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Sunday, September 26, 2021

QP interview: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Afghanistan, taxing the super rich, and universal pharmacare

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TORONTO — In this first of a series of interviews with Canada’s major federal party leaders, Question Period Host Evan Solomon talks to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Below is a full transcript:

Question Period Host Evan Solomon: I’ve got to start with the issue of Afghanistan. As you know, you have criticized the Liberal Party in terms of how they handled this issue, but Canada got out 3,700 people — that’s more than countries like France, the third most per capita. Can you please tell us in detail and practically what you would have done differently, given the fact that Canada, our ground forces, left that country back in 2014?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well, what we’ve heard from a lot of veterans, and as information is coming out more and more, is it looks like they were reaching out to the Canadian government, reaching out to Justin Trudeau, to advise that the process to help our allies that put their lives at risk to support our Canadian Forces was too complicated, did not respond to people in a crisis zone — it was not working. And they raised those concerns for months and months. And so that’s our concern: that for months and months, the calls for a better process to help our allies were not heeded. And sadly, folks have raised a concern that calling an election while this crisis happened may have taken away some resources and time that went towards the campaign that could have gone towards a better response to this crisis.

Solomon: If you were the leader, would you right now be speaking with the Taliban, negotiating with the Taliban to try to get safe passage for Canadians and interpreters left behind? Would you directly negotiate with the Taliban?

Singh: No, our approach is that right now things are things are really dire and I just want to acknowledge how scary it is for so many people in Afghanistan for people here in Canada we spoke with an organization, a coalition of Canadian Afghans, who are talking about how dire the situation is and how afraid they are for their family and loved ones, so things are really bad. We right now know that it’s difficult, and we’re just going to encourage Canada to continue with our allies, to find ways to make sure everyone gets evacuated.

Solomon: I’ve got to quickly just push back. The United States is directly talking to the Taliban to negotiate safe passage. You’re saying you wouldn’t. Canada’s clearly talking to the Taliban via the proxy of the U.S. If you were the prime minister, you would not directly — you don’t have to recognize them, they’re a terrorist organization according to Canada — but why would you not negotiate and talk to the Taliban to try to get more Canadians out by securing a safe passage.

Singh: Well, we certainly wouldn’t recognize – the Taliban is a terrorist organization — but we would encourage, using all resources and all avenues possible to secure the release of our allies. So I should be clear on that; that it’s important to use every tool possible work with our international allies, and find ways to secure the, the safe evacuation of people that put their lives at risk to support our forces.

Solomon: OK, let me let me go to health care, a huge issue. You support mandatory vaccines for all your candidates, you support it for federal workers, you even said that employees who don’t get vaccinated should or could lose their jobs. Public service unions disagree with you, they don’t like it. So could you be clear: Would you oversee firing public servants or them losing their jobs if they refuse to get vaccinated?

Singh: We know that the vast majority of Canadians want to do their part to keep people safe, and want to get vaccinated. And we also know that the vast majority Canadians believe in having some way to prove that by having a vaccine passport. And we know that people on the front lines, that are providing care or providing services directly to Canadians, can pose a higher risk and should be vaccinated. So we would work with unions and work with the workers on the ground to make sure we establish a way to move forward, but we absolutely believe that there needs to be mandatory vaccines and there would be consequences for those who are not able to, or not willing to do that, and we can look at what those consequences are.

Solomon: OK but you’ve said in the past that the consequences could be they’d lose their job, so you’re open to that: no vaccine, no job.

Singh: If someone doesn’t get vaccinated, that’s obviously their choice. But if they’re providing care or services on the frontline, and we’ve said we would mandate vaccination for our frontline workers, for federally regulated workers, then they wouldn’t be able to continue in that position. So that’s something that, that would be a consequence, and we’re prepared to do what’s necessary to make sure Canadians are safe.

Solomon: Can you explain why you and your team are not doing rapid daily COVID-19 tests while on the campaign trail, as other campaigns are?

Singh: So what we’re doing is we have a mask mandate — we wear a mask, we are all double vaccinated, and we’re doing contact tracing, as well as temperature checks. So those are our methods, those are our steps that we’re taking. And we’re always open to hearing feedback from public health experts around any additional measures, but those are the measures that we’re taking.

Solomon: OK polls at this stage don’t mean a lot. I understand that. But in 2019 you were explicit: you said, ‘I will never work with a Conservative government, in a minority government, under Andrew Scheer.’ Would you now, as you have seemed to indicate, would you be open to working with a Conservative minority government under Erin O’Toole? You ruled it out in 2019, are you ruling it out again in 2021?

