Interview: Justin Trudeau on elections, terrorism, taxes

A wide-ranging conversation with the Liberal leader on the issues of the day

CORRECTS TO GATINEAU, QUE.Backed by Liberal candidates, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau makes an announcement on fair and open government in Gatineau, Que. on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau announces his plan to reform Canadian democracy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau hasn’t had a great spring. After he won the Liberal leadership in 2013, Trudeau lifted his party to a long run at the top of the federal polls. But recent opinion surveys show a tight three-way race emerging, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives edging their way up and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP enjoying a surge of popularity. Early this week, Trudeau went on the offensive, announcing a sweeping “democratic reform” package. He spoke to me a few hours later on Parliament Hill.

Here is an edited version of that interview:

You’ve put forward 32 proposals across a wide range of democratic reform issues. But the biggest new pledge is to get rid of the first-past-the-post election system in favour of proportional representation or ranked ballots, or some other different way of electing MPs. Yet in provincial referendums in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island, voters have rejected variations on those sorts of proposals. What makes you think Canadians want to dump the winner-take-all tradition, given those recent experiences?

I think as we look at declining voter turnout, as we look at the fact that people are increasingly aware that a majority government was given to a party that 60 per cent of Canadians not only didn’t vote for but actively tend to dislike, there’s a real question about how we are valuing our votes.

What it comes down to, to me, is something that I’ve talked about a lot. When you have politics that’s done by division, by wedge issues, by attacks and negativity, it actually becomes really difficult to govern responsibly for the whole. So the more people disengage from politics, the worse the quality, not just of our public discourse and debate, but of the actual policies put forward. Specifically around [electoral] reforms, I think people have reached a point where, yeah, we want to have a real opportunity to have our votes count.

The NDP has been in favour of proportional representation for a long time. So, if I’m a voter who’s tired of first-past-the-post and looking for a champion of some other way of electing MPs, why would I turn to the Liberal party? Why not the NDP as the natural champion of that type of reform?

I think one of the suspicions that people have of electoral reform is the sense that parties put forward positions that are in their own self-interest. Seeing the Green party talk about proportional representation is not illegitimate as a position, but you understand where it really makes a difference for them. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the perception that people tend to have around positions like this.

We want to make sure there is all-party, open debate, discussion drawing on experts, looking at international models, making sure that we’re actually digging into what’s the best for Canada, in terms of moving forward. And not what’s best for a particular party that happens to wield power at this particular moment.

That’s part of why we voted against the NDP’s motion [in the House for proportional representation] a few months ago. They said, “This is the best solution, this is what the country should do.” And we’ve said, “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but there needs to be a responsible, open debate.”

And would that process culminate in a referendum or plebiscite of some sort?

We’ve committed to strong, open consultations. What exactly they would look like, we’ll see. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites. And there might be all sorts of different factors in there. We are committed to responsible, open consultations to make sure we actually get to an outcome that is right for Canada moving forward.

Given all that’s happened in the Senate, your decision early last year to cut ties between your House caucus and Liberal senators looks to have been a smart move. So I had expected more details on a proposal for a new way of appointing senators in your democratic-reform package. Can you say something precise on that?

Absolutely. The reason perhaps we didn’t emphasize it as much as people might have expected us to is that it is very much a continuation, or a repeat even, of what we said last year. An independent-minded, non-partisan group of people could be formed by everyone from provincial interests, to prominent Canadians, to ordinary Canadians as well in various ways, would make recommendations to the prime minister, who would then appoint the person of his choice from a list.

Because of the Supreme Court decision of a few months ago, we’re very, very aware that the ultimate responsibility needs to rest on the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister needs to be accountable for the people who go into the Senate. Part of the problem we have right now is the Prime Minister is running as fast as he can from that responsibility. There’s an important check and balance in that.

The whole tone of what you’ve proposed this week is more flexibility, less rigidity about how our democracy functions. What is your thinking now, if you don’t win a majority in next fall’s election, on coalitions, co-operation, some sort of agreement that might allow a minority Parliament to function for a while?

