Maclean's Interview: Stephen Harper

Prime minister Stephen Harper talks to Paul Wells about health care, national unity, and his comfort level with opening up

Q: Let’s start with some of this personal stuff. You’ve got a TV commercial out in which you talk about playing piano while your son plays guitar. Did you ever expect that to be part of your political work?

A: That’s a good question. For some time, my people have been wanting me to — the best way to put it is — express myself more as opposed to just talk about the government’s policies and answer questions about the opposition and where the country’s headed. It’s something that, in some ways, I’ve been a slow sell on. I guess I come from a background — I admit to being, culturally, very British or English — where you tend to be distrustful of people who talk about themselves too much or make it about themselves. Obviously, we’re more reticent about expressing ourselves and our emotions. But, you know, I’m working with it and getting my own comfort level with it. And I do think there’s a fine line between talking about some of these things that people may find more interesting, and giving the impression that you want to be a celebrity in People magazine or something — because I don’t and I never have. And I don’t think that’s something that people want in a prime minister.

Q: There’s one subject that I think you were anticipating more friction on in the early days of this campaign than you’ve gotten. So I’m happy to give you a bit more. Look: the plain meaning of your fixed election-date law was that you weren’t going to call an election. There is an exquisitely tailored constitutional loophole that allowed you to get out of it. But it stated a date that would have been within the normal life of this minority Parliament — and in the end you called the election rather than be defeated in the House of Commons.

A: Yeah, well, I don’t agree with that interpretation. What we tried to do is create some certainty. And you know, a fixed election date has always been, let’s face it, somewhat theoretical in the context of a minority. Certainly my intention at the outset of this Parliament was to make this Parliament work as long as possible. And I think it’s probably fair to say I had a distant hope that we would make it to the date. But I always thought we would need flexibility. And what I saw developing in the last few months, I saw developing very clearly. As we sat down in the summer, particularly in July, we spent a lot of time planning the fall session, looking at the agenda we had and some of the things we wanted to achieve. And I just concluded that we were at the stage where we weren’t going to get anything done. More importantly, I was increasingly worried that the opposition was moving toward a place where they had no intention whatsoever of letting us govern, but they also might not want to bring this Parliament to an end. They might want to just push this Parliament to a place where it was getting absolutely nothing done. And that’s not good for the country.

I guess I didn’t anticipate we’d get to a stage where the opposition might neither defeat us nor actually allow us to govern. And that was the situation I saw developing and we could not allow. And when I met with the opposition leaders, it was plain to me that that’s exactly where they were headed. And you know, they’re not really complaining about an election, they’re just complaining about me calling it so they can score some points on it. But none of them has any intention of letting the government do anything. We can’t run the country that way. Our system can’t operate like that. And as I say, my defence is, you know if we were doing a snap election, they would have some real complaints. But we telegraphed this for weeks, gave them every opportunity to send different signals, and they didn’t. Look, I would say that in the context of a majority, there’s no excuse for calling an election other than the fixed election date. But we’re not in that situation, and we were simply in a situation where we had to use our better judgment.

Q: Your campaign message, essentially, is that we’re at a level of prosperity that mustn’t be put at risk . . .

A: No, not quite, I wouldn’t quite put it that way. I say right now that we do have significant economic challenges. They don’t emanate from Canada, but obviously we’re part of a world economy, and a North American economy, where they effect Canada acutely. I think we’re on the right track to get through that. I think to go on a different track right now, the tracks being proposed by the opposition, would be disastrous. It would endanger our ability to successfully get through this period that I think we are moving successfully through.

Q: I had to chuckle a bit at the communiqué that went out on the day of the writ drop, which, in stark terms, talks about certainty versus risk. What made me chuckle was, I thought that Canada at its best had long been a country of risk-takers. What’s wrong with trying something new?

