THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 34, Season 11
Sunday, June 19, 2022
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block…
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: “We’re working with airlines, we’re working with airports and we’re doing everything we can to ease those bottlenecks.”
Mercedes Stephenson: After weeks of airport chaos, Ottawa lifts vaccine mandates for air and rail passengers. But with some restrictions remaining, the government is under pressure to lift them all. Will it happen? We’ll ask Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra.
And, the finance minister makes her pitch to Canadians on the Liberal government’s plan to help in turbulent times, from rising interest rates to high inflation.
Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister: “While fighting inflation is the Central Bank’s job, good government policy can make it easier.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Is it new? And is it enough? We’ll ask economist Don Drummond to reality check the government’s Affordability Plan and weigh-in on whether we could be heading for a recession.
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: “I want to unite the party and I want to offer a national vision not based on anger.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Jean Charest says he’s the best candidate to unify the Conservative Party but he needs to win the leadership first. We’ll ask him about his path to victory and frontrunner Pierre Poilievre.
It’s Sunday, June 19th, and this is The West Block.
Thank you for joining us today, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
Summer travel is just around the corner, but long security and customs lines have created chaos at Canada’s biggest airports. Some vaccine mandates are lifting, starting tomorrow, but others will remain. Let’s break it down and have a look at what’s going and what’s staying.
There will be no vaccine mandates to board a plane or train for domestic and outbound international travel. But all travellers coming in to Canada are required to be vaccinated. This includes cross-border truckers. Anyone entering Canada must still fill out their information on the ArriveCAN app, whether arriving by land or air. Vaccine mandates are still required for cruise ships and mask mandates remain in place.
I’m joined by Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to talk about all of this now. Thank you so much for joining us today, minister. Nice to see you.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Hi Mercedes, nice to be with you and happy Father’s Day to your viewers.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you. And, you know, lots of folks travelling for Father’s Day, potentially. Something they haven’t necessarily been able to do for the past couple of years, with all the different variants of COVID. And I know you are no stranger to the issue of how long it is taking people to get through airports. Your government announced some changes that may help to ease some of that in terms of the mandates that are in place that we just were walking through. There’s still a lot of confusion and a lot of wait times at the airport, and one thing that we keep hearing from viewers is that they are having to check-in hours and hours early. You have promised there is more staff coming to help with this, but it kind of seems like your government didn’t take this seriously in the first place. Should you have moved more quickly?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes, we’re taking this issue extremely seriously. And just so you and your viewers know, that many economists predicted that the travel will not come back to normal until 2025. However, given the phenomena and the surge that we’re witnessing today, many are saying, in fact, we’re going to come back to normal maybe by the end of this year or next year and leisure travel is exceeding what 2019 levels were. What that tells us is that the surge that is happening is really a new phenomenon. It’s great news after the pandemic, but it’s obviously causing delays. But our government is acting. We’ve added almost a thousand employees to CATSA, now almost exceeding 2019 employment level. We’re adding staff to CBSA. We’re changing some of the public health rules. We’re working with airlines and airports. So we’re focused on this. I know it’s frustrating and we’re taking this issue extremely seriously and we’re focusing on it urgently.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’m curious who those economists were talking to because a lot of folks have been saying they’re super anxious to travel and see family members and get back on the road. You did see early signs of this that it was starting to become a problem with three hour check-ins. When, if you have these additional staff coming, will Canada return to what is the international standard, which is that people can arrive at the airport 45 minutes before a domestic flight and one hour before an international flight?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: So speaking of international standards, Mercedes, you know the same phenomenon is being experienced today at Heathrow, at Amsterdam, at Dublin in Paris and many other airports around the world. Having said that, it is critical that we address it and we are seeing improvements today. In fact, last week, we saw a reduction in waiting time by 50 per cent. We’re now seeing that 90 per cent of passengers going through CATSA are waiting 50 minutes or less, which was a significant improvement from where it used to be a few weeks ago. So we’re acting and we are continuing to add resources. We expect the same from the airlines, from airports and we will remain focused on this until we ease and ensure that the experience of travellers is more efficient and convenient.
