Q&A

'CANADA REMAINS ALIENATED'

The Alliance leader takes on the Liberals over Iraq, mad cow and gay marriage

STEPHEN HARPER August 25 2003
Q&A

'CANADA REMAINS ALIENATED'

The Alliance leader takes on the Liberals over Iraq, mad cow and gay marriage

STEPHEN HARPER August 25 2003

'CANADA REMAINS ALIENATED'

Q&A

The Alliance leader takes on the Liberals over Iraq, mad cow and gay marriage

STEPHEN HARPER

BETWEEN ELECTIONS, trying to attract attention as an opposition leader has traditionally been one of the toughest tasks in Canadian politics. The spotlight focuses mostly on the government—and given the struggle between the forces of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, the Liberals have dominated the political news even more than usual this year. Since Stephen Harper won the Canadian Alliance leadership on March 20, 2002— ending Stockwell Day’s controversial run in the job—he has had his work cut out for him. Harper, 44, has been striving to put the Alliance back on a stable course, while creating an image for himself as a credible would-be prime minister. For many Canadians, he remains largely an unknown quantity. But in his party, Harper’s roots run deep. He was a key thinker in the early days of the Alliance’s predecessor, the Reform party, and he was the key architect of its election platform the first time it ran in a federal election, the 1988 vote. He first served in Parliament from 1993 to 1997, and then returned as an MP following a by-election victory in Calgary Southwest shortly after he took over as Alliance leader. Harper spoke with Ottawa Editor John Geddes in his Parliament Hill office:

It’s been more than a year since you won the Alliance leadership. How would you sum up what you’ve accomplished so far?

Fundraising is up hugely. We’ve paid off our debt to the banks. Caucus is united, candidates are getting nominated, our election preparations are well advanced. We’ve been leading opposition debate in Parliament. Media coverage has gradually improved in both volume and tone. I think we’re meeting all the targets we have to at this point.

You’ve said you expect an election next spring, and everybody agrees Paul Martin will be leading the Liberals. What do you make of predictions that under him the Liberals will take a lot of seats from your party in the West?

I don’t think there’s any substantive prognostication about the Liberals making gains in the West. I think they are more likely to have losses in the West. They’ve done nothing to endear themselves to Western Canada in the past couple of years and I don’t see any evidence that Paul Martin will change that. If he has a successful campaign, there are always seats in the West that are fought over by the Alliance and the Liberals on the margins. But if he is going to make significant gains, they are far, far more likely to be in Quebec or even Atlantic Canada.

Mad cow disease is one issue of particular concern in your home region. How would you have handled the issue, particularly Japan’s ban on Canadian beef, differently from the Liberals?

The problem now is not a health problem or an agricultural problem. It’s strictly a political problem. This issue could be resolved, and would have been resolved, if we had better relations with the United States. Anybody who thinks that the attitude this government took on the Iraq war, and takes generally on Canadian relations with the U.S., is not having a real impact on this country is seriously deluding themselves.

We’ve had a hostile trade action from Japan. The way we would deal with that, if we had good relations with the U.S., is that Canadians and Americans would stick together, because we have an integrated North American market, and deal with Japan. The problem, of course, is that there is no Canadian official who can go to Washington and say, “Canadians and Americans should stick together,” after the comportment on the war.

You supported the U.S. on the war. But now there’s the ongoing controversy over whether George W. Bush and Tony Blair overplayed evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And there’s the problem of continued attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Aren’t these factors making it look like a good thing Canada sat this one out?

On the justification for the war, it wasn’t related to finding any particular weapon of mass destruction. In our judgment, it was much more fundamental. It was the removing of a regime that was hostile, that clearly had the intention of constructing weapons systems. It was just an intolerable situation. If anyone wants to go back to the good old days of Saddam Hussein, let them say so.

I think, frankly, that everybody knew the post-war situation was probably going to be more difficult than the war itself. Canada remains alienated from its allies, shut out of the reconstruction process to some degree, unable to influence events. There is no upside to the position Canada took.

On the home front, courts in Ontario and B.C. have ruled that banning same-sex marriages is unconstitutional and the federal government didn’t pursue an appeal. It now plans to rewrite the law in line with those decisions and get the Supreme Court to approve the change in advance. Doesn’t that make the planned free vote in the House on this question merely symbolic?

We are going to proactively put this issue forward. Parliament voted in 1999 to support the traditional definition of marriage. If we can get the same motion passed again, then we’re in an entirely different process. We will be seeking for Parliament to legislate on the matter. We’re not going to let this go on for two years and then let the government pretend it was a decision of the courts. The government appointed the judges, the government allowed the judges to rule in this certain way, the government refused to appeal. The government has decided to introduce same-sex marriage through nonParliamentary means. It’s a decision the Liberal party made.

Now we will see if in Parliament, in public, the Liberal party is willing to stand by that decision. But if it turns out that Parliament, particularly the government caucus, doesn’t agree with that decision, then we’re in an interesting situation. It’s going to come

down to, ultimately, who will legislate in this matter? Will it be Parliament or will it be the courts?

You’re sometimes seen as being a little too analytical and not much of a performer. How are you adjusting to life as leader?

Some people enter politics because there are cameras and microphones. They really want to be entertainers, but they can’t sing and they can’t dance. Politics affords them a stage and an audience. I have no desire to be in the entertainment business. If I wasn’t a politician, the last thing I would have been

was a singer or a musician. That part of the job is not what I crave. I guess I’m getting more comfortable with it. But I tend to be in politics because I think there are things wrong with the way the country is being run. I want to see it better run, more honestly. Am I enjoying it? I’m never bored. fi'il