Q&A with Thomas Mulcair

The leader of the NDP talks to Aaron Wherry about Layton's legacy, carbon pricing, the Liberal leadership race and Twitter

I sat down with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in the leader of the opposition’s office yesterday. Here is a transcript of our conversation, slightly abridged and edited.

How do you see the last year for you and the NDP? Do you feel you’re winning? Do you feel you’re getting somewhere?

We’re doing well. And the Abacus poll was confirmation of that … I dare say that we’ve been through a rough 18-month cycle. I mean, we started off in 2011 with a huge high, May 2. We realized then … It was interesting. I don’t think I’ve told too many people this story. I sat down with Jack shortly after, like two, three days after the election and when we became official opposition, he was asking me to become opposition House leader, it was a great feather in my cap. And then he said something to me that was quite interesting, he said, you know, this is a huge challenge. And I was just expecting him to be so effusive with the breakthrough and everything and he said, no, no, this is going to be a huge challenge. So then the huge challenge became all the bigger with his loss. And then we had to really work hard through a long, seven-month leadership  where we were missing a lot of our frontbenchers who were in the campaign and then we had to rebuild.

When I held the little press conference up in Toronto after the leadership, the next day, I used an expression that came to spontaneously, I said, we’re going to have a cascading transition under the sign of continuity. So I was so lucky, like somebody like [chief of staff to Jack Layton] Anne [McGrath] stayed with me long enough to hand off to [current chief of staff] Raoul [Gebert], overlapped with Raoul … So a couple of the other changes that took place were like that. We brought in a few people, the core team you still recognize when you see them around us. And so it’s been a huge challenge in terms of the structure and the organization, but some of the good points for me after becoming leader: in August I was doing my parish visit in Quebec, I would be in places like Vercheres—Les Patriotes, where Sana Hassainia is our MP, and be in a community hall on a Sunday morning with several hundred people who had all paid as part of a fundraiser, but she had municipal officials there, you know the mayors and the councillors, she had community groups, she had the schools and stuff like that. They’re getting settled in, they’re putting down roots. The same day I was at a corn roast for Helene LeBlanc and she had about 600 people and a lot of the cultural communities, so they’re setting down roots, they’re doing their fundraising, they’re getting well known in their communities, they’re in their local papers, so that part’s coming together.

Come this spring, we’re pivoting, right? We’re going to be entering the third year. And so the consolidation phase has to be finished. We’ve got to start the preparatory phase for the next campaign.

You talked, I think, coming into this fall about not just being opposition, but trying also to bring proposition to this. It seems to me that if it was proposition this fall, it was more sort of reactive to what was happening.

Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. For example, when Helene Laverdiere put something on the table to bring AIDS drugs to the poorest, sickest people in the world, she’s saying this is a small tweak to our legislation, it gets medication to sick people, vote for it and as wide-ranging opinion as some grassroots groups to the Globe and Mail all agreed that we were on the right track with that.

But you’re completely right, some of it is reactive and I’ll give you an example of that. When we look at the debacle of the F-35, we find their attitude very arrogant sometimes with [Parliamentary Budget Officer] Kevin Page or [Auditor General Michael] Ferguson, just saying, well, you don’t know anything. Or the opposition, well, you don’t know anything … but they didn’t proceed in the basic rules of public administration. So what we’re saying in that case is, we would provide good, competent public administration. Now that might be a really boring slogan, but it’s a way of communicating to people that the NDP that we want to present in the election is going to be comprised of women and men who have the confidence in their ability to do just that. And we can compare it. Because you have to make concessions in politics and the worst to do is to underestimate your adversary, so I try not to do that. But when I look at what they’ve done on some poor, administrative files, I know they’ve fallen way short, of just pure competence.

You know, when you set your priorities in terms of public administration, you’ve got a pyramid, right? You’ve got a whole pyramid of public servants and departments and agencies and sub-directorates that works its way up to do what, finally? Deliver a service to the public, right? So when times are tougher, and you have to start leaning things down, the last thing you touch is the direct service to the public. So what did we see them do? Forty-six-point-six million bucks chopped out of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. We found out today that again we’ve got tainted meat on the shelves of our supermarkets. That’s a failing of the system that’s there to protect the public. So when you set your priorities, the first thing you would say is, okay we won’t touch anything that affects public protection. But that’s what they went after first, they went after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, they went after aircraft safety, they removed the Kitsilano coast guard station and they’re cutting back on maritime search-and-rescue both on the west coast and the east coast. People in Newfoundland who have been in distress have been transferred to a call centre in Italy. So that’s a problem of public administration, because the first thing you do when you manage anything is you set your priorities and they clearly don’t have any. So they love being in power, but they don’t enjoy the detailed work, and it is work, of governing. And that’s the big difference.