First of all, I am both impressed and inspired by the kinds of conversations I have with Canadians across the country. People are very sophisticated in their concerns about various parties, in their hopes for what the next government could look like. And I’m not going to prejudge any possible outcomes.

But I do know that people are by and large really open to a change, open to having a different prime minister than Mr. Harper, specifically because there’s a need for a different tone, a different approach, a different style of government.

Now, part of that, as I’ve said throughout, a level of respect for experts and other parliamentarians, and working together to make that happen. That’s something that I’ll absolutely do. The Liberal party has always worked with multiple parties in the House to make sure we’re being governed in the best interest of Canadians.

But I won’t short-circuit the democratic process by telling Canadians that a vote for X actually means a Y government, or what have you. I’m not going to reduce the choices of Canadians at the ballot box by backroom deals or secret arrangements. I think that’s a cause for cynicism more than anything else.

Does the party that gets the most seats have to form the government of Canada?

You’re asking a question about our foundational principles in Parliament. The fact is the party that can command the confidence of the House gets to form the government, and that’s always been the tradition and that will continue to be the tradition.

You’ve said you would repeal parts of the Anti-Terrorism Act, widely referred to as Bill C-51. What parts would you repeal?

We’re about to put forward a long and comprehensive proposal that will go exactly to the changes we’re going to make. That’s coming in the coming days.

I won’t ask you to pre-empt that. But will it tell us exactly what you like and don’t like in the law?

It will talk primarily about the amendments we would have liked to have seen and the kinds of changes we would bring in. But the big one is a narrowing and limiting of the kinds of new powers that [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] and national security agencies would have. Bringing in a mandatory review clause every three years, the way we did around [the previous Liberal government’s anti-terrorism law brought in after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks], so that we know we’re doing the right things as we look at it unfold. And then the big one: bringing in oversight by parliamentarians.

A committee of MPs that would be sworn in?

Absolutely. A high level of secrecy, similar to what happens in our other Five Eyes allies. But the one thing I will point out about C-51 is that it has become an extraordinarily polarized debate. The Liberal party is doing what I am committed to in governance and Parliament, regardless of the difficulty of the situation, which is take a responsible position. We have said clearly, there are elements in there that increase the safety of Canadians in an immediate way.

Which elements are those?

Well, the preventative arrests, the strengthening of the no-fly lists and the better coordination and communication between agencies. Those will have an immediate impact. There is a sense shared among the majority of the witnesses [who testified before a House committee] that those three elements in particular increase safety for Canadians in a concrete way.

Now there is also no argument that there are a lot of other things in there that we do have concerns about. I’ve highlighted a number of them and I’ll continue to. That’s why we’re committed to repealing and replacing those elements. Now, Mr. Mulcair chose to vote against the elements that do concretely increase security for Canadians.

Well, he voted against the whole bill; he didn’t vote against those measures specifically.

I know, I know. I’m not going to go around saying that he doesn’t care about the safety of Canadians, [or that] he’s putting the safety of Canadians in danger. That, quite frankly, is an irresponsible style of politics. I don’t think after 10 years of divisive attacks by Mr. Harper that we need to be attacking each other on the opposition side when we are in agreement that there are tremendous problems with the bill, even though there are some good elements in the bill.

We made a decision to say, “I’m not going to vote against Canadians’ physical security and I’m going to make sure we’re going to uphold the rights and freedoms that are so dear to Liberals and Canadians if we form government.” Mr. Mulcair has made a different decision on that. The fact that he’s playing up the fear for Aboriginal Canadians, environmental groups and Muslims, the way Mr. Harper is playing up fears of terrorism, is quite frankly polarizing and bringing down our debate.

Isn’t the traditional role of opposition leaders, if you’re considering a piece of legislation that you think has serious flaws, to vote against it?

I think when it comes down to issues of national security, when it comes down to issues of Canadians actually being safe or not, there is a desire by Canadians that political parties not play politics. I will take the criticism that after 10 years of Stephen Harper’s way of doing things, people must think me overly generous to not try to play politics on an issue as important as this. But I know from conversations with Canadians that they do know we need both, we need to both protect physical safety and uphold rights and freedoms.

