THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 19, Season 6
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Host: Vassy Kapelos
Guest Interviews: John Baird, Lisa Raitt, Bob Fife, Joanna Smith
On this Sunday, Canada’s new foreign affairs minister is banned from Russia and will be the point person for dealing with the incoming Trump administration. What message does it all send?
Then, Conservative leadership contenders hold their first French debate Tuesday, while Kevin O’Leary contemplates running. How is this impacting the party and its members?
Plus, as the prime minister travels the country on a listening tour, his personal travel is now being investigated by the ethics commissioner. We’ll unpack the politics of the Trudeau’s holiday to Aga Khan’s private island, and why the Opposition is crying foul.
It’s Sunday, January 15th. I’m Vassy Kapelos. And you are in The West Block.
In a bold move last week, the prime minister named Chrystia Freeland as his new foreign affairs minister. Bold because she’s barred from entering Russia. The cabinet shuffle is in response to the incoming Trump administration. Trump has a different relationship with Russia’s president, and since the election the president-elect has vowed to do business differently. Here’s a clip from his press conference last week followed by Chrystia Freeland as the new foreign minister.
Donald Trump: “We have a movement. It’s a movement like the world has never seen before. It’s as movement that a lot of people didn’t expect.”
Chrystia Freeland: “I feel with my background in Russia, I am going to be well-positioned to be a member of our government’s engagement there.”
[00:01:35]: “You just can’t travel there though.”
Chrystia Freeland: “As I said, that’s a question for Moscow.”
Vassy Kapelos: Joining me now from Vancouver is the Former Foreign Minister John Baird. Mr. Baird thanks for being with us. You’ve done the job as Canada’s foreign affairs minister. Chrystia Freeland is the new minister and she’s actually been barred from entering Russia. I’m just wondering what you think that the message that’s being sent I guess by that too, not just the world, but Russia specifically?
John Baird: Well I think obviously she was on the sanctions list predating her time even as a minister let along foreign minister, so it should come as no surprise. I think the Trudeau government has indicated a willingness to work with the Russian Federation. I think the first time she has the occasion to sit down with her Russian counterpart, she may not agree with him as I didn’t on a number of key issues. But he’s smart and experienced and would be a good interlocutor for her.
Vassy Kapelos: A lot has happened with Russia since you left office. I’m thinking even of the revelations of Russian involvement in the U.S. election, for example. What is this minister up against in your view?
John Baird: Well I think obviously she’s took a very hard line with respect to the invasion of Crimea and Russian military interference and engagement in eastern Ukraine. That was a good position that she took and I hope she’ll stick with it. You know, this is obviously some significant challenges they’re having bilaterally and globally with the Russian Federation. At the same time, it’ll obviously be important to engage whether it’s trying to get a cease fire in Syria or deal with the reality that Russia has a veto at the Security Council at the United Nations. They are a leading member of the G20, so this will be a big challenge for her. But obviously the prime minister feels she’s up for it.
Vassy Kapelos: How big of a challenge was engaging with Russia for you during your tenure as minister?
John Baird: I worked well with Sergey Lavrov before the invasion of Crimea before the challenges nation Ukraine took place. Having said that, it fundamentally changed the relationship, it’s just in our opinion was unacceptable for one country to redraw the borders of Europe by force in the 21st century. At the same time, they’re one of the leading countries in the world and it will be important to engage. And I think she will find she will be able to engage and establish a relationship with her Russian counterpart.
Vassy Kapelos: The election of Donald Trump has appeared to change everything. But when we’re talking about Russia, he has very much spoken about a different kind of relationship with Vladimir Putin. What kind of impact do you think that relationship if it does sort of shape up the way we expect or anticipate might have on Canada?
John Baird: I don’t know that it’ll have much to do with Canada. Trump has obviously like his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama has indicated that he wants to re-engage with Russia and try to establish positive relationships. Both of his predecessors, one Republic and one Democrat obviously failed in doing that, so this will be a challenge for the U.S. administration as it will continue to be one for Canada. But I don’t think in Canada, we should ever apologize for standing up and supporting Ukraine.