So are we going to see in 2013 the outlines of what an NDP government would do?

Yeah, don’t forget, every two years we have our big conference … it’ll be in Montreal on April 14 … We’re going to have about 1,500 people from across Canada coming out and we’re going to start setting down some of the bigger planks.

Do you have in your head already the ideas you want to pursue?

There are two different things that I can answer to that: one is a more impressionistic one and the other one is more concrete. The impressionistic one is the one I was getting at before. It’s communicating our confidence and our ability to run this complex place. It’s a complex government. We’re the second largest country in the world. We’ve got a complex public administration. We do things that other countries don’t do. And I think we’ve made some mistakes in terms of our economy. You’ve noticed that about two-thirds of my questions have been on the economy since the beginning of term. It’s a constant theme, so it’s not just reacting to a daily headline in that case, of course, yeah you will be in the news cycle occasionally, but more than anything else we’re putting forward our own ideas on the economy, what distinguishes us from them.

Because overarching everything else, we’re going to be putting a clear choice on the table in the next election. People will know what we are, what we stand for and they’ll have a choice. We’re not going to try to be all things to all people. We’ll be clarifying that.

On the more concrete stuff, yes, I’ve got some pretty clear ideas. When you hear us constantly talking about the fact that we’re losing a balanced economy that we had. We have different analyses of how we got there, what the problem is. A great guy named Serge Coulombe, who’s written two reports now and who was out giving another conference on this. We’ve talked about it openly, we will run on a theme of sustainable development in the next campaign, meaning that we have to look at the economic, the ecological and the social debt…

Are you ready, are you prepared, to fully engage a debate on carbon pricing?

It has to be part of the equation. When I talk about including the price and polluter pay, that’s part of the equation, of course. And that’s a basic principle of sustainable development.

Do you worry at all that you’ve lost that debate already by the fact that they can throw the phrase “carbon tax” at you?

When you watch Jacques Gourde being replayed in English, because he did one of his stupid stunts in English, you realize that the average Canadian commentator just looking at this is saying, these guys have lost their marbles.

This is a serious subject. Global warming is not a joke. It’s not a theory. It’s not somebody’s idea. It’s measurable. The disappearance of the polar ice cap is not a fiction, it’s measurable. They don’t want to measure it anymore, but it’s actually happening. If we have the two degrees centigrade temperature increase that we’re fearing, then we will have an extraordinarily damaging effect on life on earth and ecosystems and their ability to adapt that rapidly to that type of change. There are climate change deniers, but the jury’s already rung in on that. We can have different solutions for how to deal with that, we can have different analyses of how we got there. But the basic fact of the matter is if we don’t reduce greenhouse gases, then we’re in trouble. The way that works, the way that I’ve seen this work, because I was a minister of the environment and I was able to work on these things … I remember there was a big debate in 2008. We, like the Conservatives, were saying cap-and-trade. There was a strong reason to say cap-and-trade. By the way, we got pushed back strongly by some environmental groups: why aren’t you backing the Green Shift? And my answer was always forthright and straight and strong. I said, look, when it wasn’t CO2, it was SO2, which combined with H2O was producing S2HO4, acid rain. It was raining sulphuric acid on our forests and on the American forests in the northeast. We got together with the Americans, and companies like Inco, that had steadfastly refused to put in the scrubbers in their stacks, when faced with a lowering ceiling and the obligation to trade within that closed market, the year that it finally became more expensive for them to purchase the credits than it would be to put in the scrubbers, they put the scrubbers in. They had refused to put in the scrubbers, they had threatened to shut down and this was in the face of a Conservative Bill Davis government in Ontario, they had been pig-headed about it. The landscape up there was so rough that that’s where the Apollo astronauts trained. Go back to Sudbury today, you see millions of trees have been planted, the place is coming back, they’ve done the responsible thing.

