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Harper’s economic record challenged by the debate opponents and TRNN panel with Jordon Brennan, Nora Loreto and Jason Sykes

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The 2015 Canadian federal elections will be held on October 19 to elect members of the House of Commons. On Thursday night the first of the debates took place among the party leaders. Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the conservatives, Tom Mulcair for the New Democratic Party, Justin Trudeau for the Liberals, and Elizabeth May for the Green Party. They teed off for this debate in what is expected to be the longest campaign in modern history in Canada.


PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER: –income splitting for our pensioners. I know something the other parties oppose, but they appreciate it. JUSTIN TRUDEAU, LIBERAL PARTY LEADER: Mr. Harper. Mr. Harper, that is simply not true. Mr. Harper. Paul–. HARPER: We’ve made rules for [rifts] more generous. We have–. TRUDEAU: Has been putting that out in–. MODERATOR: We’re hot halfway done the segment on the economy so you’ll have plenty of time. TRUDEAU: Mr. Harper has been putting that out in misleading attack ads. And none of the other parties have ever talked about touching, and I’m including Mr. Muclair on this one, touching income splitting procedures. ELIZABETH MAY, GREEN PARTY LEADER: That’s correct. That’s correct. HARPER: Mr. Trudeau, you voted against income splitting for pensioners. You have–. TRUDEAU: You are fearmongering on that, Mr. Harper. And–.


PERIES: Let’s get right into the analysis of how the candidates did in the debate. For that I’m joined by Jordan Brennan. Jordan is an economist for Unifor and co-author of the recent report Rhetoric and Reality: Evaluating Canada’s Economic Record Under the Harper Government. I’m also joined by Nora Loreto. She’s the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement. She is also the editor of’s series titled UP! Canadian Labor Rising. And I’m also joined by Jason Sykes. He is until recently and adjunct professor of political science at Brock University. I thank you all for joining me today. NORA LORETO, AUTHOR, FROM DEMONIZED TO ORGANIZED: Thank you. JASON SYKES, BROCK UNIVERSITY: Thanks for having me. PERIES: Let me first get a take from each of you in terms of how the candidates actually did in the debate. Let me start with you, Nora. LORETO: Yeah. Well, I think it was what we can expect from a debate that’s only in the first couple of days of a very long election campaign. There were no disasters. Justin Trudeau probably did better than most people were anticipating he would do, but then he ended the debate with a very strange, patriotic speech that I think undid a lot of what he had built up the previous two hours. And for me the big question was how would Tom Mulcair do. For a guy who we’re used to seeing be very strong in question period, I thought that he was pretty disappointing. He spoke very slowly and he kind of fell into a lot of traps that I think were set for him by Harper. And finally, Harper himself, I felt it refreshing just to hear him answer questions for the first time in a long time. So great first debate, but definitely no one is winning or losing this election because of last night’s performance. PERIES: Jason, your take? SYKES: I agree with a lot of what Nora just said there. To me one of the big takeaways, the big standouts for me was Elizabeth May. I think a lot of people who watched that debate realized how well put together, how well thought out her positions are. How articulate she is. I do want to say that you have to put the caveat in there that there’s still in the subconscious the recognition of the fact that her party has so little standing, and that’s really unfortunate, I think. Trudeau did a great job, although the expectations were low. I mean, you had his advisors saying that if he showed up with his pants on it was a victory. That’s probably the greatest lowballing I’ve ever heard of a participant in a debate. While I agree that it was nice to hear Stephen Harper answer questions, he still does so in a way that I think puts off a lot of people in that he manipulates the facts. He sort of tells half-truths, which I don’t think will play out well to the vast majority of Canadians, over the long run. And I don’t think Mulcair did himself a very good service last night. I think at times he was too reserved, at times he was too animated. Maybe it was that he didn’t want to take any big risks. They’re in a good position in the polls. But I think if I had to pick a winner, per se, it would be somewhere between Trudeau and May. PERIES: And Jordan, yours? JORDAN BRENNAN, UNIFOR ECONOMIST: Well, I guess it depends on first how you look at it. I think the various leaders were speaking to different segments of the voting public. And so Stephen Harper is not speaking to the left end of the spectrum, he’s not speaking to environmentalists. He’s got social conservatives already, they have nowhere else to go voting-wise. So he’s trying to scoop up the business liberals, those at the center of the spectrum. And he’s speaking to them, advertising things that will resonate with them. Namely the economy and energy, and potentially national security. I actually thought Harper was quite vulnerable on those topics. He’s going to advertise, and has advertised himself on his strong economic credentials. I think he’s much more vulnerable there than he’d like to be. Factually speaking. Not from the standpoint of what he said. He made a couple of statements that I think are either just false, or are so warped as to be effectively false. And the other leaders, I would have been happy if they had gone at him a bit more. I think Elizabeth May, because her base is the smallest and she has the least to lose, actually said some of the most interesting things in the debate. She was talking about corporate cash hoarding. She mentioned the foreign investment deal, the investment [liberalization] deal Canada has with China, which has some scandalous elements. And so that was, for me, refreshing, that she could bring that to the debate, where the other leaders maybe were focused on trying to win those swing voters. PERIES: Right. Speaking of the economy, let’s just take a look at what Mulcair charged Harper with in the debate.


