Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is in Victoria for a national caucus strategy Thursday and Friday. B.C. legislature reporter Tom Fletcher asked him about his new job and some pressing issues of the day.
TF: Last year you defeated a noted libertarian for the Conservative leadership, Maxime Bernier. Is there still room for his small-government ideas?
AS: Absolutely. There are so many different kinds of Conservatives, and I believe the leader’s job is to make sure that we work on those areas of common ground that unite all of us. There are a lot of principles around free markets and individual liberty that guide a lot of our policy development. Maxime and I are already talking about some of those areas.
TF: This is pertinent now, with the U.S. breathing down our necks on supply management of milk, eggs and poultry. You’ve voiced strong support for these programs, can they be sustained with the situation in the U.S.?
AS: I believe they can, and I note that the previous Conservative government was successful in negotiating new trade deals without sacrificing our supply managed sector. It’s interesting to note that what the U.S. is looking for is not dismantling our system. They would just like their producers to have access to the system we’ve created here.
When I was down in Washington D.C. last week, we were pointing out the fact that even the dairy producers in the U.S. are not really pushing for the type of situation where Canadian producers would be able to compete in their domestic market. There is some hypocrisy. On the one hand the U.S. is pushing for concessions on supply management, but then in the auto sector they’re looking for new barriers and new types of protectionism for their own sector.
The U.S. has a wide variety of programs to support their dairy sector. When Donald Trump stands up in Wisconsin and conveys the idea that they have a system completely free from government interference, that’s just false. They have floor prices, they have aspects of the U.S. farm bill.
The benefit of the supply management system in Canada is the support to the producer, the stability that is provided through the pricing structure, and not through tax dollars. In the U.S. they have the inverse, and there’s a lot of government assistance that goes to dairy producers.
TF: NAFTA talks are starting up again. Former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is advising the Trudeau government, she says it’s a matter of time until the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA. Do you agree?
AS: I’m not sure I’m in a position to make that kind of assessment. I certainly do believe there is a growing sense of urgency within the U.S. business community, all those people who do business on both sides of the border, and they’re certainly ramping up their engagement. I think the threat is certainly real, but I was also encouraged by the number of stakeholders who were getting in front of the administration, lobbying congressional officials, raising alarms.
The agriculture lobby in the U.S. is very strong, and it has become much more vocal in the last few weeks, so I’m encouraged by that. I believe what the Liberals should be doing now is pouring it on. Now is the time to get out to Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Ohio, find those companies that have 200-300 jobs thanks to trade with Canada, and get them to put pressure on the administration and Congress. That’s where this fight’s going to be won. It’s not going to be won by out-arguing Donald Trump at the negotiating table. He needs to feel the pressure at home.
TF: China trade talks are not going well for the prime minister. What’s the significance of that?
AS: Justin Trudeau’s trip to China was a complete fiasco. He couldn’t even negotiate a photo op with the Chinese government. I’m not sure he even understands what it is he’s looking for. He’s pursued a policy of appeasement, trying to get a free trade deal underway, and none of that turns out to be fruitful.
There is news today that Canada has signed on to a new deal with the Trans Pacific Partnership. We’re waiting to see some details of that.
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TF: On B.C. issues, we’re the retirement destination for much of the country. Should that be reflected in health transfer payments from Ottawa, as the B.C. government has asked for?
AS: I know that is a concern, but other provinces have also made the case where demographics are shifting, young people have had to move away to find opportunity. In B.C. people are retiring and looking for a better climate.
Across many different files, each province has its unique challenges. We have provinces on the prairies that have smaller populations but large land area, so it’s difficult to keep up roads and services. The federal government should always play a role that is constructive and flexible. I’ve never liked the centralized, Ottawa-knows-best approach. At the end of the day, the people delivering the services should have the ability to make the decisions.
TF: We’ve had a revival of the Harmonized Sales Tax debate here, with the B.C. Liberal leadership contest. B.C. rejected the HST after Stephen Harper provided substantial incentives to join. Do you ever see trying that again, perhaps a modified version of the HST?
AS: I was in Parliament when that happened. It did spark controversy in a couple of provinces, B.C. and Ontario. Ontario has stuck with it. If a provincial government is looking to pursue that for reasons of efficiency and reducing cost of administering their sales tax, I believe it’s appropriate for the federal government to entertain those requests. On those types of issues, the federal government should respect the wishes of provincial governments.
TF: The B.C. Liberals are a coalition party of federal Liberals and Conservatives. Do you think that’s stable in today’s environment?
AS: It’s similar to the dynamic in my home province of Saskatchewan, where the Saskatchwan Party was brought about to be that home for Conservatives and Liberals who are tired of seeing the NDP run the table and win elections. I think any time you can get a party to agree on some core fundamentals of the role and scope of government, respect for free market and free people making decisions, there’s lots of room for disagreement. That’s why you have conventions and leadership races and nomination meetings. But I can work with anybody who ultimately believes in fundamental principles of freedom and equality, and looks at building up aspects of society other than just government all the time.
TF: You were the speaker in the House of Commons for some years. Here in B.C. we have a speaker, Darryl Plecas, who more or less abandoned his party to be speaker and rule over this minority legislature. Any advice for him?
AS: I wouldn’t want to comment on any of the political considerations. The advice I got from my predecessors was always to take the partisan labels out of any decision you have to make, and do what’s right for parliament, or in this case the legislature, because the decisions made by the speaker last for many years and transcend the political battles of the day.
TF: Harper used to say that no matter who the Conservative leader is, the national media find a way to be against you. Are you finding that?
AS: [Laughs] I’m trying to build a constructive relationship with everybody who’s interested in federal politics and who comments on it. There are some issues that always go through a different lens than perhaps I would like them to, but on the whole, I think the situation is shifting.
There are more and more people who are getting their information from outside traditional media. They’re looking for more independent voices, more critical analysis, and we’re using a variety of tools. I’m always accessible to the national media, but I do a lot with local media, with non-traditional media as well, and communicating directly through social media.
TF: The restriction that the Trudeau government has placed on summer job grants, organizations have to attest to reproductive choice for women. Do you think the government’s going to back down on this?
AS: I’m not sure. I really do believe this is overreach. To impose a values test on people, to kind of peer into their conscience and force them to approve of something in a very personal way, regardless of the activity they’re engaged in, I believe is completely inappropriate.
The government has the power to determine which types of activities it’s funding, but it shouldn’t matter what the personal beliefs of any group or individual may be outside of that.
We know there are groups that provide services to children with disabilities, at-risk youth, homeless shelters that have indicated they cannot agree to that attestation. And the programs and services they’re providing have nothing to do with social issues, and they’re not engaged in lobbying or advocacy on those issues.