Q&A: Brad Trost - Macleans.ca

Q&A: Brad Trost

‘Everyone knows I’m a pro-life Member of Parliament’

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In this week’s print edition, I write about Brad Trost, Stephen Woodworth, abortion and the Prime Minister. For that I sat down with Mr. Trost a couple weeks ago in his office. Here is a slightly abridged transcript of that conversation.

Q: I wanted to start with Mr. Woodworth today. What did you make of that?

A: Everyone, I think, in Ottawa, knows I’m a pro-life Member of Parliament. I don’t see how scientifically there’s any question about when human life begins. And politically I don’t understand why Canada is the only democracy that really has no legislation whatsoever. I mean, let’s face it, we’re more socially conservative than France and France has abortion legislation after 14 weeks. Sweden does, we’re more socially conservative than Sweden. I don’t get where the disconnect is on this one. People can agree to disagree. My board of directors, Conservatives in Saskatoon-Humboldt, they’re all over the board on this. By and large they’re mostly like-mind because my riding has a huge devout Catholic proportion. It’s like 42% Roman Catholic, and not like Quebec, they’re a fairly observant lot. So that’s reflected in the nature of my constituency and my voters, but my board of directors includes a couple pro-choice people and they respect and some of them tell me I’m doing a great job on a whole range of issues. So I think we can have a good dialogue on this and it wouldn’t be what I’d like, but I still can’t figure out why Canada can’t have some legislation like Sweden or France or Germany has. This puzzles me.

Q: Do you think there’s sizeable support for it?

A: It depends what you define as sizeable. If it was a completely free vote—and no vote is ever completely free—but if it was a completely free vote and people weren’t worried about different things, I think there would be. I mean you look at Rod Bruinooge’s legislation, it got 90 some Conservative MPs to vote for it*. And [Woodworth] is just asking for a parliamentary committee to study it. So I have a feeling you’ll probably get the majority of the Conservative caucus supporting it, but I wouldn’t say a large majority. It depends on how things play out and how it’s presented. I know there were people who voted against Bruinooge’s legislation in the previous Parliament, who actually, when they thought about it and talked about it later, their gut reaction was somewhat different. So it depends how Stephen is able to pitch it to people.

Q: Back when the Planned Parenthood funding decision was made, you said that the lesson here was that pro-life MPs needed to be more aggressive and “we will apply this lesson.” Are we seeing that now?

A: I think Mr. Woodworth is a much more gentle personality than I am, but he’s fairly resolute in what he’s doing. And I think that’s maybe one of the ways you’re seeing it applied. We have the ability to bring forward this issue as members of parliament who view this as a fundamental human rights issue. And Stephen is a very smart lawyer, who views this thing in a very intellectual lens. And within that lens he’s been quietly forceful in pushing forward the issue. So I think it would fit into the style of what I previously said**.

Q: How many pro-life MPs do you think there are in the Conservative caucus?

Define pro-life. Aggressively militant who will get out there and push it? You can go as low as three, you can go as high as 100.

Q: But how many would like to see some restrictions made on access to abortion?

A: I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I know members of parliament who have no interest whatsoever in voting on it, don’t want to see it, aren’t happy with Stephen, but they agree when you talk with them that it’s absolutely ridiculous that we are different. They would go for, like I said, a Swedish or a German option. So where do you categorize those people? They intellectually think it’s the right thing to do, they think it’s the proper thing, they don’t want abortion banned, they’d be fine with first trimester abortion, but at the same time they don’t want to get into the political mix. They’re more interested in what we are or aren’t doing on OAS or something. I know of MPs who have been financially supportive of the pro-life caucus and have never once publicly spoken out or even shown up at a meeting of the pro-life caucus. I know on some of the legislation that Ken Epp passed for the unborn victims of violence, our most aggressive lobbyist in caucus is a member who describes herself as a pro-choice. And that was, quote, a pro-life initiative. I think members of parliament are very much like the Canadian population. There’s a good chunk at either end who are firmly committed and the rest are sort of like, well, yes and no and maybe. I suspect if it was on a vote on something like abortion for gender reasons, we would have a considerable majority of the House of Commons easily opposing abortion for the sake of gender reasons. I think we’re actually a pretty good reflection of the public.

Q: How do you think a vote would go if it was a vote on, say, late-term abortion?

A: Again, you’re asking if it was a completely free world and people voted on what they thought, I think late-term abortion, the majority of the House of Commons would be opposed to. Would they be opposed to it enough if they thought it affected other political considerations, I suspect then it would lose. It’s one of those things: if everyone got to vote on the last day of their political career, how would they vote? People might vote differently.