Singh: Well I want to be really clear on this: I’m running to form government. So as a New Democratic government, our goal would be to deliver the help that people need. That’s my focus. If you’re asking me my position or where I stand on the Conservatives, we’ve got nothing in common. It’s clear they teamed up with Justin Trudeau to fight against getting rid of private, long-term care homes, and for-profit long-term care homes. They work together to vote against pharmacare. So in fact, it looks like Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole have more in common, since they’ve worked together to hurt people. We believe in doing everything we can to lift people up and provide them the help they need.

Solomon: OK but again I’m just trying to get (an answer): in 2019 you were explicit, ‘I won’t work with them.’ In 2021, what’s the position?

Singh: Our position is we’ve got nothing in common with the Conservatives. We think that Canadians can’t afford another four years of Mr. Trudeau or Mr. O’Toole. Both of them have voted against things that Canadians believe in. They both voted against taxing billionaires and making sure they pay their fair share, something that we believe is essential so that we can invest in people for a better future, for better health care, to tackle the housing crisis. So that’s where we stand. We don’t think that Canadians would benefit from either Mr. O’Toole or Mr. Trudeau being the prime minister. That’s why we’re running to elect more New Democrats so we can help people.

Solomon: OK, well we’ll find out if there’s a minority or not. Climate — obviously a critical issue for many, many people across this country. You have been open over the years, opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The Liberals spent billions of dollars, they bought it. People can’t figure out if you would kill that project if you were in power, if you were the government would you kill that project and cancel the construction? Yes or no.

Singh: Our position is clear in terms of that, this is a project that we’ve opposed, that’s obviously still the case when it comes to what we would do with the asset: we’d have to understand it, take a look at it — there’s information we don’t have because we’re not in government — and then we will look at that information to make the best decision that’s in the interest of Canadians.

Solomon: OK but (former Green Party leader) Elizabeth May says you’ve opposed it, but you won’t promise to kill it. So, does that sound very much like the person you’ve been criticizing, Mr. Trudeau, says one thing and does another thing — that’s what your criticism has been. You don’t like the pipeline, you become the government, do you kill it or not? You know, (U.S. President) Joe Biden killed the pipeline, would Jagmeet Singh kill the pipeline.

Singh: Well, it’s a very different situation in the sense that Mr. Trudeau already bought it, and has already started doing, you know, some construction. We don’t know what that looks like in terms of an asset, and we don’t know what would be in the best interest of Canadians. Once we form government, we would have access to that information, and then we would make the best decision possible. It’s impossible to make that decision in terms of what would be in the best interests of Canadians, without actually understanding what the nature of the asset is and what the nature of our obligations are. So I would absolutely commit that we need to invest in renewable energy.

Solomon: (The Liberal government) poured $5 billion into that pipeline already, it could take another $10 billion more to complete it. In 20-odd days if you become the prime minister-elect, you could make a decision on that. And so you’re saying you’re not ruling out keeping that pipeline.

Singh: What we’re saying is, it wasn’t something that we would have done in the first place. We’ve always been opposed to it. When we form government we will look at the asset and make the best decision for Canadians

Solomon: You promised to create a national pharmacare program a $10-billion program, but, but you’d get it done by 2022 — that’s in a year. So that’s provincial jurisdiction. How would you practically get, how can you promise people you’ll get something done, when it’s not your timetable, it’s the provinces timetable?

Singh: Well with universal pharmacare, it’s something that just makes sense. It’s about using our buying power as a nation, and negotiating prices as a nation. We already know that each province and territory purchases medication for their citizens, for people in hospitals — they already purchase medication. Wouldn’t it just make more sense for us to negotiate that collectively? There’s ways to do that right away. Our plan isn’t just to have a stop-gap measure, which is what the Liberals are doing, and folks should know, that’s not universal pharmacare. Our plan is to make sure, when someone needs medication, whether they have a plan where they don’t have any coverage, we’re going to save them money by eliminating any fee when it comes to getting medication. That’s your co-pay, that’s your premium, that’s for people who don’t have coverage, that’s for people who have coverage — everyone’s going to save, provinces are going to save. I can’t imagine anyone saying no to a program, which is going to save them money, once we put the money on the table. Once you’ve laid the plan out on the table, we’re going to get everyone to sign on.

Solomon: Right, but provinces have said no, and a lot of them have said they don’t want that. So, it’s just an interesting promise based on someone—

Singh: They said no to Mr. Trudeau. It’s important, Evan, to know that they said no to Mr. Trudeau and they said no to him because he’s someone who’s maintained the cuts to Harper cuts to health care, he’s maintained those same cuts that he criticized himself, he’s maintained them, and he hasn’t put on the table a universal pharmacare for all program.

Solomon: Sorry sir, I just have to interrupt you, you know it’s not a cut. I just want our viewers to know–

Singh: Well it’s exactly what Mr. Trudeau criticized when he was in opposition, he criticized Mr. Harper and said it was the wrong thing.

