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In Depth

The 39th Parliament

Peter Mansbridge interviews Stephen Harper

Last Updated April 4, 2006

This is a transcript of an interview by Peter Mansbridge of Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the speech from the throne on April 4:

Peter Mansbridge: Prime Minster, Jack Layton today was full of praise for you as somebody who was listening. He had certain caveats, but in terms of the speech from the throne, he was full of praise. So, my question is, how does a party that's over here get what appears to be the support of a party that's over here?

Stephen Harper
Stephen Harper: I think the simple answer is by finding some common ground. Mr. Layton and some of his people came to see us in the lead up to the speech from the throne. He laid out several of his concerns and I can give him some direct credit. He mentioned some desire to see the Canadian Environmental Protection Act reviewed by Parliament. That's coming up in any case. He asked for some specific things on child care, on electoral reform, some things that quite frankly [are] where we share some common ground. And what I think Mr. Layton did and also to some degree, [Gilles] Duceppe, sought to find some common ground with the government. And we obviously tried to incorporate some of their concerns into the throne speech, so long as they're consistent with our government's agenda.

Peter Mansbridge: I guess that's the issue. Did you move into the middle to achieve that?

Stephen Harper: I would not try to describe these things in ideological terms, Peter. The other parties simply said these are some concerns that they have, that they think and they thought in each case that there are things that could match some of the things we proposed to do in our platform. So on some of those items they were simply trying to find some common ground. I think that is the best way to try and make this Parliament work. That wasn't done in the last Parliament. So within reason we will try to accommodate some of those concerns.

Peter Mansbridge: But it does run the risk of raising certain expectations. You mentioned electoral reform. For Jack Layton, electoral reform means proportional representation. It means MPs who switch sides have to go into a byelection immediately. Are you willing to move in those directions?

Stephen Harper: In fairness, what Mr. Layton really raised with me was that he wanted to see some followup to the electoral reform study that was done in the last Parliament, which, by the way, was a three-party opposition motion that kind of got that whole thing going in the first place. He just wanted to see us get a little further ahead with that process. There's no doubt that there will be some differences in view on that issue and on others, but as I say, Mr. Layton has taken the attitude at the outset that he wants to find some common ground. He wants to get some things done for the people who voted NDP. And, look, from our standpoint, we're a minority party. I want to encourage the government to reach beyond its own partisan stripe and if we can find common ground on the things that it ran on, that's what I'm going to do.

Mansbridge
Peter Mansbridge: But on just those two points – your views haven't changed on proportional representation?

Stephen Harper: I've actually had more openness to changes to our electoral system than maybe some in our party. But the party has taken a position in the past that it's prepared to look at some alternatives. That's what we've been asked to do and that's what we're going to look at.

Peter Mansbridge: Is that one? Is that one that you would seriously look at?

Stephen Harper: I think in fairness it's probably not the preference of our caucus, but we will, as I say, proceed with a process that we will get some agreement on.

Peter Mansbridge: And switching sides in the Commons?

Stephen Harper: That wasn't an issue that Mr. Layton raised with me. I know that the NDP is going to push that as a private members bill. There was one the last Parliament. Some of our people supported it, some didn't. It's not a position that I support, obviously.

Peter Mansbridge: On the environment, the speech from the throne has the line about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now, there are some on the environmental side who are running around saying Stephen Harper has changed his mind. Has Stephen Harper changed his mind?

Stephen Harper: No, that's not the case. We're concerned with the environment. Obviously [the] principle concern we've expressed in the past has been with pollution, beyond merely carbon dioxide but a whole range of pollutants. We've said we want to bring in the first federal clean air act at some point to deal with that, and greenhouse gas emissions are also something we will want to deal with. But I've been very clear in saying that we've been left from the previous regime with a multi-billion dollar program that doesn't actually do anything to either reduce pollution or greenhouse gases, so we're going to be starting from scratch.

Peter Mansbridge: But you think that has to be acted upon?

Stephen Harper: Yes, I do think we have to make some progress on that.

Peter Mansbridge: Today was interesting to watch because you gave prominence to six members of the Canadian Armed Forces and talking about all members, especially those who are serving in Afghanistan right now. You chose that as your first trip. Yet, it's not one of your priorities. It's not one of your five priorities. You did make serious promises on the defence side. So in a sense, was there an imbalance today on what we were witnessing on the one side from the new Harper government and what was contained in the actual words of the speech?

Stephen Harper: No, I think you'll see consistency with exactly with what we said in the campaign. We're going to start with our five principle objectives, which are basically legislative, and [on] which we'll proceed with immediately. But we also have a whole platform full of other commitments, including some significant enhancements to the Canadian Armed Forces. Those are things that we will proceed with and we'll begin with some of those things, hopefully, in the upcoming budget, but stay tuned.

Peter Mansbridge: So the defence department could see a serious new infusion of cash in the first budget?

