’s going to be revolutionary.
Evan Solomon: Yeah, sorry, I hope it is. I’m still weary of unelected officials acting independent of our elected officials, so I don’t know how much I want them to start acting independently. If you believe that they ought to be a check and balance system, let’s elect them.
Tom Clark: Well the great thing about Canadian politics is that we know that in 100 years from now, they’ll still be debating Senate reform. Listen, I want to go to the throne speech itself because it seemed to me that it was short to be sure, but boy was it ambitious in terms of what they laid out. Ambitious to the point of now, the big question is, are they going to be able actually to achieve all this stuff, not only because they’ve only got four years to do it in, but because there’s a lot of money on the table here to make these things happen as well. What’s your take? Is money going to get in the way of ambition in this case?
Vassy Kapelos: It’s a good question. I think it’s the big question right now. I think it depends on who you ask. I had a couple of sit downs with ministers this week, minister of infrastructure and minister of veterans affairs. They promised a ton of spending, especially in infrastructure. Both of them unequivocal, they will spend the money they said they will spend. They seem to think this magic deficit that they’ve promised for the next three years, the modest deficit, will be the, you know, magic wand that they can wave to make their spending promises happen. I just wonder how realistic it is.
Mark Kennedy: I think they’ll get some things done. Listen, during the campaign, I asked Mr. Trudeau—I was about to say Prime Minister Trudeau, he was only Liberal leader at the time. I said listen, if things aren’t as good as you forecast, if your economic growth slows down, are we still going to see a balanced budget when you go to the polls?
Tom Clark: Which he’s promised in four years’ time.
Mark Kennedy: Precisely. He insists it’s going to happen and since then, what have we learned? Their own people have told us that the federal treasury is deeper in the hole than they anticipated, so it’s going to be hard for them to do everything and they might have to slow down on some of the things they want to get accomplished.
Evan Solomon: Very ambitious agenda. You speak to any minister, they are gung ho, they’ve got the majority and they want to do it. I think this is a platform forged when they were in third place when they never thought they’d be handed the keys to the kingdom and now they’ve gotta execute, but I think the key is the word deficit. It’s not about $10 billion, they’re ready to spend and they believe that they were elected on an interventionist ambitious government. I think they’re going to get some things done real quick, like the tax cut for the middle class because they have got to show promises made, promises kept and then the next four years, they will slow down on some things, parliamentary reform, there’s going to be a lot of things that will take just a lot of time.
Mark Kennedy: A lot of those things don’t necessarily actually have to cost a lot of money.
Evan Solomon: That’s right.
Mark Kennedy: New government, open government some of those things are about tone and how you approach governing. But some of the other areas, social areas, health accord, they promised a health accord that could cost billions of dollars.
Tom Clark: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adopting those recommendations. Again, billions of dollars, but what about the tone Vassy? I mean that document didn’t have the sort of purple prose of the Harper era, you know, these wildly exaggerated words to describe things. What was your take on the tone because are we in for either a more efficient Parliament or a nicer Parliament or do we have any clue at all from this document?
Vassy Kapelos: So far, it seems like we’re in for a bit of a nicer Parliament. Everybody seems to be acting a lot different than they were six months ago, but I think, actually the tone wasn’t as sunny days as I thought maybe I anticipated it would be, just based on the rhetoric we’ve heard so far and we heard during the election. I thought it was ambitious, but it wasn’t a big shocker. There wasn’t anything in it that I don’t think we didn’t expect, or the tone was pretty straightforward.
Tom Clark: You know what I’ve picked up on though was that with the previous government, the number one order, if you had sort of five things out of the throne speech, No. 1 was security. No. 5 was security in this one. I mean it just completely reversed.
Mark Kennedy: I saw a real contrast from them. What did we hear from the Conservative government over and over? The threat from ISIL terrorists in the Middle East. We saw nothing in the throne speech from the Liberals about what we will do in the Middle East in Syria and Iraq. And secondly, the previous government brought in as you will recall C-51 to protect our people here at home and we didn’t see anything in the throne—it’s a totally different approach to priorities.
Evan Solomon: I agree on the crime. New governments usually focus on domestic issues and laid governments usually focus on foreign affairs and events and so that’s not that surprising. The vagaries on the foreign affairs part of the speech on the throne, which is already a vague and vacuous document without the details. The details come in the budget, really vague on that. The one thing I’ll say on the military, which was the great oxymoron of the speech from the throne, was we promise to invest in a leaner military. Now how do you invest in something leaner? That’s called the Liberal version of a cut, right? And that’s the Leslie report, right, less tail, more teeth. That’s interesting, but I think the focus on domestic issues, they’ll spend a lot of money on that and I think on the foreign affairs, lots of vagueness on that and I think the big issue for them on foreign affairs is going to be this climate change thing for the first part.
Mark Kennedy: And the other thing, a lot of things they have to work with people. We saw that over and over on the throne speech. We have to work with provinces, Indigenous People, everyone else.
Vassy Kapelos: I can tell you though on that—
Tom Clark: Again, I can tell you we’re out of time. Vassy Kapelos of Global National; Mark Kennedy of the Ottawa Citizen; our friend from Sirius XM radio, “Everything is Politics”, Evan Solomon, thanks all for being here.
Well that is our show for this week. Join us next Sunday for another edition of The West Block. As we leave you now, we leave you with the sights and sounds of the incredible Christmas light show here on Parliament Hill. Until next Sunday, I’m Tom Clark. Have a great week ahead.