Vassy Kapelos: When you served as foreign affairs minister, John Kerry was the secretary of state and you appeared to have a pretty good relationship with your U.S. counterpart. Soon, Canada’s going to be doing business with Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If you were still foreign affairs minister, how worried would you be?
John Baird: I wouldn’t be worried at all. I think I worked with both Hillary and—
Vassy Kapelos: Why not?
John Baird: I worked with both Hillary and John, and that is a key relationship for Chrystia Freeland as she goes forward. Rex Tillerson, I’ve spent time with in Dallas. He is smart, he is tough, he is very experienced in global business and I think he was a strong choice. Obviously concerned about the relationship he has and what his views would be on Russia. But notwithstanding that, I think he’s a strong choice. And I think it will be really tremendously important for Minister Freeland to reach out and to establish a really productive working relationship. That’ll be the most important relationship that she’ll have to develop because they’re really the key interlocutor for the foreign minister.
Vassy Kapelos: There’s a ton of speculation about Trump’s rhetoric, and the protectionist rhetoric in particular, and how it might impact Canada. We interviewed for example, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade last week and he said the Liberals, they’re not worried. Do you think that they should be? Do you think that this rhetoric could turn into something that negatively impacts Canada as far as our trade relationship is concerned?
John Baird: What I think we forget is it’s not just Trump and Republicans that are talking a lot more about protectionism, it’s also Democrats. I mean look at Bernie Saunders got 46 per cent of the vote campaigning against NAFTA, campaigning for a more protectionist regime, so it’s not just the new administration. It’s you’ve seen the United States Congress and the American public has become much more protectionist. And this is a huge threat to Canada. We’re a free trading nation. We need open borders that goods and services can make their way across, and there’s always the struggle to push up against the thickening of border. So I think this will be a real challenge. And you know for the prime minister going into 2017, this will be I think his single greatest challenge to engage with the new administration, but to realize he’s dealing with a very different Congress and a very different mood among the public that’s going to be tough for Canadian jobs.
Vassy Kapelos: I’ve just got about 45 seconds left, but I wanted to ask you, how do you combat that? We’ve seen them release a video. I know you said engaged, but what should the government be doing to combat that protectionism?
John Baird: Well I think obviously we’ll need to sit down with the new administration at an early date and to be a partner in looking at modernizing NAFTA is a smart move. I think we’ve got to realize that Canada wasn’t a big part of this election campaign. It was more about Mexico with respect to NAFTA and how do we minimize the collateral damage to our economy. Mr. Trump doesn’t obviously have experience working in government, so he will be very unpredictable. He will take a different style and that will be a real challenge to try to relate to, and that’s David MacNaughton and Chrystia Freeland’s job to support the prime minister in this regard.
Vassy Kapelos: Great. Thank you so much for being with us. Hope you’re enjoying life after politics?
John Baird: Pleasure.
Vassy Kapelos: Still to come, we’ll unpack the politics of why the Opposition is crying foul over the prime minister’s holiday. But first, as Conservative leadership contenders prepare for their first French debate, how divided are they?
Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. On Tuesday, Conservative leadership contenders will gather in Quebec for a French language only debate. And late last week, Kevin O’Leary’s exploratory committee said the business man and TV personality would win the party’s top job. What does this mean for those already in the race and for the party itself?
Joining me now from Toronto is leadership candidate, Lisa Raitt. Ms. Raitt thanks for being here. Appreciate it.
Lisa Raitt: My pleasure, Vassy. Thanks.
Vassy Kapelos: Late last week as I just mentioned, Mr. O’Leary’s exploratory committee announced he should enter the race and sort of pronounce that he would win it. This committee is comprised of a former senator, a former Ontario premier, a lot of people with strong credentials within the Conservative Party. Do you think they’re wrong?
Lisa Raitt: I don’t know who can win right now. I certainly think that I’m the best candidate. But I would say this, that if Kevin were to win, I think that there is some stuff that he has said in the past, some comments he’s made, some positions he’s taken that would make it very difficult for a Conservative Party to win against Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2019. So that’s why I started the website: stopkevinoleary长沙夜网.