Q: When you talked about applying the lesson, it’s been a few months, other than your comments about MPs having to exercise their freedom, you haven’t…

A: I haven’t put together any major pro-life legislation. I’ve been working with pro-life groups in the background, we’ll see if we can get something out in the spring. I have been waiting because I know other MPs, like Stephen, have been planning what they are doing. And I do know there’s other MPs who are kicking around other initiatives. From my perspective, I might be public once a year, twice a year, on the issue. It’s by far not the only reason I got into politics. I like economic issues, I have an economics degree along with my geophysics. But you are going to see regularly MPs addressing this. It might be every six months, which compared to never is going to be a big change. You might see more active engagement at the next Conservative conference, things like that.

Q: How many initiatives do you know of that are sort of in the pipeline?

A: I would say there’s about four or five that are being talked about right now.

Q: That haven’t been already…

A: That haven’t been already out there. How many of those come to fruition depends on where MPs come up in private members’ business, whether people are talked out of it. I mean, Leon Benoit put one up and then he pulled it to put up one on MS instead. … I mean, let’s face it, private members’ legislation will not get through if the Senate doesn’t want it to pass. We understand that. But I think it’s important to put it on the record that there are members of parliament who feel this is principled, so that we can discuss this, so both our constituents at large and members in our parties can have their views heard and expressed. These sort of large societal changes, regardless of which direction you’re headed, are never quick and easy things, they take a considerable length of time. And even if I don’t make a change, like I said earlier, I view this as scientifically not a question when human life begins, at that point do we put any value on it, I think that’s clear that we should, so I think I have a duty to actually expend some political capital for something I view as principled, not merely to get electoral advantage.

Q: Is there the possibility that the Prime Minister could lose support within caucus, that he could alienate social conservative voters?

A: I respect the Prime Minister greatly and I support him on a lot of issues. But let’s not be too naive here, some socially conservative rank-and-file members of the Conservative party have not been happy with him for quite some time. I’m not throwing stones, I’m not pushing too hard, there’s just ordinary differences of opinion there. So whether or not those people do less support or not—I have a former riding president who refuses to give money to the national party, not just because he feels the Conservatives haven’t been socially conservative, he feels that on the fiscal basis too, and he’s still a party member. I don’t know how widespread that is, but that’s just the nature of the beast. We’ve got somewhere around 100,000 members in the party and they’ll come from Red Tory to libertarian to hard-line pro-life one-issue people. So I think that’s the nature of the beast.

Q: The opposition will say either you’re controlled or you’re allowed to say these things because this serves a purpose for the Prime Minister. He gets to say, well, look, there are social conservatives in my caucus…

A: You know what they said about the introducing of New Coke … after they had hubbub and they went back to old Coke, Coca-Cola Classic, the CEO of Coca-Cola, when asked a question if it had been deliberately planned, this whole thing, as a stunt, to just reinvigorate sales, he says, ‘Well, we’re not that dumb, nor are we that smart.’ I think people should actually, for sometimes, take the PM at his word and take MPs at their word. He has a set of beliefs of what he believes is right for the country. By and large we support him … He firmly believes that he’s been right and he’s never hidden that. In all of his runs for leadership, or I even believe going back as a Reform MP, he’s never been pro-life. So neither his opponents, who criticize him and think he’s a closet pro-lifer, nor people who are pro-life who thought he was a closeted pro-lifer, nor his supporters, should be surprised. The man is actually sticking with what he says. Nor is he surprised that a lot of us are thinking with what he says. That’s democracy. That’s the way it goes.

Q: Have you had any conversations with him about the subject or about Planned Parenthood or…

A: Personally and directly, no, the last time I would have had a conversation with him on the issue would’ve probably been around 2006, 2007, when we talked about some polling data around the issue and he was making just technical observations about some things he’d seen.

Q: And how have your relations with PMO been since, because if I recall correctly, when the latest Planned Parenthood decision was made, you did have some harsh words for them.

A: I do and I still have very tough words for PMO. And it’s not just about this issue. It’s very hard to communicate with them. And they may not like it if you print that in there, but frankly, they need to have someone who can actually communicate with Members of Parliament and they don’t.

Q: And how…

A: They used to.

Q: Can you give me examples?

A: They used to have someone who would actually phone us up and talk to us. Now I can’t even get my messages sometimes replied to after three days.

Q: Is this separate from the pro-life issues?

A: This is separate from the pro-life issues. This is just across the board issues.

Q: Is that what inspired your latest comments about MPs?***

A: No. My latest comments about MPs was just an ordinary, I do a once-a-week column. I did the column two weeks ago, tape recorded it, forgot about it. I knock all those things off in 30 minute spells, I do them in batches of two or three and that was it. There was no premeditation or anything, it was just a general thing. Actually what prompted me to that was the backbenchers standing up to David Cameron on the EU issue and also I’d been flipping through party policy to actually see what we actually do say on that … I don’t have a problem with the prime minister. But his current staff either don’t report to him what we say or vice versa. So they’re very poor communicators.

