Q&A: Peter Van Loan

The Government House leader in conversation after the NDP called for the budget implementation act to be split

Adrian Wyld/CP Images

The Government House leader and I sat down in his Centre Block office for a chat this morning immediately after the NDP had finished calling, mere steps away from his office, for the budget implementation act to be split.

Q: Let’s start with what just happened out there. The gist of it, I suppose, is that they’re going to propose to split the budget bill. Any initial reaction to that idea?

A: We’re implementing a budget. Hence we have a budget implementation bill.

Q: No interest then?

A: Well, I think we’re going to, at committee, have part out of it for a special committee, so that’ll allow a detailed study of different pieces.

Q: So it’s a non-starter then, would you say?

A: I think it’s important that we’re trying to focus on job creation, economic growth. At a time when that remains, certainly, our top priority and I think it remains very important for Canadians. I think we’re at a critical point where things can either keep going forward or start sliding back. And I think it’s critical that we do [keep going forward] and it’s important for the long term as well.

Q: Let’s go back to something your Prime Minister said, which I assume you’re familiar with this quote by now, but I’ll read it just for the sake of clarity. This was 1994, dealing with the implementation bill that year. He said, ‘First there’s a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bills we have before us attempt to amend—’

A: This is from an argument on a point of order?

Q: Yes.

A: What was the ruling of the Speaker?

Q: The Speaker ruled it out of order.

A: Well there you are.

Q: But then are you saying you don’t agree with your Prime Minister of 1994?

A: I think the Speaker’s ruling speaks for itself.

Q: So none of these, when he says, ‘How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote on a block on such legislation and on such concerns?’ Is that not a legitimate question?

A: The Speaker ruled.

Q: So as far as you’re concerned, there are no concerns with moving a 400-and-however-many-page bill that deals with several different issues?

A: Well that’s the nature of a budget bill. The nature of our budget bill is to focus on our priorities for the economy. Economic growth, long-term prosperity, job creation. And that’s what this bill does in a comprehensive package.

We’re a country right now that has—if you take a look at all the Western countries right now. Europe, you see what’s happening there, they’re really, really challenged by the fact that they have huge fiscal holes and this austerity versus growth thing, for them it’s a conundrum because they’ve gotten to the point on the debt side where it’s hard to dig out. Their demographics are working against them and what do they have within to work with? Not a lot. The United States, a similar situation, a little bit of a younger demographic, but generally speaking, a very similar pattern of debt that’s like triple ours on a per capita basis. And a deficit that’s really significant and there seems to be a lack of political will to wrestle with these things. And you have emerging economies that are moving ahead and you cannot expect, if you don’t do anything, to enjoy the same standard of living, the same kind of social programs tomorrow that we have today, if you ignore the changing global economy and if you don’t do things to respond to it. That’s why Europe is in crisis now. They’ve gone for too long trying to ignore these things. They’re having to massively cut social programs, huge dislocation as a result.

So what we’re trying to do is prevent that day of reckoning from happening. And I know the opposition says put these things off, delay them, carve them off, don’t deal with it, but the fact is that would be irresponsible for Canadians, economically, to do that. We’ve gone through basically six years of minority Parliament, when you couldn’t do that long-term thinking, when everything was based on a six-month agenda. Now that we have a majority, it’s really incumbent upon us to make up for lost time on long-term planning and to wrestle with that, make a choice about the future. And that’s exactly what this budget does. It recognizes that Canada has certain fundamental advantages. We have it on the agricultural side with the ability to produce things that people need. We have it on the resource side, with minerals, with energy, at a time when those things are wanted. And we have it on the human resources side, the most skilled workforce in the world. But if we’re going to succeed, for example, at manufacturing, it’s not going to be by making stuff for the dollar store cheaper than in China, it’s going to be harnessing human talent, for innovation, for creativity, to make customized products or innovative products of a high quality better than other people. That requires a real human resources strategy too.

So you see in this budget, all those pieces come together into an economic plan, that allows for resources to be harnessed, not by, I think it was quite unfair when they were saying that we’re compromising the environmental process. I come to this as an approvals lawyers. And the problem with the federal process up till now is that it made it too easy to kill projects. Why? Because there’s no end to the process. I came under the Ontario planning process, where I used to practice law, where the way it’s set up in an adversarial fashion means that, you’re going to impose things? Yeah, you can impose to a certain point, but if you abuse the process, you’ll pay a price. And there’s a balance that works out of this. We’re using an approach where we’re setting a timeline. You have to make a decision within two years. The thing that kills projects, there are two variables … one is the cost of time and the other is the cost of risk. And those two numbers in a pro forma are the things that cause someone to not go ahead. And they’re constantly revisiting it throughout. So for those who are opponents, it becomes very easy to kill a project, not on its merits, but rather by taking advantage of a process to delay unduly. Projects start taking seven, eight, nine, ten years. In particular you have public sector reviewers. The easiest thing in the world to do is to put something off because you’re not sensitive to the cost of time and to the cost of risk. Because for you, putting the decision off till tomorrow is an easy thing to do. So by creating a timeframe, we’re not resulting in any less diligence or any lower environmental standards, we’re just ensuing that a decision gets made, yes or no. And that’s what a proponent wants. If it’s going to be a no, tell me now in two years, don’t make me waste millions of dollars more and on interest and waiting and waiting for six more years to get me the same no. Tell me no now. Or tell me yes now.