So a cap-and-trade system will lower your ceiling, force people to come up with choices, get creative. If you look at the three years I was a minister in Quebec, you’ll see drops in greenhouse gas production, we were applying a plan. The Liberals, on the other hand, signed Kyoto and I can give you three words that you can google “Eddie,” “Goldenberg” and “galvanize” … it says so much about who the Liberals are. He admitted that they signed Kyoto as a public relations exercise. With no plan to meet any of those goals. That’s why Canada went on to have one of the worst records in the world … The Liberals have a history of flashing left and turning right on this sort of stuff. We’re going to try something new that’s never been tried before in Canadian politics, we’re going to tell people what we’re going to do and then once we’re elected, we’re actually going to do it.

The one issue that has come up … even, I think, within the NDP, is this question of revenue and whether revenue from cap-and-trade should be used strictly for environmental purposes or whether it could go into general revenues.

I think that there has to be an equivalent amount that goes into environmental purposes. It has to be concentrated in those provinces, those areas where that money is being generated. One of the things that we can do is displace some of the coal that we’re burning and we should be heading for that. That’s why I was the only Quebec politician in the 2011 campaign to back loan guarantees for the Lower Churchill. We took a hit on it a couple weeks ago. The Bloc was out there lighting their hair on fire. The National Assembly had its umpteenth resolution against those loan guarantees. And I stood up four-square in favour of those loan guarantees because you can’t be in favour of green renewables and then be against them the minute somebody wants to build them in another province. So this is actually a part of the vision of sustainable development that we’re going to be putting forward, a grid, a system of green renewables across Canada to displace a lot of the heavy oil, the coal that we’re burning to create electricity.

I don’t want to split hairs too much, but would you rule out using cap-and-trade revenue for social programs?

Yes. Somebody will tell you that at some point there’s a vases communicants, but what I’m saying is that you would have to have an equivalent amount that would go to those environmental purposes.

Since you say you’ll comment on polls, are you at all worried about the Liberals? Do you feel any threat from Mr. Trudeau?

Whoever wins that Liberal leadership race, and this is worth remembering, is going to be their seventh leader in nine years. I’m going to let the Liberals sort themselves out. But I do know, if you read the most recent Leger poll from Quebec, because the Abacus poll was revealing, but read the commentary from the guy from Leger and they’re quite straight-up guys and they’re very experienced and he goes, you know, a lot of this at this stage of the game is about name recognition. So I’m just going to keep working, doing the job that we’ve been doing for the past 10 years, with Jack, communicating with more and more Canadians, reaching out beyond our traditional base to people who might share our vision, our ideas, but weren’t quite convinced they could toss us the keys to a complex public administration and a large economy like ours. Continue to recruit people of the calibre of Murray Rankin. And I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to meet him yet, but I’ll guarantee you one thing, you’ll know him by June. Amazing. Really amazing guy. Huge experience. Worked in the largest law firms. Prof. Well-respected. Fluently bilingual. He’s the type of the person that we can recruit.

One of the legacies that Jack left, but it’s a specific gift for me in this case, is I no longer have to go through as many hoops as him to recruit candidates. I used to tease him and say, you don’t recruit candidates, you have to court them. It took us, like, years to get somebody like Romeo Saganash, who was a really respected, senior, First Nations leaders in Quebec. For us, now, the good news is incredible people are approaching us to run in the next election and we’re thrilled about that.

It’s tough to tell whether it’s just sort of an undercurrent or whether it’s going to become a thing, but the Conservatives, with the thing with Mr. Van Loan the other day and yesterday on the Prime Minister’s Twitter account—

(Laughing) I saw that one.

—these suggestions of Angry Tom and, I wasn’t in the House yesterday so I missed the catcalls, but are you at all worried about that portrayal? Is it in the back of your head in anyway when you’re in public? Does that concern you at all?

To be honest with you, there are parts of our lives here that you guys don’t see. And I’ll share with you two scenes from life on the Hill. Because the Prime Minister’s office is literally right under mine so sometimes we meet on the way down. And yesterday, very friendly, handshake, all right, we go in and we’re doing our jobs. And when they fail to answer, because they couldn’t answer and on CNOOC/Nexen they’re dead wrong. CNOOC/Nexen means that Nexen now has national treatment, can now buy and expand its business as much as it wants in the oil sands. They’re wrong on that when they say that that’s not the case. We’re right on that.