Mercedes Stephenson: One controversial measure that’s remaining in place is the Arrive Canada app. I’ve tried to fill this out myself when I was coming back from reporting in Europe and a lot of folks on the plane were having trouble with it. The union behind the CBSA, the Canada Border Services Agency says that their border agents have in effect become technical support with people who are struggling to use this app. The border mayors have asked you to get rid of it. Why are you keeping the Arrive Can app in place when it’s creating so many delays and so many problems?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Mercedes, the Arrive Can tool continues to be a valuable tool for our border agents. We still have vaccination requirements for international arrivals, like many countries around the world. And ArriveCAN is a tool that enables our custom agents to verify the vaccination status of an arrival. Having said all of that, we are working with Public Health Agency, we are working with CBSA. We’re working with airports and with travellers and border communities to ensure how we can improve compliance of ArriveCAN. Today, we have over 90 per cent compliance rate, but I know that there’s more that can be done and we’re working on ensuring that we can improve the experience of ArriveCAN. But it continues to be a critical tool to protect the health and safety of Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: The National Airlines Council of Canada put out a statement saying that over 100 countries have removed the vaccination requirement for people flying into the country. You’ve removed the vaccination requirement so you can fly inside Canada and get on trains in Canada if you’re not vaccinated and you can leave Canada on a plane if you’re not vaccinated. Why is coming into Canada on a plane different that you decided to keep the vaccines for that?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: First of all, vaccines continue to be a meaningful tool in reducing the severity of the infection. And in order for us to minimize the odds of importing any type of variant and protecting our health system, vaccination remains an important tool at our borders. And second, there are many countries around the world that continue to have a vaccine requirement at their borders, including the United States and many European countries. So, it is an important tool. We’ve said to Canadians from the beginning, we will continue to be prudent, focussed on protecting the health and safety of Canadians, focused on protecting our health care system, and vaccination requirements at the border is an element of that protection that we’re offering Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: We don’t have long left, but one last question for you. Masking on planes and trains, are you looking at removing that like the United States has?
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: So masks continue to prove to be an effective tool at reducing transmission. Science and data have proven and continue to prove that. Second, it is a minor inconvenience that we’re asking travellers to endure that offers meaningful protection to themselves and to the passenger sitting next to them in a small enclosed space. I’m thinking of an immune compromised person or an elderly person who’s travelling. So masks continue to offer protection and we think it’s a minor inconvenience that I know that most passengers will feel comfortable getting on a plane while everybody else is wearing masks.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Alghabra, I know with the travel season hitting, it’s peak for the summer. Starting next week, we will be watching closely what’s happening at airports. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Omar Alghabra, Transport Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the finance minister’s Affordability Plan. Is the government on the right track? We’ll ask economist Don Drummond about inflation, stagflation and what Ottawa is doing to help.
Mercedes Stephenson: The rising cost of living from gas to groceries is putting a strain on Canadians, with no signs of slowing down.
Last week, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland gave a speech on the Liberal plan to tackle inflation. She highlighted Ottawa’s $8.9 billion Affordability Plan, which was a re-announcement basically of previously earmarked money and programs by the government. What Freeland didn’t do is promise more money on top of that. Instead, she stressed fiscal restraint. Did her plan strike the right balance? And how will it resonate on Bay Street and Main Street?
Joining me to talk about this is noted economist and Queen’s University Fellow Don Drummond. Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. Drummond. Nice to see you.
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: This is obviously a pretty serious financial situation and folks are wondering what’s contributing to it and how long it will go on. What’s your analysis on what’s led us to this point and what we should expect?
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University: Well, it started off with some special factors. We had the global supply chains that were choked and so a lot of goods you couldn’t get—like good luck getting a window or door. They’re months and months backlogged. And if you could get them, obviously, the price was up. And then of course, we had the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has had two effects that spiked fuel prices and particularly with Europe being cut off from the natural gas, but also Ukraine is an incredible producer and exporter of agricultural products and much of that has been cut off from the market, so that probably would have caused the significant inflation problem itself. But then, now we’ve added on a new phenomenon and that’s the good old-fashioned excess demand. There’s a lot of demand in the economy running up against that constrained supply. And the easiest way to understand that is to look at the labour market. The unemployment rate in Canada is just a tad above 5 per cent. We’ve had the current labour force survey all the way back to 1976 and this is lowest by far of the unemployment we’ve ever had. The flipside, we have the highest employment ratio and is widespread as the highest employment ratio for women, highest employment ratio for Indigenous people, highest employment ratio for recent immigrants. You go on. The labour market is red hot and is being reflected in wages. They’re going up double what the rate of inflation used to be. They’re not going up enough to cover the [00:02:19 rate of inflation] but it’s not just a one shot wonder that’s hitting fuel or agriculture in places, it’s getting imbedded into cost structures to increases in wages.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve seen the government’s plan. Some folks thought that Madame Freeland would announce more money. She didn’t do that. She’s erred more on the side of fiscal restraint for this government. They’ve obviously already spent a lot of money. What’s your analysis of their plan? Is it going to help Canadians?