A: Well, I think we’re maybe talking about those terms in slightly different contexts. And look, we toyed a lot with the phrase because, you know, we are in an uncertain world. What better way to put [what we offer] than certainty? What we offer is a very clear path and a very clear program to deal with the challenges we have. What the other side offers is, frankly, a gamble, not just on a policy that is untested, but on a policy that is, as far as I can see, incomplete and is being improvised on the fly. Everybody knows we’re in challenging economic times. Everybody knows — the Liberal party knows; they governed for a long time — that you have to operate within a budget of some kind. And yet they bash every tax manoeuvre; they decry every single expenditure as inadequate; they demand new programs they know we can’t afford; they attack every single economy in government that we find. This is just a completely ad hoc set of unrealistic economic policies that now they’re trying to hold together with this carbon tax. And I won’t even talk about the Bloc and the NDP. Their policies aren’t even that coherent. And this is the kind of opposition that is threatening to obstruct us in a minority. And I just think this is a choice we’ve got to put to Canadians. And I think it’s a clear choice.

Q: Opposition leaders often come forward with policies that prove hard too implement or don’t work out. Two policies that you had last time: elected senators and a health-care wait times guarantee.

A: Well, first of all let me just comment on your preamble. Yes, oppositions frequently get themselves into making promises they cannot carry out or that are impossible to carry out. I actually think we did a pretty good job in the last Parliament, if you look back, at staying away from making too many commitments until we got to the election. And then I think we made, for the most part, a focused number of largely achievable commitments.

I will be honest with you, I’m disappointed we haven’t made at least some progress on [Senate reform]. I thought we would — you may remember I took a couple of doable steps: give the prime minister the option of having elected senators; try and fix the term at eight years instead of 45. I thought these were achievable objectives; none of them have gone anywhere.

We’ve tabled legislation to allow for the election of senators. We haven’t been able to get it through this Parliament because the NDP and the Bloc favour abolishing the Senate, the Liberal party favours the status quo, and so we’ve reached an impasse. And I won’t talk about the Senate, which opposes any motion, but our view is still clear. And you know, in my hope of getting some change, I’ve left virtually every single seat in the Senate vacant, to give ourselves the option of putting in some elected senators. But that’s a long-term agenda.

On the health-care wait times guarantee, well, look: we’ve announced several [agreements] with the provinces. There’s a lot more work to be done on that but we’ve always said this is a one-step-at-a-time improvement to the health care system. The health-care system is far from perfect, but I think the general consensus is that we are seeing some incremental improvement through our actions.

By the way, the important thing about our health care program is not the wait times guarantee, per se. It is that whatever we’ve done, we’ve been prepared to do while recognizing that the provinces have primary responsibility and working with them to help achieve these objectives. As opposed to trying to embarrass them or lecture them from on high about how they’re running a health care system that we at the federal level, frankly, don’t completely understand how to run.

Q: In Vancouver, I was struck by your pitch to Montreal federalists, especially anglophone federalists. You know, “40 years of stale confrontation.” But what makes a lot of them leery is that in 1987, things were quite calm on the federal-provincial relations front. We had a Conservative, province-friendly prime minister, and then it all went to hell in a handcart with a five-year constitutional roller coaster. They’re worried that something like that would happen again.

A: Well, they should also worry about what happened much more recently than that, which was the crazy unity policies of the latter-day Chrétien government, the sponsoship fiasco, and all of that.

I would say this. We have taken a considered approach. As you know, in spite of my age I’m quite a veteran of these constitutional wars. I think I’ve learned a lot from them. And I think we’ve demonstrated pretty clearly that we’re moving this in the right direction. I don’t think it’s been moving in such a positive direction in a very long time. Who would have thought, even 25 or 30 years ago, we’d have a Parti Québécois that doesn’t even want to talk about a referendum on sovereignty, let alone sovereignty, and a so-called sovereignist leader in Ottawa who now says he’s campaigning for federalist votes, and who doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty. I do think we’re moving this in the right direction. I know a lot about what happened before, and I think we’ve learned from it. It will always be something that requires careful management, but I really do think on this one we’re on the right track.

I would say, on the contrary, my opponent, Mr. Dion, who — take nothing away from him; he’s a committed federalist — but Mr. Dion brings an essentially dogmatic and confrontational approach to this issue that, whether he understands it or not, would inflame this issue overnight. And frankly, combined with his carbon tax, which isn’t just about bad economic policy, but also about getting a whole bunch of money back in Ottawa, would reignite a whole bunch of debates that this country doesn’t need reignited. Whether it’s the fiscal imbalance or the unity issue, whether people agree specifically with what we’ve done or not, I think if they sit back and look at it, they’ve got to agree that we’re moving the country to a better place.

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