TOM MULCAIR, NDP LEADER: What Mr. Harper fails to mention is that he’s run up eight deficits in a row. He’s added $150 billion to Canada’s debt in the last ten years. And frankly last week, as we headed into this campaign, in just one day he spent over $1 billion. Honestly Mr. Harper, we really can’t afford another four years of you.


PERIES: Jordan Brennan, let me get your take on the charge that Mulcair made on Stephen Harper. And also elaborate on Stephen Harper’s economic record. You’ve been working on this issue. BRENNAN: Well, I think he was right to go after the economic record. And that’s a nice sound bite, but I would have liked to see a bit more flesh behind the statement. So for example, Harper made two claims near the beginning of the debate: that his government has, that Canada has the highest economic growth of any major economy, and it has the most robust job creation. Both of those statements are false. Canada has fared very poorly compared to the OACD, that’s the economic organization of the 34 richest, most advanced countries. We’re in the bottom half of that group in terms of economic growth and job creation. And other indicators that he flagged, such as exports, we’ve also done very, very poorly under his record. Amazingly poorly, given how important exports, and especially energy exports are for Canada. So I think he’s much more vulnerable on the economy file than the other leaders indicated. PERIES: Jordan, how does a prime minister standing in front of the entire nation make false statistical conclusions and get away with it? BRENNAN: That was for me the most disappointing or frustrating part of the debate, that–listen, we tend to think that people are rational. They take in information and they coolly assess it using their intellect. But I think our intellect is underpinned largely by our emotions. And so people, it’s not what the leaders say, so much. It’s important what they say. But more important than what they say is how they make their voters feel. So does Stephen Harper convey economic competence? Managerial competence? I think that that’s what he’s selling himself on. The facts, I don’t think, are in support of his claims. And he can get away with betting the facts, because how many Canadians actually know the rate of job creation in this country? PERIES: Nora, let me go to you. The candidates that were challenging Harper were very poor at challenging his statistics he’s rolling out. What’s your take? LORETO: Harper has waged an assault on facts since he became prime minister. So what we saw last night is the result of what happens when you have a governmental regime that attacks scientists and attacks science, and attacks researchers and education. So to imagine that we’re going to have a situation where Stephen Harper is not going to lie is just impossible. He’s incapable of standing up and saying what is the truth, because he’s built a career on manufacturing truth and serving it to people to try and convince them to vote for him. So I’m a little bit concerned that that seemed to rope in the other leaders to try and correct those facts. I think Elizabeth May did a very good job at trying to correct those facts. But the fact is Harper is defining this entire election on his terms. And his terms are not true. So what we really need to see from the other leaders is a complete repackaging of what is the economy, and how does the economy feel to average people? We know that we’ve got one set of facts that are not true. We have actual facts that are true. And then we have the daily struggles of average Canadians just trying to get by who are mired in high levels, record high levels of household debt. Record high levels of precarity within the workplace. And people working full time and not being able to cover their basic expenses. So what the other parties really need to do is refuse to play on the frame that Harper has set, because they can’t win. Because they can’t lie as well as he can lie. And so I think that we’re going to see certainly the NDP, because Mulcair is a master debater, we’ll see the NDP come back, I think, trying to figure out how he can recapture the frame and re-spin these issues in the next televised debate. And with Trudeau, the problem is of course, they’re dealing with an intellectual lightweight. And so how can you get someone like Trudeau to start taking control of some of these issues? And I’m not totally sure you can. The one thing that I thought was fascinating was the juxtaposition of Elizabeth May with Mulcair, where she seemed genuine and smart and on the ball, and Mulcair seemed robotic and strange and using his big eyes at the camera. I don’t think that we’ll see a performance like this again. I think that we’re going to see things getting better. And of course, this was potentially the the last debate that Elizabeth May is even going to participate in, which will change the tenor and the quality of the discussion. PERIES: Jason, what about you? What’s the stark reality of what they presented in terms of the economy in the debate, and your take on it. SYKES: I don’t disagree very far from my two colleagues. I think there’s a couple things to add. I think that it’s true that Mr. Harper does like to sort of make up the facts as he goes along. But this is a pattern that has developed over time with this prime minister. And this goes back even to things like the F-35 debate. He hired the PBO, the parliamentary budget officer, to overlook the books and to confirm the status of our finances as a country. This is in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, and the Conservatives’ promises to be open and transparent and accountable. And yet whenever those numbers disagree with how the Conservatives want to spin