Policy Options: Thanks for doing this, prime minister. Are you getting used to that yet?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper: It’s going to take a bit of getting used to, but I like the sound of it.

PO: There are transformational prime ministers like Trudeau and Mulroney, transactional figures like Chrétien, and transitional ones like Paul Martin. Where do you see your- self fitting in there?

Stephen Harper: I would like to make some significant changes.

I think to be a transformational prime minister, in fairness, requires a bit of time and probably requires a majority. But we’ll certainly get a start in terms of relationships with the provinces, fiscal issues, institutional reform, dealing with Quebec. I would like to see some fundamental longer- run transformations made, and I think we’ve laid the groundwork for that, but obviously it will depend on how much time we have and ultimately how much authority I’m able to get out of Parliament to do what I want to do.

PO: Mr. Pearson was able to be a transformational leader in two minori- ty Houses. So how do you see yourself working in that context?

Stephen Harper: Although, remem- ber that in the second, he had almost a majority. You know, he had a pretty secure situation. As I say, the bigger the size of your government and the longer you have, the more chance you have.

PO: You’ve clearly taken a bit of a hit early on in the David Emerson and Michael Fortier appointments to cabi- net. Obviously you did it to do some- thing bigger. If you could re-roll the tape to the top of the driveway, is there anything about that you’d do differ- ently in terms of the rollout?

Stephen Harper: No. Look, the criti- cism was entirely predictable. I mean, it’s not unanticipated, but I did the moves for bigger reasons. The first and the foremost was to make sure I had the strongest cabinet possible, and then of course as a secondary priority, particu- larly in Montreal, and also in Vancouver, to make sure that the cabi- net is representative of the major inter- ests of the country, and these were essential things. I knew the decisions were controversial, would generate con- troversy, but I think in terms of build- ing the longer-term government I’m planning to build, they had to be done.

PO: In terms of what the first President Bush famously called the ”œvision thing,” what’s your sense of federal-provincial relations, first of all in the division of powers, sections 91 and 92 and all of that, Ottawa doing what Ottawa does, the provinces doing what the provinces do? 

Stephen Harper: Well, that’s always been my preference " to see Ottawa do what the federal government is sup- posed to do. As you know, one of the criticisms that I’ve had for years is that Ottawa has gotten into everything in recent years, not just provincial juris- diction but now municipal jurisdic- tion. And yet at the same time, if you look at Ottawa’s major responsibilities, national defence, for example, the eco- nomic union, foreign relations, begin- ning obviously with the most important relationship, with the United States, Ottawa hasn’t done a very good job of these things. So I think Ottawa would be better to con- centrate on federal matters, and then obviously my desire to address the fis- cal imbalance is to make sure that lower levels of government have the capacity to deal more effectively with their matters, so that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do here.

PO: Have you figured out yet a vehicle for addressing the vertical fis- cal imbalance? Are you thinking of a Royal Commission that would report within a year, or something like that?

Stephen Harper: I doubt I would go the full-fledged route of a Royal Com- mission. The first thing, hopefully in the very near future I’m going to be sitting down with the provinces infor- mally, to talk a little bit about their thoughts. We’ve got a couple of reports pending, we’ve got an equal- ization review that was set out by the previous government, and the provinces have their own report on the fiscal imbalance. I think it would be helpful to have some kind of a joint body go off and do some thinking on this before we go out into tough nego- tiations, but frankly, I’d probably stop short of a full-fledged Royal Commis- sion unless everyone thought that was a good idea. That can too easily be interpreted as just shoving it off the agenda altogether, and I do think it has to be addressed. Look, if that were a useful way, we’ll do that, but I think something less formal than that is what we require.

PO: In terms of your concept of the federation and how it’s managed, how do you think Stephen Harper has evolved, if I can put it that way, from a Reform conservative in the 1980s to a national Conservative leader, leading a national government with significant representation from Quebec?

Stephen Harper: Well, look, for all kinds of reasons that you understand well, it’s probably not useful for me to go back and revisit the discussions of 10 or 15 years ago and where we would be vis-à-vis that. I think the most important thing, and something I came to see clearly about three or four years ago after I became leader of the opposition, was that what the country really needed in dealing with federal- provincial matters, the federation in Quebec in particular, was to look for- ward rather than backward, stop wor- rying about who was right and wrong in Meech Lake and concern ourselves more with contemporary issues.

For example, in the campaign we were successfully able, I think, across the country, to sell the idea of address- ing Quebec’s particular needs with UNESCO. Now, we obviously haven’t got a deal yet, but I hope we will have in the near future. There’s a perfect example of where we made a precise commitment that might have been like some of the things that were big sources of division in the past, but because it was a precise and modern commitment, it addresses the con- cerns of Quebec without really causing much trouble anywhere else, because most other people aren’t particularly concerned about whether Quebec does or does not have some kind of a special voice at UNESCO.

At the same time, with the Senate, we’ve made commitments to proceed with elections. It’s not a full-fledged reform, but it’s a start. I guess what my evolution really has been, and I think the evolution of all Conservatives, because we’re all in this together now, is that it’s not a matter of going back and say- ing who was right and who was wrong on the big vision stuff, but instead of finding individual steps we can pro- ceed with that everybody can agree on. And I think if we proceed in that man- ner, we’ll make real progress. I’ve said all along, you know, you start off with a transactional or a transformative question. You know, I think realistical- ly I’m starting out with somewhat of a middle-of-the-road approach. The pre- vious PC government, and the Trudeau government, had enormous big-picture priorities. Some of these were achieved; some were not achieved. In the case of the last gov- ernment, they were content with the status quo. We’re trying to make sig- nificant changes, but in a way that is step-by-step and achievable, and will actually happen.