Vassy Kapelos: And on that website—I guess just the fact that you started the website there’s a lot of talk about Mr. O’Leary potentially entering the race. Do you think it’s as much of a game changer on the inside of the race as it appears perhaps on the outside?
Lisa Raitt: It’s certainly going to be different. And honest, Vassy, I feel like he’s been in the race all along. For as long as I’ve been in the race, I feel that Kevin has been in the race. He does the same interviews I do. He gets the same amount of press coverage that a number of candidates get. And he does go to our debates, and when he’s not there he live tweets them. So it would be nice to actually see him be part of the race if that’s what he chooses to do. But my warning is still the same, either he’s in now or when he comes in, in the future. My concern has to do with what he said in the past and whether we can be elected in 2019 because our number one goal has to be about making sure that this Liberal government doesn’t continue past 2019.
Vassy Kapelos: Aside from his candidacy which of course isn’t official, there are 13 people, including yourself, vying to be the new party leader. Do you expect there will be a point at which that it whittled down? And when do you think that will be?
Lisa Raitt: I don’t. And I was asked this before the party had the cut-off deadline for the amount of money that you’d have to put in. The way it works is if you declared before December, your full amount of $75,000 had to be submitted by December 31st and lots of folks I talked to said well we’ll wait to see if the field narrows. I didn’t think the field would narrow then. I don’t think the field is going to narrow now, which means that people are going to have to seriously take a look at all the candidates and determine which one is the one they want to be the face and the name and the tone of the Conservative Party in 2019. So it does matter, all of us being able to speak about what our concerns are and not just policy wise, but in terms of communication as much as we can. And that’s why I started the website.
Vassy Kapelos: So you don’t think there will be a point between now and May at which the number of candidates will substantially decrease even if O’Leary enters, for example?
Lisa Raitt: I can’t imagine. When you take a look at who is in the race right now, you can have—you can break it up. There are people who are currently members of Parliament who have put their names in and given how many people are in the race, there’s no clear frontrunner at this time, I would submit. And that means everybody has as good a chance as any in order to be the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. And those who are not elected MPs, well this is an opportunity for them to talk about what matters to them within the party and seek a little bit more I would say exposure so that if they run in the next election they’ll have that base to work from. So I just don’t see how anyone would decide that they don’t want to be in the race going forward. I know that I am certainly in the race until the end.
Vassy Kapelos: On the one hand, I imagine it’s a strong positive that so many people are interested in being the leader of the party, but on the other hand, is it a challenge I guess to stand apart and to garner the kind of interest that might be necessary come May?
Lisa Raitt: It is very interesting. I don’t know if anybody had anticipated, quite frankly, so many Conservatives involved. But it’s a good sign because it shows that people want to lead our party, they value our brands and they know that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals can be beat in 2019. What I’d say about the difficulty around the practical aspect of the campaign, we’ll be using a lot of social media mainly because these debates—I just took a lot at the debate prep for Tuesday night and you have 30 seconds in order to get an important policy point across either on what to do on taxes, what to do with respect to our aging population, health care. And it’s really difficult to get a 30 second answer in for anybody to see. So we’re going to have figure out ways to connect with our constituents within the party and tell them what we think is the vision for the party and why I’m the one, that I believe, can beating Justin Trudeau in 2019. And we’re going to continue to use every platform possible to do that.
Vassy Kapelos: And of course the next debate is all in French, Tuesday in Quebec. We’ll be watching. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Lisa Raitt: Thank you very much, Vassy. I appreciate it.
Vassy Kapelos: Up next, we’ll unpack the politics of the prime minister’s holiday travel and why the ethics commissioner is now investigating.
Katie Simpson: “How are you able to ‘square’ that you didn’t break the rules when clearly the rules on your website so clearly say you can’t accept that kind of travel?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Yeah. The fact is, as I’ve said, I’m engaging with the conflict of interest commissioner to answer any questions she may have. And the fact is, as I’ve said many times, that Aga Khan is a personal family friend and travel to and from the island only happens through private means. But of course this is something that we are going to engage with the conflict of interest commissioner on.”
Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. That was the prime minister last week responding to questions that have arisen from his recent holiday, which may have violated federal law. Joining me now to unpack the politics of the questions generated by that trip is Bob Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief with the Globe and Mail and Joanna Smith with . Thanks guys for being here. The prime minister doesn’t seem to think this is a big deal, is it? Joanna?
Joanna Smith: Well on the one hand I sort of understand him, right? He’s saying what’s the big deal? This is a long-time family friend. I’m allowed to go on vacation. But on the hand I think like it’s astounding to me that they didn’t sort of take a second look at this and go let’s make sure this is all okay. There’s the private aircraft that was needed to take to the island which is possibly against the rules, and just coming off a couple of months of these headlines of hanging out with wealthy donors and in their homes and everything. You know maybe head out to Peterborough for Christmas vacation or somewhere just a lower key. No offence to Peterborough, but hanging around with all these wealthy people and this access is something he’s vulnerable on.
Vassy Kapelos: Yeah, the optics of it. And those fund raising stories are stories that you’ve driven, Bob. What do you think about the optics of this trip?
Bob Fife: Well personally, I don’t think Canadians should have a problem with the prime minister going on a winter vacation if he wants to. He works very hard. He is a family friend of the Aga Khan and I completely get that except that—don’t break the rules. You put the rules in place. You told us last November when you came into government that you were going to have these very important rules. I’m going to hold my government to these high standards and then he ignores them, and the rules are very clear. If you’re going to use—and you’re not supposed to use private aircraft except in exceptional circumstances and only when you get the consent of the ethics commissioner. He didn’t do that. And you know? He’s a rich guy and the people who were going with him, Seamus O’Regan, a Liberal MP, and Liberal Party President Anna Gainey. They’re not poor people. They could have thrown $500 in each and got a helicopter to fly them there. That’s the issue that I think probably bother people the most, less that he goes on a vacation that he can’t hold up to his own rules.
Vassy Kapelos: And what do you think of his reaction so far because it’s being pointed out to him by reporters: ‘look you were explicit about these [unintelligible].’
Bob Fife: Well he didn’t expect to get caught on this. I mean they didn’t even tell us where he was. And when they found out about the helicopter he used, which to me turned out to me to be the far more important part of the story, you could see he was just grinding his teeth and he was sorry. You know, he didn’t expect to get caught on that. He didn’t expect anybody to know about that. And to your point, they’re tone deaf.
Vassy Kapelos: And do you agree? Do you think that they are tone deaf on this issue? And does that have I guess in the wider context any longer lasting ramifications?
Joanna Smith: I think they should have known that this is something that reporters would be asking about. They should have been more sensitive to the optics of it to any potential rules. I just—I couldn’t believe that after the couple of months they’ve had given all these stories, the one that Bob’s been working on for example, that they weren’t sort of more sensitive to that. And I think it’s something that he’s always going to be vulnerable on, right? He comes from an elite background. He comes from a wealthy family. That’s fine. No one’s blaming him for that. But it’s just that you’d think that at a time when they’re trying to sort of connect with people a little more that they would sort of look more into that.
Vassy Kapelos: Well and it’s interesting because it seems—it almost appears as though this listening tour that he’s embarked on and the cancellation of going Davos which would have been more mingling with the rich and famous is an acknowledge, some of kind of acknowledgement that hey guys, this actually didn’t look so good.
Bob Fife: It is a total acknowledge. I mean they were still planning to go to Davos. And when the Aga Khan story hit them they pulled back on doing that. And the other thing too is they did this tour because of all these cash-for-access stories where it was they—Parliament was dominated with them getting beat up every day because they couldn’t answer the questions because the prime minister was again, breaking and ignoring his own rules about these cash-for-access fundraisers. And so they had to figure out a way to try to re-engage back with people. Not that their numbers have gone back or anything. I mean they’re doing very well. But they’re very sensitive to that. And I think what you’re seeing from this tour is an effort to do that. But then the Aga Khan story and helicopter happened on Thursday and sort of blew the tour out of the way.