their government and their position they simply say oh, we disagree. We said the, the government said the F-35s were going to cost $12 billion or $14 billion, and then the PBO came out and said $30 billion. And the government just said, we disagree. Right now we have the government repeating over and over again, until perhaps last night when perhaps Mulcair caught out Mr. Harper on the status of recession in the country. But Joe Oliver has been saying no. No recession, no recession, no recession. No deficit, no deficit, no deficit. And then you have the PBO come out and say look, you’re looking at a $1.4 billion deficit, no matter what the government says. And yet the government will simply say, we disagree. This is a pattern with this government. Now, Jordan’s point–. PERIES: Jason, there was a point at which Prime Minister Harper actually admitted that the economy has perhaps shrunk in the energy sector, but not the other sectors. Is there any truth to that? SYKES: I think there is some truth to that. Jordan, I’m sure, has a lot to say on this, and his report is fantastic, by the way. Great work, Jordan. But there is some truth about the fact that yes, a lot of the recession, a lot of the decline in the economy certainly is playing into or is being affected by the downturn in the oil sector. However, he has to then bear the burden of the fact that he has chosen over the last near decade to put so many of our eggs in that oil basket. The impact of outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and service jobs overseas leaves us with very little recourse to create a solid foundation for an economy, one of which has obviously been primary extraction of resources. Well, that makes you extraordinarily vulnerable to international markets, which, yes, are out of your control. But you do have the control of whether or not that is the foundation of your economy. And that’s the choice this government has made. PERIES: Jordan, give us a take on the, what Prime Minister Harper claimed, that the energy sector has perhaps shrunk but the rest of the economy in Canada is actually doing well. BRENNAN: Well, Mulcair made a statement that was correct. Since 2006 when Harper became prime minister, we’ve lost nearly 400,000 manufacturing jobs. In that same time we’ve gained about 60,000 energy and mining jobs. So that’s a tradeoff there of roughly six or seven to one. For every job we’ve gained in Alberta energy, for example, now looking provincially. For every job we’ve gained in Alberta energy, we have lost six or seven jobs in Ontario’s manufacturing. And those are very good-paying jobs. They are hard to replace in terms of their position on the wage spectrum. Many jobs being replaced are part time, and the compensation package is said to be much, much lower. So I think that on this file he is, that Jason is correct. That by shifting the focus of national policy to energy, which only employs at its peak, energy and mining together only employ at its peak 2 percent of Canada’s workforce. It’s very small in terms of employment. It’s outsized in terms of its policy significance, but its employment is actually roughly 2 percent. So to put all our emphasis, our policy emphasis, on that was misplaced. Now, Harper’s going to claim that it’s not his fault that commodity prices are falling, that it wasn’t his government’s doing. But it wasn’t his government’s doing that commodity prices were rising when he took office. That we went through a commodity supercycle since 2002. surging commodity prices across the board. It’s not just natural gas and oil. It’s agricultural commodities like wheat. It’s precious metals like gold. All those prices soared up. And so we got a commodity boom, which he inherited. It wasn’t his doing. And so the question is now that the boom has turned to bust, what are we left with? Well, we’re 600,000 manufacturing jobs less than in 2002, so manufacturing’s not there to pick up the slack. And I think that’s one big reason we are headed into recession, is we didn’t invest and we didn’t plan to renew our advanced manufacturing sector, and that’s what’s going to drag us down, at least in part. PERIES: Nora, let me get your take on how Mulcair did in terms of the proposal on the table that he was talking about in terms of job creation. LORETO: It was another point where I was pretty disappointed with Mulcair. He started off by trying to talk about childcare as part of the economic plan, which I think is important because the return on investment for hiring childcare workers is actually very good. It’s better than most construction jobs. But he didn’t, he didn’t elaborate enough. Like, there was no talk about financing public transit, for example. And how if you want to have a massive infrastructure overhaul of public transit, that that is a job creation strategy. Elizabeth May kind of alluded to that when she was talking about infrastructure investments. But I thought that it was pretty weak, partly because I’m sure he was trying to play it really safe, and we’re in this weird situation where we’re having a leaders’ debate during an election where there’s actually only been one policy announced during the election. So surely the parties are trying to hold their cards close to their chest, they haven’t really unveiled what they’re planning to promise. Certainly we have things that have kind of been talked about or promised before the writ dropped. But during the election campaign period it’s still quite unclear where the parties are going to go. And so I thought that it was a missed opportunity, and because he didn’t get to talk about anything further than well, we’re going to support manufacturing, which turns more into a buzzword because it doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t