The Interview: Justin Trudeau’s game plan

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau on the case for pipelines, why the middle class is in trouble and his plan for governing Canada

Justin Trudeau’s hair is shorter than it was even at the beginning of the year, his suit less flashy. He was wearing a necktie in muted colours for a Tuesday-morning interview, but took it off as soon as he saw his interrogator wasn’t wearing one. The leader of the federal Liberal party has learned to be careful. But after leading the Conservatives in the polls for 16 consecutive months, he’s still confident that the Liberals are on a roll. Trudeau is wrapping up a busy summer: He wrote a new book, Common Ground, to be published in October. And he has been bouncing around the country like a pinball: Vancouver one weekend, Montreal the next, with Oshawa, Ottawa and Winnipeg in between. Then Trudeau is off to Edmonton to meet with his MPs to plan the parliamentary session ahead. That schedule won’t let up any time soon. “It’s pretty much non-stop between now and the election,” Trudeau said and, even though the election is currently scheduled for October 2015, it’s not too early to press him for details about how a prime minister Justin Trudeau would govern. In conversation with Maclean’s, he spoke about the economy, the middle class and the assorted controversies his own comments and actions continue to provoke.

Q: You’re going to Edmonton in a little while to meet with your caucus and prepare for the parliamentary session. The election is 13 months after that. How much does this have to do with that? How much is the session that’s about to begin a pre-electoral session?

A: We’ll be talking about the plan for the next year. Every step of the way, we’ve always been looking ahead. When we built the plan around the [Liberal party] leadership [campaign in 2013], it wasn’t so much about winning the leadership—that would be a by-product of getting things in place so we could win the election. Now we’re looking at the next step: What kind of government does Canada need? What kind of issues do we need to have on the table? That will deeply inform how we position ourselves over the next months to do well in the election and form government.

Q: What do you have to get done when Parliament comes back?

A: Continue to do what we’re doing, which is build the team, build the plan. Draw in great, credible candidates from across the country and put together a set of solutions and policies that are going to give this country a better government.

Q: So the campaign’s already begun?

A: I think the way politics is done these days—certainly, if you look at the attack ads that started the day after I won the leadership—yeah, the campaign started a long time ago. And what a campaign is, is connecting with Canadians to convince them that you have the team and solutions that are going to bring us in the right direction. In that sense, politics is always about campaigning in a positive way. These guys make it negative.

Q: Until the day the writ drops, and Elections Canada rules start to govern campaign spending, the Conservatives have a 50-per-cent dollar advantage over you in fundraising and, therefore, in spending. How do you compete?

A: You know what? I don’t spend too much time worrying about what the Conservative strategy is going to be, or how much money they’re going to spend. I focus on the conversations we’re having with Canadians, the connections we’re building, the trust that the Liberal party has to rebuild, and the hard work we have to do. I joke that we’ll let my opponents focus on me and I’ll focus on Canadians, but that’s really what’s working. I’ll let the Conservatives go with all the attack ads they like. I sense and I hear from people across the country that people are genuinely tired of that.

Q: In your speech to the Liberal convention in February, you began to flesh out your middle-class appeal. You talked about a composite character, “Nathalie,” whose income has been stagnating in recent years. But there’s a whack of data that suggests the middle class has actually seen its income grow in the last decade. And there’s the Luxembourg study the New York Times wrote about, which suggests Canada actually has the most affluent middle class in the world. Does that make it harder for you to sell the idea that the middle class is in trouble and needs help?

A: Not if you’re talking to Canadians. Not if you’re listening to what’s actually going on across the country. The fact is, over the past 30 years—that’s a generation—even though the economy has grown by 100 per cent [and]we’ve doubled the size of our GDP, median family income has increased in size by only 15 per cent. That’s not a real raise over 30 years, so people are facing record levels of personal and household debt. People are very much worried that our kids are not going to inherit the same opportunities that we inherited from our parents. There is an anxiety out there, and it’s encapsulated by something you hear an awful lot from people, which is that Canada’s doing well—the Canadian economy seems to be doing reasonably well—but Canadians are struggling. And that disconnect is something which . . . You can have all the stats wars you like, talk about this study or that study—the fact is, people are stretched thin. What we need is to build an economy that works for the middle class, that gives the best jobs to the largest number of people, and that’s not what we’re doing right now. If the Conservatives want to say, hey, people should be grateful for all they’ve done—if they want to really campaign on that, when what I meet across the country is people worrying—then they’re welcome to try.

Q: The other day, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the federal government should increase infrastructure spending from half a point of GDP to two points, effectively quadrupling it. Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland said on Twitter, “She’s right.” That’s about $20 billion a year in new infrastructure spending. Would that be reasonable?