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University: Well, I would have appreciated a little bit less than the [00:02:48] revision the history. They didn’t increase the Old Age security payment for the 75 plus to help them with the surge of inflation. They didn’t even anticipate the surge of inflation. At the time, if you go back to the announcement, that was to help them with some costs related to COVID. They had more deliveries and the like. Now apparently this is designed to it. So, that’s not really quite being sincere. But the substance of it, there’s not much that they can do. So that they didn’t do anything new is actually really a good thing. There’s one axiom you can never escape in a government that they do something, somebody has to pay for it sometime. So you can help person x and person y gets it. The flavour of the month is cut gasoline excise taxes, but guess who pays for that? The people who don’t fill up the gas tank and that doesn’t seem fair, or you borrow and you stick the bill to our children and our grandchildren. We’re sending one heck of a bill to them already, so I don’t want to see any more of that. So I think the truth is, unfortunately, there’s not much that we can do, given the economy and particularly the labour market is red hot. They have to be cool, and we have to remember even though the Bank of Canada has raised interest rates, as we sit here right this moment, they are still adding stimulus. Their interest rates still not in the range they think is neutral, a range that will be consistent with maintaining 2 per cent inflation, never mind breaking the inflation. Minister Freeland noted that they are in fiscal restraint mode. Well that’s not true. They added $11 billion in that new spending in the budget they just released. So it’s not as stimulative as they were before, but they’re still adding stimulus. So we’ve got this outbreak of inflation. A lot of its excess demand and we have both the monetary and the fiscal authority pouring gas over it. It doesn’t make any sense. They’re both going to have to change their policy stance.
Mercedes Stephenson: What should they change them to?
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University: Well at a minimum, the Bank of Canada has to get into what they estimate is their neutral range of interest rate: 2 to 3 per cent. But I don’t think that will do the trick. I think the inflation pressures are too embedded. They will have to raise the rates about 3 per cent, and there’s a lot of chatter: do they do that and continue 50 basis points? Do they do the 75? I don’t think it matters. I think they should be straightforward with Canadians and say look, interest rates are going to up quite a bit more. And we’re not just seeing short-term interest rates going up, we’re seeing the longer term interest rates go up. And the government has to put a little more pressure to try and get back to a balanced budget. Not immediately, you don’t want to cause a recession by suddenly withdrawing the stimulus. But keep in mind, their last budget just added more stimulus. They can’t be doing that anymore At least the first step was when you’re in the hole, don’t keep digging. And they didn’t add more expenditure in that statement. It would have been nice if they just said here are the reasons for it. It’s largely going to be on the shoulders of the monetary authority and there’s not much that we can do about it.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know, Mr. Drummond, just before the interview we were talking about historic inflation and then in fact, it’s been the last 15 years that have been really nice for consumers and for folks that have been out of step with the historical norm. You’re saying this is going to continue. We’re out of time for today, but we’ll certainly be back in the future because it seems like unfortunately, this is not going away and we’re going back to those high inflation rates of the past. Thank you so much for joining us.
Don Drummond, Economist and Fellow at Queen’s University: You’re welcome. Bye.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, a new Leger survey on the Conservative leadership race shows Pierre Poilievre as the top choice for Conservative voters. But Jean Charest says he still has a path to victory. We’ll ask him how, next.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jean Charest is pitching himself as a political unifier who can challenge Justin Trudeau. With his centrist brand of conservatism and extensive political experience, that could play well in Ontario and Quebec.
Charest says he is creating a home for political orphans with his big tent approach. But critics say his campaign has struggled to gain steam. And, there has been, of course, the very public, very bitter, and at times, very personal feud with the Pierre Poilievre campaign over populism and the future of conservatism. And that has captured much of the oxygen around the leadership race.
Charest has built coalitions before, but can he do it inside the fracturing Conservative Party? Former federal cabinet minister and former Quebec premier, Jean Charest joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us today, Mr. Charest. How are you?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: I’m very well, Mercedes. I’m delighted to join you.
Mercedes Stephenson: You know you are a familiar face in Canadian politics. And we’ve spoken to you many times over the years, but this is the first time as a Conservative leadership candidate.
Back in 2020, you’d said you didn’t really recognize the Conservative Party anymore, when you were considering a leadership run then. Obviously, your mind has changed about the value of the doing this and whether or not you can win. So why do you believe you’re the right leader for the party and why now?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: Well the party needs a unifier. The party needs a leader able to unify the caucus, unify the membership, present a national vision very much focused on the economy because we’re suffering now from the Trudeau government with their lack of economic leadership and even understanding. And we also need a leader, Mercedes, who is going to be able to win a national government. And of all the candidates in this leadership race, I’m the only one who will be able to do that, to expand the base, rally the country, win a national government and allow us to have a true national Conservative government. That’s the plan here and I intend to do exactly that.