Solomon: I just want people to know, there was no cut to health care, it was a six per cent…

Singh: He criticized Mr. Harper for doing it. It’s on the record. He criticized them, and then when he got into power, he kept the exact same funding that Mr. Harper had in place, that he had criticized. So that makes it clear: he knew was the wrong thing to do, but he kept it in place when he formed government.

Solomon: I just want to make sure (viewers know), the Canadian Health Transfer has steadily increased in that time, but Mr. Harper’s formula was to cut the six per cent annual escalator down to either, you know, the rate of inflation or three per cent. And yes you’re right, the Liberals kept that for him. It’s actually still an increase overall but you’re right, it’s a cut from the six per cent. I appreciate it, I just want to make sure that people have a sense of that.

So you’ve always stood up for the rights of minorities, and you’ve talked about that explicitly — you face it yourself. But you said on Quebec’s most popular television show (‘Toute le monde en parle’) that you would not appeal or take any action against Quebec’s secularism law that prevents people in certain jobs from wearing religious symbols like hijabs, turbans, and kirpans. You have called the law discriminatory, but you’re going to do nothing about it. You won’t appeal to the courts. How do you reconcile that? How do people trust that you’ll actually fight for their rights, when in Quebec, a law that you call discriminatory, you refuse to challenge in court? What does that say?

Singh: That’s not at all the case. I’ve said very clearly: this law is discriminatory, it divides people, it creates two categories of Quebecers, and it’s wrong. Right now it is being fought in court, and I’m a lawyer and I understand what that means. Right now it’s being challenged in court by Quebecers, and that is the right thing to do, and we’re going see what happens with the result of that. We’ve got to wait and see what happens. And it’s being fought in court and I acknowledge that. I think that’s incredible that Quebecers have come together to say, ‘We think this is wrong.’ We also know that in Quebec, people in Quebec, aren’t unanimous on this, they don’t believe this is the right thing, there’s a lot of people that are opposed to it. That’s the right thing to happen right now. It’s being challenged in court and we’ll see what happens next.

Solomon: I will just say, on ‘Toute le monde en parle,’ the most popular program in Quebec, you said, ‘I will not try to appeal this decision if I was the prime minister,’ and you said this, ‘I accept that this is Quebec’s jurisdiction.’ So you said one thing to a Quebec audience, sir, that you’re saying a little differently here, so I just tried to get clear, would you—

Singh: No, no. Not at all. I said it’s before the courts. And as a lawyer, you don’t know what a judgment’s going to look like until the judgment’s released. And so once you look at the judgment, you’ll be able to make a determination of the next steps. Right now it’s before the courts, and it’s being challenged in court, and that is the right thing to do. I’m going to continue to do exactly what I’ve done, which is say it is divisible, it’s divisive, it’s discriminatory and it’s wrong, and I will continue to do that.

Solomon: On human rights, just one issue: boycotting the upcoming Olympics in China. Of course, the two Michaels (Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig), the Canadians who have been so badly mistreated and imprisoned well over 1,000 days, the treatment of the Muslim minority, the Uighur minority, you’ve called it a genocide, as by the way the United States and the U.K. have. Would you boycott the Olympics? And is there an attendant thing — not only to make the athletes, sort of the pawns of policy, would you ban trading with China? If you believe they’re committing a genocide.

Singh: Well, the first question around the athletes, I think that paramount analysis of that, to come up with a solution or response, is to assess the risk to our athletes. And right now there are some serious concerns around their safety and their risk, given the treatment of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig. Given what’s happened to them, there are some legitimate concerns around safety, and because of that I think we’ve got to be vigilant around assessing that safety risk and making a decision based on what’s going to protect our athletes. And so that’s something that will be ongoing and we’ll continue to assess that risk.

Solomon: Finally, a lot of people are saying, ‘OK, what’s this election about?’ In your view, what’s this election about. What are people going to take to the polls, because a lot of folks might say, ‘I don’t know, Jagmeet’s team was working well with Justin Trudeau, seems like he kind of supports the Liberal agenda. They work well together, that seems fine.’ In your view, what’s the key question?

Singh: The question in this election is: Can we afford four more years of Justin Trudeau, who’s let the super rich continue to have a free ride? Or do you want to vote for New Democrats, who will make the billionaires start paying their fair share, so we can invest in people in the recovery, make life better by investing in health care, tackling the housing crisis, making sure we’ve got clean drinking water for Indigenous people. That’s really the question: A free ride for billionaires, Justin Trudeau has done that, or New Democrats who will make them pay their fair share.

Solomon: All right, Jagmeet Singh, I really appreciate you taking time off your busy campaign, thank you sir.

Sing: Of course, thank you.

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