North Star

An Interview with Stephen Harper

As Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper oversaw policy success on the very issues that seem to perplex American political leaders completely today: trade, globalization, and immigration. In his new book, Right Here, Right Now, Harper explains the forces driving the rise of populism and how we can stave them off.

Octavian Report: What prompted you to write Right Here, Right Now?

Stephen Harper: What prompted me was basically the series of events that occurred, I believe, by coincidence almost from the day I left office — a series of big economic surprises in Western democracy. The first was Brexit. Then came the rise and ultimate success of Donald Trump, both in the Republican primaries and the general election. I began to give speeches on that subject: why was this happening? Then in the book I turned my attention more to asking how conservatives should respond to some of these trends.

OR: What do you think the causes of the resurgence of populism and rise of nationalism are?

Harper: We've identified four themes. They're not all the themes of every populist movement, but there's a lot of commonality: upset about economic policy and economic outcomes, about trade and trade deals and trade outcomes, about globalization and globalism more generally, and about immigration. Canada is unique in that we've had changes in government, but we have had no disruptive or unorthodox or, quote, populist political movement in the last several years. So I started to think, "Why is that?"

As I looked at the issues the populists are raising — and I think this will surprise many readers, knowing my background — I actually concluded that they're largely right in their assessment of the challenges and the issues but not so right in the solutions. In some cases, it's hard to identify what the solutions being proposed actually are.

I ran a conservative government. I think most would agree, even if they didn't support the government, that on these policy matters — economic policy, trade, immigration, globalization — Canada has adjusted reasonably well with policies that are all very pro in these areas but haven't produced populist backlash. To a significant degree I used my own experiences to explain why I think there are better approaches than have been taken in these areas.

OR: What do you think the right approach is on trade?

Harper: The big picture is where the populists are right and where, for instance, the President is right. You can open any number of publications, some by supposed experts, who will tell you all trade is good and all trade deals are good deals.

This is just not true. If every trade deal were a good deal, every time a big commercial company or an investment firm were making a deal, they wouldn't need hundreds of advisors working out all the details. Having negotiated almost all of Canada's existing trade agreements, I can tell you it's absolutely possible to get a bad deal. There is no doubt that in some cases Western countries or the United States have had bad outcomes in trade arrangements. So we have to face the fact that trade deals need to be done better.

Trade is by and large good and by and large beneficial. I would go as far as to say it is by and large essential in the modern and globalizing economy. It really comes down to, and it's not sexy, rolling up your sleeves and knowing the details of policy. Our trade agreement with the European Union took seven years to negotiate, requiring thousands of consultations and hundreds of negotiators. But the day I announced it, I knew exactly what I was agreeing to. As I say in the book, when I made the announcement in Brussels with José Manuel Barroso, then President of the European Commission, we were going to get a thousand press releases from various Canadian interests on the deal. We knew exactly what every one of them was going to say. We were not guessing. There's always risk. But we knew who would win. We knew who would lose, and we knew where there'd be struggles and where mitigation was possible. We had this stuff worked out.

You can't just go on the vague theory that David Ricardo said 150 years ago you can trade wine for cloth and assume that answers every question. It's just not that simple.

I'm not questioning the fundamentals of what I would call post-Cold War globalization principles. I'm questioning the degree to which those principles have become an excuse for people who really haven't done their homework on good policy and monitoring impacts.

OR: What's your view on the right approach to immigration?

Harper: Literally everyone looks at Canada on this question, because there really is no country on Earth that has had as much relatively large-scale immigration with similarly high levels of not just public acceptance but positive adjustment and integration.

When I was Prime Minister, other leaders would come to me and say, "How can we do that here? We've got this illegal and irregular immigration. It's very unpopular. How do we change public opinion?" I used to tell them, "You can't." Illegal and irregular immigration will never be accepted by the public. It's that simple.

Canada is a, quote, open and tolerant country on this. But a big part of the reason that immigration has been so successful there is that our systems are fundamentally legal. Even if you don't agree with aspects of immigration policy, you accept that this is a decision that the country has made under law. When immigration becomes fundamentally not legal in character, you can't expect widespread public acceptance. You also, by the way, can't expect a lot of other things. You can't expect successful integration. It comes with a whole bunch of other problems.

I ran the largest per capita immigration program in the world. We're one of the few right-of-center parties not only to get a substantial chunk of the immigrant vote in many communities, but to dominate the immigrant vote with high public acceptance. The way we did that was by having a pro-immigration policy but one that is not blind to immigration abuse. The Left often accuses people on the Right of pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, but often the bigger problem is the Left pandering to immigration abuse. Immigration abuse does have to be curtailed, and it will always exist in some forms. If it gets serious, you have to deal with it. Like on trade: just because trade is good doesn't mean you can pretend all trade is good. Just as immigration is good, you can't pretend that all immigration under all circumstances will automatically be good. You have to make sure it's good.