Mercedes Stephenson: I wanted to ask you about some polling numbers that we have and it certainly shows that you have the best chance of expanding the base in a federal election into otherwise Liberal and NDP voters. You came out by far, the most popular of the Conservative candidates on that. 25 per cent of Liberals and 25 per cent of NDP voters would choose you over the next closest, which was, I believe, Mr. Brown at 11 per cent. However, inside the Conservative Party, you’re not polling nearly as well. When I look at these numbers, it’s showing Pierre Poilievre with 44 per cent saying they would vote for him and only 14 per cent who said they vote for you. Can you win this?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: Well the answer is yes, and I will win this. And all of this, by the way, is a leadership race that is based on 100 points per riding. So the number of members is fine. I mean it is relevant, but if you have 10 thousand members in one riding, it’s worth 100 points and 100 members in one riding, it’s worth 100 points. So the whole issue here is, as we work our way through the summer, Mercedes, we’ll be talking to the members about what the choice is. I think the key question is: Are you tired of losing? We’ve lost three consecutive election campaigns. And it isn’t so much that Mr. Trudeau won the last campaign. The Conservatives actually lost the last campaign. I will make this party win. And I will win a national government.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well and I hear you on the numbers reflecting that more broadly, but you would have to win the leadership first. And even membership sales aside, the polling numbers are showing that if Pierre Poilievre is getting 44 per cent, potentially, inside and you’re getting 14, that’s a pretty big chasm to close. So why do you think the numbers are showing that if you believe you’re going to win?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: We’ve run a leadership campaign very much on the ground level and with content, by the way. I’m the only candidate in this race who has really come out with policy proposals that tell our membership where I stand on issues so they’ll know what they’re voting for. And we have now until the rest of the summer to make sure that we get the right votes in the right places. Our campaign has been efficient across Canada, and we’re very confident that on the point system that I’ve just referred to, that we will win. And by the way, Mercedes, I mean the history of the last two leadership races has been very clear: the frontrunner has lost. And the reason for that is that they top out on the first ballot. They’re no one’s second choice, which is very much the story for Mr. Poilievre. And whoever are the strongest, ends up winning the race. That’s how Erin O’Toole became leader and that’s how Andrew Scheer became leader, and that’s how I will become the leader of this party.
Mercedes Stephenson: So who’s candidate—pardon me—whose voters do you believe would go to you in that membership? Because I could see maybe Leslyn Lewis’ voters going to someone like Mr. Poilievre. Who is the natural person who falls off that first ballot, whose voters then move to you as their second choice?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: Well there’s, you know, first of all, there’s a whole chunk of the membership that was there before the race started. And then there’s more than 100 thousand people who are, let’s call them walk-ins, who just took up a membership without going through any of the candidates. And we know that a plurality of those individuals is going to be supporting me in this leadership race. So those are the people who would be voting for me.
On the second ballot, I definitely—we definitely know that the consensus candidates on second choice is my campaign and my candidacy. So whether—no matter who the other candidates are, I think I am the preferred second choice of all the candidates and all the members in this leadership race.
Mercedes Stephenson: There’s been a lot of tension between you and Pierre Poilievre’s campaign, and Mr. Poilievre. That’s been no secret. Why are you so upset with Mr. Poilievre? And are you worried that being so publicly critical of each other is taking the focus off holding the government to account and putting it onto your own party?
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: Well I’ve been very open, Mercedes, about debating this leadership race. In fact, I’ve won a debate—another debate organized by the party. It’s Mr. Poilievre who doesn’t want to debate. We’ve asked to have the interim list of the leadership membership. Mr. Poilievre has said he doesn’t want that. We’ve been very open and transparent about where we stand on issues, and I’ll leave it to Mr. Poilievre to continue to hide and not want to talk to the press, not want to talk to the membership or the party and run this hide-and-seek campaign. And so be it. But at the end of the day, the members will want to know what they’re voting for and where we each stand. And in my case, they’re going to get a very clear Conservative choice as a national Conservative government. This is a made-in-Canada Conservative leadership race for me and agenda. It’s a made-in-Canada Conservative government that I am going to offer Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Charest, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today and sharing your perspectives on the leadership.
Jean Charest, Conservative Leadership Candidate: Thank you, Mercedes. Bye-bye.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s it for our show for today. Thanks for watching. All of us here at The West Block would like to wish a happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to all the dads who work on this show. Dads hold a special place in our hearts and in our lives, and I know I sure miss mine. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
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