So when they’re avoiding answering, they don’t have an answer, we hit them hard. It was a very tough, straight-on debate in the House. Very tough. When we left, by pure coincidence, we wound up bumping into the Prime Minister again, big smiles all around, all the best to you and your family for the holidays. That’s the real world on a personal level. Which doesn’t mean that you back down from the tough fight on the policy level, on the political level. We know that they weren’t telling the truth on CNOOC/Nexen. We were going to stand our ground on that one.

One of the game-changers here since I’ve been in charge of the opposition is that for the first time, Stephen Harper is facing a tough, strong, structured official opposition. Nycole Turmel put her hand on my shoulder and said, I don’t know who the Liberals are going to have, but whoever it is is going to have trouble finding room between the two of you.

C-377 passing last night and some of the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative and some of the proposals coming out of the Consevative side, seem to be setting up this association of the NDP with union bosses … Because the NDP has a long standing relationship with unions, how do you navigate that issue? And is it possibly a liability for the NDP to be tied to unions?

I would dare suggest that at least half of that exercise is not targetting us as it is red meat for the Reform party base. So there’s that part of it.

We’re very proud of working with organized labour that’s brought to you and your family, a weekend. That brought workers in Canada today, work place health and safety legislation that would never have existed if we didn’t have this parity approach where you have a structure of organized labour, where you can negotiate rights for workers in an open process. That’s a good thing in our society. It’s such a good thing that the Supreme Court of Canada has constantly affirmed, since the Charter was adopted, that these are indeed Charter rights. Freedom of association is a Charter right. Freedom of expression is a Charter right.

The bill is patently unconstitutional. It’ll be knocked down by the courts, there’s no doubt about that. They know that. So that’s where the red meat for the Reform party base comes in.

You make a smart observation that it might be about branding us with that, but I don’t think that Canadians, generally speaking, are opposed to seeing people have rights. When we see 330,000 temporary foreign workers brought into this country, deprived of their rights, bringing down working conditions for Canadians, when we see the loss of hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing jobs that had enough of a salary for a family to live on and a pension, people are worried. You know, for the first time we’re being told by a government that you have to settle for less, that your kids are going to have to settle for less. We think that we can still continue to grow and to have a greater country and a better place for the greater good. So we want prosperity, but the difference between us is we want prosperity for everyone.

In the past 35 years, the top 20% only have seen their revenues increase, the other 80% have seen actually seen their revenues drop. So we’re on the verge of becoming the first generation in Canadian history to leave less to our kids than what we got. And we find that unacceptable. That’s why we have this theme of sustainable development. If I could dial it back, the base of a social democratic approach is to remove inequalities in society. The big battle of generations ago was working people, making sure they had their rights and that they had a decent standard of living. One of the basic inequalities in our society today is an inequality between generations, it’s intergenerational equity that we’re talking about. That’s why I had, one of the first communications decisions I took was all this fall, our young MPs have been touring Canada, touring the campuses, non-stop, to talk to young people, to engage with them, to let them know that you can change things. Don’t forget, 65% of 18-to-25-year-olds didn’t bother to vote the last time. And when that happens, these guys get in. So we’re going to work hard to get them out to vote. Get them excited about what they can do for their own future.

Whenever the question of inequality comes up, and really the question of anything to do when the government is in deficit and trying to get back to balance, is the question of revenue and taxes. Are you prepared to raise taxes in anyway?

I ran a campaign on that. And I was categorical. And I won. And I’m going to stick to that.

So no raising taxes?

That’s not part of my plan. At all. Look at my history as a public administrator. I held a deputy-minister-level position as president of the Office des professions du Québec from 87 to 93. Go pull out my annual reports. Look at the budget figures, look at the number of employees. Pull out my three years as minister of the environment of Quebec. Look what I did at number of employees, look what I did with budgets, but I still managed to increase by 51% the number of inspections. That’s good public administration. I consider myself a public administrator first and foremost. I want to be able to run the country in the public interest. And that’s one of the things I can communicate honestly to public, is that in our government no member of our cabinet is ever going to be asked to serve any powerful interest other than the public interest. And that’s a straight-up thing that we’re going to be able to tell the public.

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