explain how. He got, as I said before, he got sucked into this trap of this narrow definition of what the economy is. And the terms of the debate were totally controlled by Harper. And Mulcair’s not going to be able to win at a debate that is controlled by Harper. PERIES: And Jason, do you want to, have anything to add to that? SYKES: No. I really don’t. Well, maybe a little. I would go back to Jordan’s point earlier, which is the other leaders, Mulcair himself as well, they’re sort of trapped. Because of what Jordan alluded to, which is that the average Canadian doesn’t understand the facts. They don’t understand how do you determine GDP, or per capita GDP, or economic growth, et cetera. And so that allows Harper essentially to sort of say what he wants to say, and all the other leaders have as an alternative is to sort of say their numbers as well. But that doesn’t tell the public who to believe. That being said, I think there is some truth that Canadians are feeling the downturn in the economy. Canadians are feeling, Canadians know that their kids aren’t able to find jobs like they did coming out of university, or college, or high school. Canadians know that people are trying to cobble together multiple part-time, precarious jobs just to scramble together enough money to live when we have rising prices for housing and for food, and et cetera. So there’s only so far, I think, that Mr. Harper can try to spin this economy as good and solid, and heading in the right direction. At some point it does boil down to the lived experience, to the feeling that people have. Whether that’s this election, I’m not sure. I still think there is a chance that Harper can spin this, and enough people will believe–we’ll see what happens. PERIES: Jordan, give us some facts on where the economy is at, however Harper’s leadership and the declining economy have some patterns, obviously. Can you highlight some of the stats that we’re going into this election with, in terms of the economy? BRENNAN: Yeah, sure. So if we were actually to chart the long-term history of Canada’s economic performance–I’ve done this all the way back to 1870, to the beginning of Confederation. Economic growth in recent times, in the last couple of decades, has been lower than any time since the 1930s. Since the great depression. Job creation is a post-war low. That’s a major engine of growth, is how many people are working. That seems to be the key element. Business investment, not mergers and acquisitions, but business investment in building new structures, hiring new workers. That has been oscillating around a post-war low for a couple of decades. Tax cuts. Amazingly, he said this. He said that we cut taxes, and that will stimulate investment. Trudeau seems to believe the same thing. Stephen Harper reduced taxes by one-third since 2006. Corporate income taxes, by one-third. And we have not seen an uptick in investment. We’ve actually reduced taxes by one half since the late 1980s and investment has hung around at a post-war low. So tax cuts are simply, as far as I can tell, a redistribution mechanism towards the corporate sector and upwards across the income spectrum. So that is a failure. Exports. The failure to stimulate exports. That’s a key determinant of growth as well. And the composition of our exports has shifted away from industrially diversified products towards natural resources. And that is a big problem as well, because the commodities bust is going to mean that our exports plummet. And so that is also going to be a drag on growth. I think they’re extraordinarily weak on those core economic measures, to say nothing of progressive economic indicators like household debt, like the distribution of income, and so on. PERIES: All right. Nora, let me give you the last word in terms of your plan for job creation. Your plan for job creation. LORETO: My plan. Well, I think the most important thing is looking at what Harper’s record is in terms of attacking workers. This is a prime minister who despises unions more than probably many prime ministers have in the post-war period. And rarely do we talk about in the resource tract of industry, how many workers are killed, for example. There were nine workers killed in Alberta in a span of a couple of weeks last November, and it barely made any news. And so I think what we really need to see is the NDP refusing to use the language of Harper and start talking to average Canadians who are workers, whether or not they’re unionized, and say look. We understand the same struggles that you’re going to, and then there’s our plan to alleviate those struggles. And the plan needs to not just include childcare, but they need to have a position on education, higher education, postsecondary tuition fees is critical. National student debt is now able to reach $24 billion, and that was a policy change made in may when no one covered it in the national media. But families feel this. Families feel what having a household debt of 160 percent of your income means. And we know it’s popular. We see a proliferation of television shows telling people how to deal with their debt. So the NDP really needs to take lessons from the left, popularize its message, and makes promises that cuts through a lot of this rhetoric and forces Harper out of his little fake world of fake facts and actually have debates on a plane that average people can go, wait a minute, that is a lie. Because they might not understand foreign direct investment, but they certainly understand a day-to-day struggle and trying to make ends meet. PERIES: All right. Thank you for joining me today. BRENNAN: Thanks for having me. SYKES: Thank you. LORETO: Thanks for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).