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Q&A with Ralph Goodale

Here’s my Q&A with house opposition leader Ralph Goodale. While the meatiest comments found their way into my story yesterday, there’s still some stuff worth reading.

I tried to cut out most of the “Liberals are great, Conservatives can go jump off a bridge” rhetoric he was espousing, but not all of it. Still, that doesn’t detract from some of the more significant comments he made, particularly the parts about EI and the other economic issues the party will take on.

I would have liked him to have been more direct about what it would take to trigger an election, and how exactly the Liberals will pull the country out of debt, but that was probably expecting too much.

So, read on. If you have any comments you’d like me to pose to other federal politicians, leave them in the comments.

Michael Ignatieff could have chosen a number of different issues to champion after he became leader why did he pick employment insurance?

This one has been gaining momentum as an issue in the minds of Canadians over the last several months as the recession has deepened. Especially since this inverse relationship has emerged that the places in the country that have been hit hardest by job losses are places in country where the old formula makes it the hardest to get EI. So as an automatic stabilizer it’s not working because the rules were designed for an entirely different set of circumstances.

As that’s become more obvious people in places like Ontario, B.C. and Alberta are finding themselves unfortunately unemployed and applying for EI only to find out they dont qualify because rules don’t let them in. It’s an issue Canadians have identified. That’s what we’ve heard from our constituents across the country and Mr. Ignatieff has personally been traveling to every province and has been hearing about this problem in spades. It is an issue where we think we have an obligation as the official opposition to take it on. And that’s what we’re doing.

Ignatieff seems to be saying that if Harper doesnt make changes to EI in a few weeks, this issue could bring down the government.

We’re not anxious to precipitate an election for political purposes, but we’re not afraid of it either. This is a hallmark of Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership. He’s going to deal with every issue that comes along on its merits. He’ll call it as he sees it. He will not be intimated or threatened or bullied and if the government decides to draw a line in the sand and precipitate a crisis then so be it. Bring it on. In that sense it’s a no fear situation from Mr. Ignatieff’s point of view. He’s not anxious to have a political fight about it. What he’s anxious to have is an economic solution.

He has not been bellicose in what he said. It’s a serious issue. Not just an issue of the social security system, the safety net to catch people when they’re going through rough times, as important as that is. It’s also an economic issue because people without appropriate EI benefits lose their purchasing power and their disposable income. If you’re able to replace that with more appropriate EI rules so that they qualify and they get the benefits that they paid for, that money goes directly back into the economy. In fact, it would be more simulative by adding that disposable income, and adding that purchasing power, than anything else the government has done so far.

Ignatieff wants the number of qualifying hours worked for EI eligibility to be streamlined across the country at 360. Is he firm on that number?

In our consultation we concluded that 360, during the course of a recession, is the right number. If you look at different ranges across the country now, 360 works out to about 45 weeks (of work) there about. At (420 hours worked) it works out to 52 weeks. So there’s not a huge gap between 45 and 52. It’s relatively close. We think while the country is going through this rough patch, 360 would be right number.

What if Harper decided to make some changes, like reducing the eligible hours worked to 420 across the country?

We would have to judge at that time how sincere and effective what he’s proposing would be, but so far he’s proposed nothing.

What will it take to trigger an election?

It’s not totally our prerogative. This is a minority parliament. Just as Mr. Harper can’t have everything all his own way in a minority situation, no other party can either. It would take a collective decision among the three political parties to bring down the government. When you draw that line in the sand it’s always a very delicate judgment call that the leader of the opposition will fundamentally have to make. It’ll be up to the other party leaders to decide whether they’re in the boat or not, that’s up to them. But Mr. Ignatieff will have to make the judgment call that the government has crossed the line, that the government has taken a position that is just untenable, that it’s not in the public interest of the country and on the accumulation of evidence they’ve got to go.

But you’ve supported the government on a number of things that the party has criticized. The budget for example.

The last budget vote was six weeks ago, and there hasn’t been anything since of that order of magnitude. There will be some others in next couple of months and if the house gets that far there will be some others in the fall. It’s a very weighty responsibility of any leader of opposition. For Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton, their tactical consideration is largely how do they rearrange the configuration of opposition because that’s as far as they can go. For Mr. Ignatieff, he has no interest in simply shuffling the deck chairs in the opposition. His objective is, obviously, to form a government. That’s what makes his decision making process different from Layton and different from Duceppe. He has to take into account what is the very best result that can be achieved for country.

OK, so what other economic issues is Ignatieff going to bring up?

We would renovate the way government is dealing with infrastructure. For this construction season it’s almost too late. But at the very beginning the government should have taken the advice of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which said if you’ve got three to $5 billion extra that you want to invest in infrastructure and that amount is available for this construction season, then send it as a direct transfer to municipalities. They know what streets need to be paved, what water mains need to be replaced, where the bridges need to go. The most efficient way to get shovels in the ground is to empower municipalities to do it. We have the model for that in the gas tax transfer. That’s the most efficient and effective way to do infrastructure projects. So our advice to prime minister would be to give up your project by project application process, which is very political and hasn’t delivered any results yet. Give that up in favour of the transfer and it will get better results.

We also think the government needs to turn its mind on the pension crunch. The severity of that one hasn’t dawned on most Canadians, but as soon as the initial trauma of job loss gets absorbed, I think you will see more and more attention paid by ordinary citizens about their long term personal and family security. Their savings retirement plans, their pensions the monthly statements for last six months have not been a pretty picture. That’s a real locomotive coming down the track.