I quite frankly, and this is maybe where I made a strategic or a calculation error, I didn’t think that people would be so divisive and so aggressive as to somehow make it seem like the Liberal party doesn’t care about the Charter. Perhaps I am overly idealistic about how government should work, but when I see Mr. Mulcair stoking up fears, the same way Mr. Harper has made a very successful career of it, I have to say, you know what, that’s not what Canadians want from their leadership and their government.

I wanted to ask about the tax and child benefit policy ideas you announced earlier this spring. Some experts I’ve talked to are impressed by how your proposed Canada Child Benefit would streamline and simplify a wide array of existing parental benefits. But the income tax changes you’ve proposed seem to hit the richest Canadians and mostly benefit the next-richest group. Why would you propose changes that appear to shift benefits around among those top earners? Why not do something that helps, say, the median family?

Because a $3-billion tax break that break that goes to the middle class will make a difference. From $44,000 onwards, people pay less taxes…

But, with respect, if you’re making, say, $55,000, you’d pay very little less tax under your proposal, but if you’re making $90,000 you’d pay a lot less tax.

True, true. But there is always going to be that challenge because of the way our income tax system is made. The very, very clear intent is to say, you know what, over the last 30 years the middle class hasn’t had a real raise, over a generation, even though our economy has doubled. This is a recognition that we have to balance things out a little bit and a recognition that growth only happens in our economy when the middle class has a little more money to invest, to spend, to save, to grow the economy.

I’ve been attacked by people from the right who say, “You can’t tax the wealthiest Canadians,” and I’ve been attacked by people on the left who say, “You’re not doing enough for the families who really need the help.” I’m putting forward a responsible plan that decreases taxes on middle-class Canadians by $3 billion and asks those who have been successful to do a little more in order, not just to redistribute, but to grow the economy.

Going back to the early days of your leadership, it’s looked like the theme you wanted to hit hardest was middle-class prosperity. But now that you’ve put out a sweeping blueprint for democratic reform, is your emphasis shifting?

I think Canadians want change. The question is going to be who represents the kind of change that they want. That change needs to be about the growth and prosperity we need to build, but it’s also about approach. They go entirely together. An open, transparent government is a government that makes better decisions. One of the reasons this current government is fumbling around on so many levels is because they have stopped talking to Canadians. They’ve stopped listening to anyone other than their own narrow circles.

Don’t you think, in a way, the Conservatives are very good at connecting with people? Justice Minister Peter MacKay was out this week talking about cracking down on drunk driving. I listen to the government’s messaging on parental benefits, where they are very good at framing a simple, direct thing: a payment you’re going to get every month. Messaging on the economy isn’t about sweeping, grandiose plans, but fairly precise, targeted measures. Isn’t that showing an acumen for connecting?

No. And this is a teacher talking here. Connecting with Canadians isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you’re listening to. It’s about what you understand. They are very good at spinning a message, putting up props, and getting the broadcast exactly targeted to exactly the segment that they want. But they are not listening to Canadians. They aren’t hearing the majority of Canadians who are frustrated at how this government behaves. This is, yes, a government that messages very cleverly, but isn’t drawing Canadians into the process.

I’m not sure you can craft effective messages unless you have a sense of how people are hearing you and what they want.

Very superficial polling. Very knee-jerk. It’s always the same things. It’s fear of drunk drivers, it’s fear for your kids.

I am afraid of drunk drivers and I do worry about my kid.

Yes, absolutely. I do as well. But that’s not how you build a vision for the future of the country. And that’s what people are tired of, the fact that this government has no vision for the country, no plan for where we go.

The way you’ve just been talking strikes me as framing an argument against Stephen Harper. But you’re not the only alternative. How do you go after Thomas Mulcair? Obviously, you’re in a three-way race.

We have an approach to leadership that’s fresh. People will say too new, too inexperienced. But at the same time, we look at the experience of Mr. Mulcair, who’s been 35 years in politics, Mr. Harper, who’s [spent] close to two decades in politics, versus someone who represents a different generation, a different way of thinking and a different style of leadership, I look forward to contrasting our approach and our solutions to those of the two other parties.

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