Stephen Harper: That is a commitment we've made – obviously, rebuilding the capacities of our Armed Forces, particularly on the capital side, but even on the human resource side. That's a longer-term project. We didn't diminish the Armed Forces in a couple of years, it was done over about 40 years. So we're going to begin the task of rebuilding our capacity so we that we can do a whole range of things at home and abroad and be a real player in the issues that matter.

Peter Mansbridge: The Armed Forces is the pointed end of our so-called war on terror. What is your sense after a couple months in the job now, of the terror threat to Canada, at home? You've had the briefings, you've heard from the experts, what's your sense on that?

Stephen Harper: In fairness, even under [Paul] Martin's government, I was [in] privy council and as a leader of the opposition I was brought up-to-date with ongoing security briefings. I guess I've learned a little more, but I had a pretty good sense before. The strategic security risks that we face as a country are significant. I think it's a great thing that so many of us go about our daily lives not having to worry about that, but the fact of the matter is this country has been named as a target by organizations that are dedicated to bringing terrorism across the globe and attacking our society. Fortunately, to this point, none of this has had a public manifestation that Canadians have to worry about. But that's a reality that we live in and a reality that our military and security forces deal with, not just around the world, but in Canada, on a daily basis.

Peter Mansbridge: Have you had any sense that the threat has increased in the last couple of months? You know that some people felt that your remarks may have led to more attention to Canada than perhaps Canada wanted on that front.

Stephen Harper: No, I don't think that's the case. The threats we face have been there for quite awhile and they are significant and they are not going away if we ignore them, or if we retreat or pretend they're not out there. They're very real. The people, and the people like them who destroyed the World Trade Center, would equally like to destroy this country. And it's going to be a long-term job to make sure we protect our citizens from that kind of threat.

Peter Mansbridge: You haven't considered doing a colour-coded threat alert or anything like that?

Stephen Harper: No, I haven't at this point. I did on one occasion ask the previous government about that. That may be something at some point we may want to look at, but I can certainly say it's not one of my priorities right now. We just make sure we're well informed and do respond to the threats that do exist.

Peter Mansbridge: You've been a political animal for most if not all of your adult life. You've watched prime ministers come and go. You've seen how they operate, you assumed you know what they did, now you've actually been in the job for two months. What has surprised you most about the job?

Stephen Harper: You know, I wish I could tell you, Peter, that I've had huge surprises. I've certainly learned a lot.

Stephen Harper
Peter Mansbridge: What's the one major thing that you've learned?

Stephen Harper: Well, I don't know if it's a major thing. I've been getting briefings on dozens of issues. I had a pretty good sense of where I wanted to take the country when I was elected. I've certainly had confirmed that not just the public, but the public service wants to see some leadership and wants to see some direction. I guess the one surprise I've had was how differently you're treated as prime minister. I must say, even [in] some cases, how much more formally I'm treated even by people I've known for years. But so far I'm enjoying the job and enjoying the challenges ahead.

Peter Mansbridge: What is the biggest challenge?

Stephen Harper: You know, Peter, the honest truth is, in a sense, I don't know that. The biggest immediate challenge we face is obviously making sure that we move this country ahead in spite of the fact that we have a minority in the both the House of Commons and the Senate. Making sure that we can nevertheless get our platform adopted, govern effectively and lead this country in a way at home and abroad that is meaningful. That said, one of the things I've learned, watching past prime ministers, is that it will be the things that none of us planned on that will end up dominating the next few years. Hopefully, myself and all our ministers in caucus will get ready for those moments.

Peter Mansbridge: Are you prepared for that? Because that's the one issue that people say, that it's all well and good that he has his five priorities, he's going to focus on that and they're not going to get off agenda, but something like that can knock you off agenda very quickly.

Stephen Harper: Well, it can, Peter, but we have five priorities and as I say, four that have got a heavy legislative content. In a sense it's an ambitious agenda, but it's not an overburdened agenda. I think we're in a state where if something came at us, we would be able to continue to make progress on our core priorities. That's why we've prioritized things. That's why we don't have an endless list of things that we're trying to do all at once so we do have flexibility to respond to the unexpected events.

Peter Mansbridge: Last quick question. Do you have a time frame in mind for how long you would like to see this government last?

Stephen Harper: No, I don't. As long as we're making progress, implementing an agenda on which I feel we got a mandate, I'm prepared to see this government and this Parliament go on as long as it can. I want to see it be productive. I want to see us do what we said we would do. If there comes a point at which Parliament is not productive or we feel we need a new mandate for a new agenda, that would be appropriate. But I don't really want to see this Parliament end early. I'm enjoying the job. I think the country needs some direction and some change and that's what we want to stay around here for awhile to do.

Peter Mansbridge: All right, prime minister, thanks for your time.

Stephen Harper: Thank you, Peter.

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