So this gives us the chance to harness those resource opportunities now, while there’s a global market. Will the emerging economies still have the same demand, will the prices still be as good, 30 years from now, 40 years from now? We don’t know that. And I think there’s a good chance they will not be. As the world comes to a kind of new equilibrium. But if Canada’s to set itself apart with a path where we can ensure that prosperity so that we can pay for health care at the levels we want to in the future, so that we can deal with the changing demographics of a population that’s aging and still be able to support them, we need to be able to do that, both on the workforce side, hence the immigration components of the bill and on the resource development side. So that’s why, to me, it all makes sense as a comprehensive economic plan. So if you then want to carve off parts and say, well, go ahead with our plan, but only two-thirds of it. Well, I don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s right. What we have put before Canadians is an economic plan for the short, medium and long term and that’s what we’re trying to move with.

Q: But you could carve this up into 20 pieces and you’re going to be able to pass every single one of those pieces.

A: Well, we’re having the longest debate ever on a budget implementation bill. Or longest debate in the last two decades. Probably longest ever, we’ve only gone back two decades.

Q: But the argument against it isn’t necessarily time, it’s breadth and depth. The argument being, as Mr. Harper made 18 years ago, how can you possibly ask members to vote on something that has dozens of initiatives in it? How can they offer a simple yes or no to those many things?

A: By allowing, for example, a special committee to deal with it at committee. By having the longest ever—the one he was dealing with didn’t have as long a debate—we’re having the longest in the past two decades debate on a budget implementation bill. So we’re allowing ample opportunity for debate. Same as the bill seeks to ensure you make a decision, we’re also trying to ensure that after ample debate and discussion, a decision gets made.

Q: But why not carve it up into 10 different pieces?

A: Because it’s an economic plan. Because that is simply a transparent delay tactic to draw things out and block a whole legislative agenda. And I understand, for the opposition, they don’t want to see a Conservative plan get implemented. They want to put it off as long as possible because they have a different approach. Higher taxes, more regulation, bigger debts and deficits. That’s not our plan.

Q: But, for instance, eliminating the CSIS inspector general is an economic plan?

A: Well that’s part of going towards balancing the budget. And that was a duplication, right? Having been in that portfolio before I can assure you, just about everybody … agrees that it was a redundancy. You have SIRC and you have the inspector general. I spent a lot of time as public safety minister trying to figure out the difference. And, in fact, sometimes when you have that kind of duplication, things fall between the cracks because everyone can say, Well, that part’s not my responsibility, that’s the other guy’s responsibility. And the inspector general goes, Oh, well, that’s SIRC’s responsibility. And through that things are more likely to fall between the cracks. You want true accountability, you put one body in charge.

Q: 2005, something else Mr. Harper said, on that budget implementation bill, because the Liberals at the time were going to bring Kyoto in on that. They backed down, but at the time, he said, ‘We have several concerns on this, most notably the amendments that would give the government unlimited power to implement Kyoto without ever bringing a plan to Parliament. This is a back door manoeuvre to give the government a blank cheque.’ Isn’t that almost exactly what you’re now accused of doing with EI?

A: I don’t know what the terms were [on Kyoto].

Q: But isn’t that exactly the same argument that’s being made now about the EI regulations, in that they haven’t been explained, they simply just give government power to make changes without bringing a plan to Parliament?

A: Well, I don’t know enough about the EI system to know how much right now gets done by regulation and how much gets done by legislation. I know we do pilot projects all the time, we do all kinds of changes all the time without going to Parliament. But the objective on EI is a very simple one and that’s to try to ensure we are actually harnessing the workforce talent there is. If you’ve got parts of the country with very high unemployment yet we’re having to bring in temporary workers because local people won’t take jobs … that speaks to a system that’s broken. We have to have a system that actually encourages people to take jobs when they exist and to get back to work and helps people to get back into the workforce instead of punishing them for taking jobs.

Q: But is the government going to explain those changes before this budget bill gets passed?

A: Well, you have to be able to respond to its changing economics. I think in creating a new system or giving yourself that flexibility, you need to be able to respond to changes in an economy that we have moving at very different speeds in different parts of the country.

Q: To deal with the larger point, because I know you guys have done the research going back 20 years, the general complaint seems to be that these bills are getting bigger. And the Liberals, for sure, granted, moved some pretty big bills in their last few years. But they never moved a budget implementation bill that was over 500 pages, 900 pages—

A: This one is not.