OP: Et, en ce qui concerne le Québec, vous avez souvent dit pen- dant la campagne que vous préfériez travailler avec Jean Charest, qui est selon vous le premier ministre québé- cois le plus fédéraliste des 50 dernières années. Comment entrevoyez-vous votre relation avec lui?

Stephen Harper: Les discussions entre le gouvernement fédéral et le Québec, ou n’importe quelle autre province, ne sont pas toujours faciles, mais je pense que M. Charest veut améliorer le fonctionnement de la fédération, et c’est mon objectif aussi. Nous avons maintenant un opposant commun au Québec, le mouvement souverainiste, et deux principaux véhicules fédéralistes, moi au niveau fédéral et lui au palier provincial. Et j’espère que, malgré les différends qui pourraient sur- venir de temps en temps, nous pour- rons nous entendre sur certains dossiers importants.

OP: Est-ce que vous avez été frappé par la croissance de vos appuis au Québec, surtout au mois de janvier?

Stephen Harper: Je dis depuis longtemps que les Québécois veulent une option qui n’est pas la séparation, qui n’est pas la corruption ou qui n’est pas un parti impuissant ou un parti du status quo et du centrisme. Et je dis aussi depuis longtemps que, à un moment donné, les Québécois vont se décider à essayer quelque chose de dif- férent. Je ne savais pas exactement quand ils allaient se décider, mais évidemment je suis très heureux qu’ils aient commencé pendant la cam- pagne électorale (RIRE). Je crois que notre résultat aurait mé‚me été meilleur si la campagne avait compté une semaine de plus.

OP: Avec 30 p. 100 des voix, vous auriez remporté 20, 25 sièges…

Stephen Harper: Je pense que la population a commencé à envisager de faire les choses autrement. Les gens ont commencé à dire, « Non, nous ne voulons pas de ce gouvernement, le Bloc ne peut pas changer le gouverne- ment, et le programme du Parti con- servateur, quand on l’examine de plus près, quand on essaie d’oublier l’accent du chef qui tente de parler français, qui parle le français imparfaitement, quand on lit ce programme, on s’aperçoit qu’il est plus proche de notre conception du Canada que celui des deux autres partis. »

OP: Ces jours-ci, on entend souvent à Montréal et à Québec : « Harper doit maintenant livrer la marchandise ».

Stephen Harper: Oui, c’est vrai. Mais je dirais les choses un peu dif- féremment : Oui, il est nécessaire que je livre la marchandise, que je remplisse les promesses faites pen- dant la campagne électorale et les engagements annoncés dans notre plate-forme, mais pas seulement pour le Québec ; pour tous les Canadiens. Mais en ce qui concerne les relations intergouvernementales, et surtout les relations avec le Québec, il est nécessaire que Harper et Charest livrent la marchandise.

PO: How do you see Canada-US relations? Do you agree that one can disagree without being disagreeable? One has a sense that people want our transactional relations handled much better and in a much more polite manner without necessarily embarking on an American agenda of exceptionalism.

Stephen Harper: Right. I agree with that, and I’ve used the phrase before. We can disagree without being disagreeable. My difficulty with the previous government was not simply that they had fights with the United States, but their fights with the United States did nothing to advance Canadian interests. I saw no evidence, for example, that all the rhetoric that they, in the elec- tion campaign, put behind the soft- wood lumber dispute bore any relation to how they’d actually han- dled the dispute, while they’d been entrusted with that responsibility for the previous four years, or almost five years. They hadn’t in fact stood up for our industry. They hadn’t in fact really taken on the United States on this file. I’ve said the approach we want to have is, first of all, the Americans are very important to us. We know they are, notwithstanding the differences, our best ally, our closest neighbour, our biggest customer.

So where we can have good rela- tions, we want to have good rela- tions, and we want them to notice us and pay attention to us, which, by the way, they’ve ceased to do under the previous government. And where we have disagreements, let’s vigor- ously defend those things and let’s stand up for our interests on those things in a meaningful way that real- ly helps Canadians without poison- ing everything else. So you know, we’ve got a lot of work to do there. We’ve got a big job, I think, just to get our items back on the agenda in Washington. Right now I don’t think we’re on their agenda.

PO: Do you have a top two list for your first meeting with President Bush, whenever that may be?

Stephen Harper: I anticipate my first meeting will be a trilateral meet- ing to discuss the evolution of NAFTA, probably in the next month and a half.

It’s not finalized yet. So obviously it’ll be in that context, but I think inside or outside of that context, the softwood lumber dis- pute is going to remain very important. Renewing the NORAD agreement is going to be pretty high on both of our agendas because I think if we can’t do that, we can’t move forward on security.

And finally, a big issue for us is going to be, and it’s not easy either, to resolve this passport and border iden- tification issue. There are a lot of other big things, but those are the three that I think we have to deal with pretty quickly. Or at least to start dealing with quickly.

PO: And finally, on Afghanistan, this move from Kabul to Kandahar obviously is a dangerous mission, and the previous government didn’t do a very good job of explaining to Canadians how dangerous it was.

How supportive are you of this mis- sion, and how dangerous is it, in terms of what we’re taking on?

Stephen Harper: It is a very dan- gerous mission. But it is a commit- ment that Canada has made, a commitment to play a significant role for some time in Afghanistan. I think quite frankly, my sense is that the allied participation in Afghanistan is paying dividends, that we are making progress.