Exclusive interview with Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper is joined by B.C. MPs

In his campaign for the May 2 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a swing through B.C.’s Lower Mainland on the weekend, announcing new crime measures. They include annual drug tests extended to all federal prison inmates, and ending concurrent sentences for those convicted of multiple sex offences against children. The Conservative government has also proposed expanding federal prisons and ending two-for-one credit for time served awaiting trial.

After a rally in Burnaby, Black Press legislative reporter Tom Fletcher asked Harper about the impact of his crime policies on B.C.,  as well as Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and the effectiveness of tax cuts for business. Here is an edited transcript.

Fletcher: Our newspaper group has just finished a series on the overcrowded state of the B.C. court system and jail system, and it’s not good. Doesn’t some of the impact of more jail sentences fall on provinces, with all these prisoners held in provincial remand initially?

Harper: Some of it does. We are making investments in our corrections system, and we understand that provinces are going to have to do the same thing. We can’t be releasing people who shouldn’t be released because there aren’t adequate facilities. That’s not an excuse. One of the things people expect the government to do is run a criminal justice system. There are just too many stories of people not being incarcerated who should be incarcerated.

We work with the provinces. We have a wide range of criminal code measures before Parliament, and virtually all of these are supported by the provinces. These are not things we are imposing on them, they generally support these measures.

Fletcher: Will new federal prisons eventually relieve the burden on provinces?

Harper: In some cases it will. My understanding is if you are sentenced to over two years you tend to go to a federal facility.

We actually don’t have plans, contrary to what’s being said, to build new prisons. We’re putting some investment into some existing ones, to expand them. And if you look at the actual dollars, not much of that is due to our crime measures.

Some of it is. Some of it is just due to the fact that there has been chronic under-investment in the system for a very long time, and with or without our crime measures, we would have to make more investments.

Fletcher: I wanted to ask about the Afghanistan mission. There hasn’t been much discussion in the campaign. Even in families like mine where relatives have served in the mission in Kandahar, some people are asking, what have we achieved and what can we achieve in the future?

Harper: It has been a very hard slog. Canada and all the countries that are involved have now been in Afghanistan for 10 years. If you look back 10 years, I wasn’t a decision maker then, but people probably thought we would have achieved more by now, but that said, I think it’s important to look at what has been achieved.

The number one thing is that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world. Afghanistan continues to have security problems, but none of these security problems come close to going beyond Afghanistan’s  borders. That’s pretty important. Large parts of the country are actually pretty secure. Obviously the south, where we have been, is particularly bad, but other parts are much better. Kids are going to school, the people are building roads, the Afghan economy is growing.

The Afghan government is gradually making progress, and of course our big thing now is to to try and transfer security increasingly to the Afghans themselves. All of NATO is on a path to do that by 2014. Others may have had more ambitious goals initially. I have always said that the big challenge with Afghanistan was being able to leave the Afghans to govern their own country, and keep their own country secure. And that has to be our mission.

I don’t think it is ever realistic to believe that we could rebuild Afghanistan. By definition, to be successful the Afghans have to be able to to manage their own affairs. Some progress is being made. I’d be the first to admit a lot more needs to be made.

Fletcher: There’s been a lot of discussion about business tax cuts, and you’re in the middle of a year-by-year reduction.

Harper: We’re not in the middle of it. We passed our business tax reduction package in 2007. That was four years ago. That was about the same time, 2006-07, when we brought in all of our tax breaks. We lowered the GST from seven to six to five per cent, we brought in a series of tax breaks for families and individuals, some of which we added to during the recession.

And then we brought some business tax reductions, not just for the bigger firms but for small and medium sized firms as well. All of the other ones have essentially long since been implemented. This one was phased over a longer period of time, and it’s pretty well implemented now.

We provided a long-term plan, four years. Businesses have been planning on all of this for four or five years. Anybody who would now demand that we change this, it would now require that we bring in legislation. That, everyone would see as a tax hike.

It isn’t just the damage that would do in terms of taking money out of 100,000 employers when we’re trying to create jobs. It would impair Canada’s reputation very significantly. We have gone a long way to getting this country noticed as a place that is stable and secure during this recession. If people start to think the politics of a minority Parliament are going to unwind a four-year plan, then I think that would do serious, long-term damage to Canada’s reputation as a place to invest.

Fletcher: B.C. is doing a similar program of business tax reductions.

Harper: Most other provinces are. Liberal and NDP governments also were doing the same thing we are. So this is the irony of the other federal parties criticizing us, while their own provincial cousins follow the same path.

Fletcher: the argument is being made, at least in B.C., that businesses have benefited from these tax reductions, and yet people look at the unemployment rate and the level of investment, and they say it’s not working.

Harper: I think if you look at Canada compared to other industrialized countries, the Canadian economy is creating jobs. There are not as many jobs as we want, but the Canadian economy has created a half a million net new jobs in a little under two years. In most other countries it’s pretty flat. So we think what we’re doing is working, and I certainly know that raising them would not work.

If you’re asking me, would now be the time to introduce new business tax reductions? No, and we’re not proposing that. We have in the budget a small measure to help small businesses with new hires.

I know there has been some talk that not all the money is being invested. But that goes beyond taxes. That’s also a matter of business confidence. And business confidence would be far more damaged by a tax hike than the actual amount of dollars involved.

And nobody’s doing it. This is what’s ironic. You look around the world. Ireland’s bankrupt, and it’s not raising its business tax rates. The United States has a deficit three times ours, and President Obama, who’s not on my side of the political spectrum, says they need to lower their tax rates.

In Canada, if we started raising our tax rates, I think the world business community would be dumbfounded. And it would do real damage.

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