Ignatieff said he’d reveal his platform in June. Is he still working towards that?

He told party officials and caucus members who are working on the platform that he wants it to be ready in June. That is not a signal that he’s necessarily going to announce and publish a platform in June. He simply wants all the homework, all the background to be done. So whatever circumstance may come along in the summer or fall he’s ready.

The Liberals have been very vocal about the growing deficit, but what would you have done differently? Nearly every country offering stimulus initiatives has gone into debt, so is it realistic to think Canada should be in a different situation?

The fact there is a deficit now is understandable. What bothers us is this: it’s about 40% bigger than it needs to be compared to the stimulus it is creating. The reason is, Harper’s bad fiscal management before there was a recession put this country into deficit. The country will carry that excess non-recession related deficit through this whole period of time. That Mr. Harper would incur a deficit to fight the recession is explicable. That he would have a deficit 40% bigger than it needs to be compared to the stimulus it is creating is inexplicable.

He’s dug the hole deeper than it needs to be. That leads to the other question: so far there is no game plan for getting out of it. Every other country that’s going through this experience now is at least talking about the way back to some sort of fiscal responsibility. Mr. Harper has not produced a plan yet.

So, what’s your plan then?

That’s going to be part of what we have to put before Canadians at the time of an election. How we will deal with the immediate crisis; how we will deal with the future; how we will make the country entrepreneurial and more productive and sustainable for the long term. We’ll have a very exciting economic plan that will get Canadians revved up about the future. That’s what he’ll be describing in the weeks and months ahead.

Do you have any concrete ideas right now?

I’ll leave it to Mr. Ignatieff to bring the details to the table. I’ve learned from my long experience to never pre-empt the leader.

He sort of pre-empted himself when he made those remarks about raising taxes in order to pay down the deficit.

He never said in those remarks anything about raising taxes during a recession. The Conservatives have so totally distorted that situation. It’s really a very dishonest campaign on their part. They raise that issue every day in the commons and not one single soul reports on it because they know it’s such a nonsensical position for the Conservatives to take. Think back to the last recession we inherited in 1993 and ’94 that we had to dig our way out of. We did so with virtually no tax changes. We’ll cross those bridges as we come to them.

You see American politicians talking about the economy on a regular basis both Democrats and Republicans but you don’t hear much from Canada ‘s leadership. Now that Ignatieff is the official opposition leader, what will be his role in talking about the economy?

First of all, I don’t think Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty really believe in a stimulus budget. I think they’re going through the motions. They can’t stir up the emotion, the excitement, the personal commitment in what they are doing. They don’t believe in what they are doing so you get these erratic behaviors and contradictions between Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper. In Obama’s case he clearly believes in his plan and he wants to tell everyone about it. He believes in it, he’s enthusiastic about it, he’s going to make it work and he’s out there as the leading American salesman. Harper has largely been absent so there’s a big vacuum there and that presents a huge opportunity for Mr. Ignatieff to say that these guys don’t believe what they’re doing and they’re botching it up as they go along but we will give you the road map.

But will he actually get out there and talk about the economy?

He’s doing it already. During the last parliamentary break he was all over southwestern Ontario with his message. In the six months he’s been leader he’s been out to B.C. seven times. He’s been into every province. In the first instance listening, as would behoove the leader of opposition to listen, but then more and more as we’ve done on infrastructure and on EI as he started to do at the convention on learning and education, as he’s started to do on the issue of pensions, he’s asking questions and laying out our alternatives. It’s beginning to take shape; the momentum is gathering.

What sort of economic team is he building?

There is a strong team of very able people. He’s given both of his leadership rivals, Bob Rae and Dominic Leblanc very senior responsibilities. He has a very wise and senior economic adviser in John McCallum. He’s harnessed the economic expertise of John McKay he was my parliamentary secretary when I was minister of finance. I’m there as house leader and actively involved in a whole range of issues including economic ones.

Are there any behind the scenes economic advisers? And who are they?

Their value is in their ability to be completely candid with the leader and with caucus on any issue at any given time. Therefore it is wise to keep their counsel confidential otherwise they become conflicted and stop offering advice. But, there are people who were previously very senior in the government, people who have provincial, municipal and territorial expertise. People from the academic world and people from the business community. Some of them I think will end up being candidates too, so they’ll blow their own cover and publicly take a stand. Their advice is very helpful on tax policy, on economic modeling, the forecasting we have to do and on macro and micro economic effects.

People know that Michael Ignatieff has a lot to say about foreign affairs, but most Canadians don’t have a sense of his economic credentials. What will he do to change that perception?

I think his overall very distinguished reputation for competence and skill will stand him in very good stead, but you will see him become increasingly engaged in economic issues and economic leadership. He has led the effort in the commons on EI. As other issues emerge and the whole program develops, people will see him demonstrate tangibly that he knows exactly what he’s doing and doing it right.

And what exactly are you doing when it comes to developing an economic plan?

As house leader you have the opportunity to do a little bit of everything, because that’s the function of the house. Whatever comes up in the house you do a bit of stick handling. So I have the great privilege of being actively involved in most of the issues. But the house leader’s function, and the leader’s function, is not to interfere with or pre-empt the responsibility of the critics. They do their job and you have input. You’re able to participate, including in the daily strategy meeting the leader holds at 8:30 every morning. At the end of day, this is a team that is gelling well. There’s some WD40 on the threads and it’s all tightening up really nice.