Q: So how is that manifesting itself? Is that causing problems in policy formation or…

A: We don’t always know what’s going on and that’s a problem. And that’s just on a wide-range of issues. I would say this: for me to say this to a journalist, you know, they may not like that, but frankly, please answer my phone calls back. Don’t wait three, four days. And it’s not their junior staffers who I’ve ever had problems with.

Q: Because I think, and maybe it’s just sort of coincidental between the Planned Parenthood thing and your most recent comments, but I think from the outside, people may look and think Brad Trost is upset or he’s getting a bit rambunctious or rebellious or fill in your word and maybe agitating to cause problems or speak out or criticize the government or bring forward bold legislation. In that regard, how would you describe yourself?

A: Like I said earlier, I’m not any of the more excitable MPs who are out there. I am from the conservative wing of the Conservative party and I would like to see more orientation toward that respect. I like the balance of the traditional Westminster system. We need to have a certain amount of flexibility, but we can’t operate like they do in the United States, where on fiscal issues, every man’s his own and on foreign policy, you have 400-plus secretaries of state wondering around Washington. I think I’m just a little bit more comfortable speaking out. I think, frankly, I’m getting a little more coverage because one or two things have been picked up. I’ve said controversial things before, but that was before I had any sort of namebrand on it. I’m like a lot of MPs, I liked when Max Bernier was speaking out on some issues. Now he’s in cabinet, he can’t. I’m not going to replace him on those things. But it doesn’t hurt if we have a few people speaking out on issues to broaden the debate.

Q: I’m interested to hear you bring up Bernier because that’s the comparison I wanted to ask you about. Whether you took lessons from his stretch there.

A: I’m not deliberately trying to copy anyone and I don’t have any particular strategy, but I do think it was good what Max did. He spoke out on issues that were matters of core conservative principles. I’m encouraged watching … I mean, it’s Senator Doug Finley in the Senate, hardly someone who’s remote from the power of the party, and Rob Anders in the House, who are lobbying away on the CBC issue. Which, again, is giving James Moore all sorts of headaches. So there is divergence [within] caucus, not just from me, but from other MPs and other issues. I talked to another caucus member who’s filed private members’ legislation with the journals branch. It’s not core government policy and it will be clashing with the particular minister when it does come forward. So it’s not like I’m unique, I just think maybe I caught a lucky, or unlucky, two or three notifications and since abortion is one of those volatile issues that gets a disproportionate amount of coverage when a press release is put out, I think maybe that’s why I got some press.

Q: Do you have any sense of how the party leadership feels about you and your comments on abortion particularly?

A: [Harper’s] not nearly as controlling as people think he is. I think sometimes his staffers want to be more controlling than he is … But he understands I honestly believe what I believe. So while I’m sure that they’re not thrilled about it, at the same time he knows MPs came here because they believed something and he also knows, let’s face it, at the end of the day, most Canadians care a lot more about economic issues when they vote. There’s a lot of pro-life people who vote NDP because they agree with them on the economic issues … So I don’t really think they have strong feelings one way or the other about me. They’ve got a lot of other real problems to worry about rather than one backbencher who puts out things that, yeah, they’re on the right-wing on the Conservative party, but they’re not out of the mainstream right-wing of the party.

Q: When you look at what you’re doing and what other MPs are doing, you are thinking long-term? You’re thinking a couple prime ministers…

A: This is not a short-term sort of issue. You look at the American civil rights movement, when they got rid of back-of-the-bus treatment in parts of the U.S. and things like that. It wasn’t just up they did it and five years later… We view this as a very long-term thing, a project that essentially never finishes. If you believe human life is of its own uniquely valuable … then of course you have to push it forward if you believe in things like human rights. It’s like Cold War politics. In the 1950s you kept going through the 60s and the 70s and then the 80s, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.  You didn’t give up because it was about fundamental principles. And, yeah, I think we’re fairly realistic. The Supreme Court would strike down, if we did pass some kind of legislation, the current composition of the Supreme Court would strike down immediately if it was from conception. They might allow something around week 20 or week 18 or 22 or whatever. Most MPs are very realistic about that. But it’s a broader cultural thing and the politics influences the culture just as the culture influences the politics.

*Eighty-seven Conservatives voted in favour. The bill and vote result can be viewed here.

**In a subsequent interview, Mr. Woodworth said his initiative was unrelated to Mr. Trost’s comments. Mr. Woodworth notes that he made a statement in the House in November 2010 that indicated his concern.

***See here.