Vassy Kapelos: Do you think the tour will work in sort of trying to contain any of that damage? I mean to their credit, they are engaging with—I mean there have been lineups. They’re hours waiting to get.
Bob Fife: Unscripted questions.
Vassy Kapelos: Unscripted, unvetted questions. You know, you’ve got to give them credit for that but, is it enough to turn the page on this line of questioning towards them from your stories, from the Aga Khan story. What do you think?
Joanna Smith: Well I think when you sort of contrast with the fundraisers and the homes of wealthy donors and then yeah, as you mentioned, there are people here, real people who are saying I don’t want to pay more for my heating. I know the carbon tax is going to hurt me, or I’ve been without a paycheque because of the Phoenix transition fiasco and you see the prime minister actually being quite humble about that, sort of really saying sorry and sorry over and over and over again and really acknowledging errors. And so from our perspective, we’re sort of like oh wow, he’s really getting it—taking it hard out there. But then I was reading some local media about his stops in Belleville and the story was all about Trudeaumania and people lining up. And you know the PMO I’m sure was sort of pleased to see that kind of effect. You know, it’s more important I think rather for him to be actually engaging with Canadians to be seen to be engaging with Canadians at this point, and I think that’s probably working.
Bob Fife: Well I think this tour has been very successful from that perspective. I mean he’s very good with people.
Vassy Kapelos: But he can’t deny your story.
Bob Fife: And he’s getting tough questions. And he—and some of them are very personal, people talking about mental problems or disability problems and he has such empathy for them and it comes across. And it’s enormously effective. And you know I think it’s going to help him an awful lot, but the fact of the matter is, Parliament is coming back and that won’t matter because it’s a bull pit. And unless they do something about these cash-for-access fundraisers, this is going to continue to happen, and we’ve got other bigger issues facing this government too which is south of the border and Donald Trump. Goodness knows where that’s going to take us. So good on him for doing this, but he’s got some big problems coming at him.
Vassy Kapelos: I wanted to ask you then finally sort of as we wrap up about this huge event that’s happening next week, of course the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. How much of an impact do you guys think this is going to have on politics in this country? I mean we’ve already seen a shuffle of the cabinet in anticipation of the inauguration and in anticipation of Donald Trump’s presidency. What else can we expect in this country do you think? Joanna?
Joanna Smith: I think it changes everything. Like everything everyone knew about the world has changed, right? And so that’s no different for Trudeau versus the average person on the street. You know things like climate change plans, trade, this whole idea of attracting investment. You know they’re really putting a lot of effort into try and get global investment in Canada. And then Trump comes in and wants to change everything and they’re going to have to figure out how to compete. So no, they definitely need to sort of shift gears a little bit and try and find a way to walk the line between adjusting to the new reality about the fact that the U.S. is not only our biggest partner but our biggest competitor. It’s something that you hear the Conservatives talk about all the time, but also sort of still hold true the principles and the promise he made trying to get elected, right? So it’s a huge challenge.
Bob Fife: You know we as Canadians, all of us, have to be very concerned about what Donald Trump priorities mean to this country. Seventy-two per cent of our exports go there. We are an integrated economy, but if he starts to put border taxes on people which he’s talking about in Mexico and it very well could include Canada because we’re all part of this NAFTA agreement. And if he lowers corporate income taxes which he’s talking about significantly doing, that is going to have an effect on our economy. Millions of jobs are going to be potentially at risk. And so we—I think everybody has to be concerned about how we deal with that with Donald Trump. He’s so unpredictable. And so the focus I think for the next four years is going to be all on Donald Trump and what the danger is that he potentially poses to the Canadian economy. They are doing everything they possibly can to build inroads with him. They’re using Brian Mulroney for example, trying to say look if you want to go after Mexico, fine. Just don’t go after us, please!
Vassy Kapelos: [Chuckles] We’ll have to see if it works—lots to watch over the coming weeks and years most definitely. Thank you both so much for joining us. Really appreciate.
That’s our show for today. I’m Vassy Kapelos. Thank you so much for joining us. See you here next week.