A: Well, we had a resolution at our Montreal convention that talked about increasing it by one per cent of GDP. So, yeah, there’s certainly a huge need for infrastructure investment across the country. What kind of fiscal framework we’re going to have to do that, what the priorities need to be, that’s what the more specific debates in the election are going to be about. But yeah, there’s a need to invest now—in transit, housing, education—in some things that are going to allow us to grow our economy. And that’s not what’s happening right now.

Q: Every time I’ve heard someone ask you about taxes, you’ve said Canadians are taxed enough. Is there no broad class of taxation you think needs increasing?

A: No, I don’t think so. I think we’re taking in enough money as a government, and taking in more revenue as the economy grows. One point of GDP growth is about $4.5 billion directly to government coffers, so that’s the way you grow an economy and grow a capacity to invest in the kinds of things you need.

Q: That’s the kind of thing that gets you into Conservative attack ads, because they quote you as saying a deficit can take care of itself. Do you believe a deficit can take care of itself?

A: I think growing an economy is a good way to help with a deficit, but, ultimately, it’s about fiscal discipline and responsible spending—and smart decisions. That’s no different than what the Conservatives have said many times. Jim Flaherty talked about it a few times, as well. I don’t worry about what the Conservatives choose to put into attack ads.

Q: Another thing you mentioned in the Montreal speech that I haven’t heard people ask you about much since then is post-secondary education attainment. You said we should set a target of 70 per cent. First, how does the federal government increase post-secondary education attainment? Second, where are we now? Among Canadians younger than 44, attainment is already very close to 70 per cent. Is this the sort of thing where you set a target that will reach itself?

A: We’re at about 52, 53 per cent. I think people understand that if you’re going to have a successful economy, you need people’s potential to be realized. That means education. It means university education, sure, but it also means training, apprenticeships and various kinds of skills diplomas that we know are necessary. How does the federal government do it? Two big ways. First, student loans. Repayment schedules: how we’re reassuring people that when they borrow, it’s an easy risk. They’re not going to have a debt they’ll be dragging around for the rest of their career. Second, there’s more we can do with RESPs. If we’re expecting someone to have to retrain after they get downsized at 40, 45 years old, maybe the RESP should be able to apply to them, then. And we need a federal government that engages with the provinces—sits down and talks about this incredibly important element of future prosperity, which is education. It’s too important for the federal government to simply flat-out ignore. The provincial leaders I’ve spoken to are desperate for the federal government to actually sit down with them and talk about it.

Q: I want to talk about a few things that came up in your interview with the Vancouver Sun. One is pipelines. You’re not a fan of Gateway; you’re willing to consider Kinder Morgan. But you talked about a “social licence” test that would precede or succeed National Energy Board hearings. What’s social licence? How would it be measured and judged?

A: The federal government’s role is to establish a process whereby industry can pitch a project, and Canadians can be reassured that this project is worth the risk. That’s at the heart of governments granting permits and communities granting permission. People understand we do need economic growth. We do need natural resource projects. One of the primary responsibilities of Canadian prime ministers since time immemorial has been getting our resources to market in safe, sustainable, responsible ways, whether it’s railroads and grain, or now, pipelines. This government hasn’t done a very good job of that. That responsibility of the government is to reassure people that the process is being followed, rather than be a cheerleader for the project and have it bog down in the courts anyway, because the government hasn’t done its job of making sure that the approvals are there and the social licence is there. People know we shouldn’t have to choose between economy and the environment. We can do both together and that’s what this government has fallen down on.

Q: So if the government were more inclusive, reached out to more people, it would be able to build more pipelines?

A: Yes.

Q: So vote Liberal for Keystone and Kinder Morgan.

A: Keystone, yes; Kinder Morgan, we’re watching the process go through.

Q: Responsible environmental stewardship almost always gets heard by the Conservative government as “carbon taxes.” What’s your position on a carbon price?

A: Everyone around the world is recognizing the need to price carbon pollution. Climate change is real. The fact that the oil sands have become the poster child for climate change is a direct consequence of the fact that we haven’t done a good job of demonstrating that we’re serious about putting limits on carbon pollution. Now, the Conservative government has talked about carbon pricing through regulation. Mr. Harper, at one point, mentioned that the regulations they bring in would be the equivalent of about $60 a ton. The NDP are talking about cap and trade. Nobody’s talking about a carbon tax anymore, because it’s politically toxic. What I’d really like, and I think what Canadians want, is to have a mature conversation about what’s the best way to do it.

Q: You also told the Vancouver Sun that you would scrap the First Nations Fiscal Transparency Act.

A: We voted against it. I think the time for top-down imposition of laws on First Nations is a bad idea and that’s done. I’m a huge believer in transparency and accountability. When I ran for the leadership, I actually brought in the proactive disclosure that the House of Commons is busy adopting. Those are things I’ve always stood for. I also stand for fairness . . . Yes, we need to have transparency and accountability in First Nations government, but the transparency and accountability, primarily, has to be toward the band.