Q: This one is over 400 pages. So, granted, you’re getting smaller. But you have some pretty big bills.

A: Smaller bills, more debate.

Q: Fair enough. But is it not a concern that these bills are getting so large that there’s just too much in there that can’t possibly be scrutinized?

A: Well, we introduced a budget over a month ago. That budget went through debate in the House. The NDP decided to let only one guy speak for three days. So if anybody’s denying people an opportunity to speak to it, it’s the NDP there. Not us. We’re having, as I said, the longest ever debate. And if people… when I listen to the debates, on these bills, every time we have a concern there’s not enough time to study or there’s not enough time to debate it or get our views on, I can tell you, we’re into speaker number 50, number 60, number 70, I don’t see MPs doing a lot of, from the opposition, doing a lot of new research. I don’t see them bringing forward new ideas. I don’t see them working too hard on it. So, in this case, we’re talking well over a month since the budget. The budget implementation bill introduced April 26th, so we’re talking three weeks for just the second reading stage, for people to study it and look at it. And then there’s going to be more time in committee, in detail. I think there’s ample time to do the job.

Q: Is the committee system able to handle a 400-pager? 

A: Well, we’re breaking it out into a sub-committee, so you’re going to have two committees dealing with it. And certainly that’s happened in the past. I guess it comes down to how hard people want to work.

Q: So basically the argument at this point is, this is the budget plan, so anything that goes in there—

A: There’s ample opportunity. Like we’re not talking Obamacare here. We’re not talking a bill where Nancy Pelosi says you’ve got to pass it first and then you’ll find out what it says. There’s ample opportunity for folks to study this, at second reading, in committee.

Q: But I guess the argument would be though that you can have as much time in the House as you want, but if it’s not broken up into 10 different bills, those bills don’t get individual scrutiny. Instead it is a sort of scattershot, overall argument about the thing. Instead of an argument about environmental regulations.

A: So it has been with budget implementation bills since forever. They implement a budget. That’s why it’s called a budget implementation bill.

Q: But as we’ve noted, some people, such as Mr. Harper, didn’t like that.

A: In this case, we’re going to probably have a second budget implementation in the fall. Because not everything from the budget is in this one. So we’ve already broken it up that way. We’ll break it up at committee some more. So there is, as I say, ample opportunity for putting it into bite size pieces. I think it really comes down to whether people are willing to do the work or not.

Q: But are we approaching a point where the government is simply going to table one or two bills a year that are both 500 pages long and include a thousand different things?

A: So far we’ve got 18 bills this year to royal assent. So far. And more to come. So no, I don’t think that’s the case at all. But I think when you’re talking about a budget and the government’s economic plan, yeah, it does make sense for them all to be together. And to try to pretend that resources development doesn’t have to do with job creation or that our immigration system is unrelated to the economy, I think that’s the kind of thinking that put us in the difficulty we have right now and the challenges that we’re trying to correct. We’re trying to recognize that actually these things are fundamental to the economy and are linked to the economy. That’s what it’s all about, so let’s deal with it that way.

Q: But couldn’t that argument be applied to almost anything that’s put before the House?

A: Well in this case it’s a comprehensive economic plan and that’s what we’re dealing with.

Q: But that’s what I mean, a government could foreseeably just introduce a thousand-page bill at the start of the year and say this is our entire plan, it all relates to the economy.

A: But that’s not what we’re doing. In fairness, that’s not what we’re doing.

Q: Fair enough.

A: I can take you through the whole speech again about Western countries at a crossroads, making our choices and so on. And this actually fits. There’s a thought process here. There’s a planning process here. There’s an objective here. Which is jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity and this seeks to make that happen. Seeks to implement that in the budget.

Q: But we did seem to once get by with budget implementation bills that were 20 pages, 40 pages, 50 pages.

A: Right.

Q: The country seemed to do okay then. So why do we have to do 400 and 500 and 900 page budget implementation bills?

A: Well we can decide whether the country did well or not or whether the economy was… but here, as I said, we’ve had six years of not a lot of forward planning. Some would argue that maybe not a lot of forward planning under the previous government as well. And we’re at a point where we have to make decisions for the sake of the future of the economy. And we just want to see those decisions made. And that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s very tempting to want to put stuff off and avoid work and not wrestle with the challenges that Canada faces or to sort of put your head in the sand about the changing global economy. And in some ways it’s easy to because Canada has been doing better than other countries. But the fact is we are in a very dramatically changing global economy. Canada has to make changes and do the right kind of structural planning and changes in order to stay competitive, relevant and prosperous. And that’s what we are doing. And to ignore that, or to put it off, or to avoid it, I think would be irresponsible for any government. It would be a mistake for us to do that. And I don’t think we should do that. I’m glad we’re not doing that.