Q: But the stance of the folks around Chief Ron Giesbrecht in B.C., who made $800,000 in salary last year, was that the folks in his band already knew that. How could that be good enough?

A: Obviously, that’s not good enough. We need to bring in a robust plan around transparency and accountability. To bring it to a simplified version, there’s no point forcing people to disclose their salaries online if they don’t even have a website to do it. You have to support them in their capacity to do it. That’s the kind of thing this government hasn’t done. It’s used it as a political tool to go after First Nations and to stir up their base . . . while refusing to talk about transparency when it comes to what Nigel Wright’s severance is, for example, or what we’re giving out to senior people around the Prime Minister’s Office.

Q: But when I hear you say you want to replace the Conservatives’ transparency act with something that is nicer to everyone but also transparent, I’m reminded of the Liberals in 1993 saying they were going to replace the GST with a magic tax that everyone likes, but which raises as much revenue. That turned out to be really hard. At some point, you have to put some people’s noses out of joint to accomplish results.

A: Oh, absolutely. But there are an awful lot of First Nations individuals and activists who very much want the kind of transparency and accountability that we need to move toward. But this is a single, small bill that is, so far, one of the only things this government has done around First Nations. Their big flagship move around First Nations education has been a complete disaster so far. What I want to do is bring forward a new framework for dealing with the relationship between First Nations and Canada. Transparency and accountability will be a part of that, but it’ll only be a part.

Q: Your remarks on First Nations accountability were about the third issue in the last week about which the Conservatives have released literature. The first one was, to quote their ad, “Searching for support in a mosque where known al-Qaeda members were recruited, facilitated and trained.” Should you have gone to that mosque?

A: My job as MP for Papineau, Que., is to represent citizens of my riding, and I really feel that that happens when you meet people, when you go to where they are. Everyone in that mosque was a Canadian. You can disagree with them and you can be worried about what some people might be preaching, but, for me, it’s more important that my message of respect and inclusion . . . is an approach that I will consistently take. Two Christmases ago, I was attacked for attending the Islamic Spirit conference here in Toronto. That’s a way I will continue to behave.

Paul Wells in conversation with Justin Trudeau.
Paul Wells in conversation with Justin Trudeau.

Q: The Prime Minister, in his annual Stampede speech in Calgary, did not mention you by name in 2012 or 2013. This year, he mentioned you 11 times. What do you make of that?

A: I don’t spend too much time trying to think about what the Prime Minister is thinking or doing. He’ll say what he feels he needs to say. Unlike him, I try to focus on substantive issues, on bringing people together, rather than play up fear and divisions and personal attacks.

Q: They spent about $1 million talking about your policy on marijuana. Jodie Emery is talking about running for the Liberals. Word on the street is, you have some influence over who gets to run as a Liberal candidate. Should Jodie Emery be a Liberal candidate?

A: She’s got a process to go through. There’ll be a green-light process to look into her and, ultimately, it will be Liberals in the riding who will decide whether they want her as a candidate. That’s the way things are set up. There are a lot of people who are passionate about one issue or another who feel they want to move forward by stepping toward politics. In general, that’s a good thing.

Q: Do you regret making your remarks about marijuana so long before the election?

A: When you ask that question, it’s like, “Well, do you feel like you should have lied when they asked you the questions? Should you have dissembled or avoided the question?” No. I’m someone who answers questions as they’re asked of me, in a truthful and honest way. Is the timing sometimes less effective than it might be? Sure. But if you want to be authentic and truthful, you don’t get to pick timing on things. But my focus and my hopes are very much that the next election will be fought on the economy. That’s what we’re focused on as a party . . . Our current approach on marijuana is not working. We’re No. 1 out of 29 different countries in teen marijuana use. That’s not good enough, and we’re giving millions upon millions of dollars every year to criminal organizations and street gangs. That’s nonsensical, as well . . . This is an issue of evidence-based policy—what actually works. Let’s get away from fears and attacks and the kind of emotional game-playing and propaganda that this government tends to run on, and let’s talk about ways of actually making sure that our society works better.

Q: If you had to sum up—as you will 100 times in an election—what’s wrong with this Conservative government, what would you say?

A: The tone and the lack of ambition for the country. They see Canada as on the receiving end of global forces that are beyond our control and, therefore, we shouldn’t bother; we should hunker down and just try to slide by on what we’re lucky enough to have as our natural bounty and smarts. On the contrary, I think we need to step up. I think we need to understand that being one of those places in the world that has figured out how to be strong, not in spite of our differences but because of them, comes with a responsibility to help share with the world how to build strong, inclusive, diverse societies.

Q: They’ve got 13 months to switch out their leader and send someone else against you in the next election. Do you think that’s going to happen?

A: I’ve given up on trying to second-guess what Mr. Harper is going to do or not do. I know that the record of the past eight years, of how they’ve been, of how they’ve behaved, is going to be what we’re running against in the next election, regardless of who the leader is.

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