Bevilacqua, Maurizio (Interview)

Q: What are the essential things that people should know about Maurizio Bevilacqua?

A: I came to Canada at age 10. Eighteen years later I was sitting in the House of Commons, a tribute not necessarily to my abilities but, I think, the openness of the country. I have travelled through Canada extensively from coast to coast many times, met with hundreds of thousands of Canadians throughout my career. I understand the country well. I'm going to tell you a story about when I was 13. I was chosen valedictorian for my Grade 8 class and in my speech I defined what I thought was the Canadian dream, and that was a deep belief within oneself that tomorrow can indeed be better than today, and that we all have a responsibility to make it so. And you know, 32 years later, I still believe in that dream.

Q: That's a nice story. So part of the dream for you, personally, is to become leader of the Liberal party. There are a lot of candidates in this race. What exactly are your advantages when it gets to the convention floor?

A: I've been a Liberal for a long time and I have deep roots in the party. Secondly, if the party's looking for generational change, they will take a look at me. I also have experience in the House for over 18 years.

Q: You are the only candidate, then, with deep roots in the party who is under 50 years of age and who has experience in Parliament?

A: That's right.

Q: The 13-year run of the Chrétien-Martin Liberals is often credited to steady stewardship of the Canadian economy. You were chair of the Commons finance committee for a lot of that time. You appear to be presenting yourself as a candidate who can be trusted to continue those traditions.

A: What I'm advocating is that Canada as a nation needs to aim higher, it needs to reduce the ambition gap, and by that I mean the difference between who we are and what we can potentially become. We need a plan for the economy that improves the standard of living for Canadians, and this goes back to a plan I presented in 1999 when I wrote a report called "Productivity with a Purpose." This report laid out clearly the steps a nation needs to undertake in order to address the challenges we face. For instance, this country's aging, and this is going to challenge our future standard of living. Today there are five workers for every senior. In 15 to 20 years, it'll be three to one. We need an overall policy framework to deal with that.

Q: You did make that productivity speech in '99, and it was a good speech, but hasn't your point been won? Everyone's talking about productivity these days.

A: Well, we still need an attitudinal shift, right? Our leaders need to speak about the pursuit of excellence. It's no longer valid benchmarking yourself against a person who's working next to your office or lab or shop floor - we have to compete against the best the world has to offer.

Q: But how is this different from what Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had to say about productivity in his budget last week?

A: Jim Flaherty falls short on a couple of points. He actually reduced the amount of funding directed towards innovation and education, and I think he made a serious mistake in not investing more in education, research and development.

Q: Those are all spending initiatives. If we're going to be a more competitive economy, don't we have to do something on the tax side?

A: As you may remember, I called for the elimination of the capital tax, and this budget actually does that. Our whole tax system has to be globally competitive, because now we are competing for the same capital worldwide. There has to be a serious look at the tax system with a view to lowering.

Q: You're identified often as a pro-business Liberal, a blue Liberal, a centre-right Liberal. Are you comfortable with that?

A: Well, I'm a centrist, I'm fiscally responsible and socially progressive.

Q: Usually socially progressive means spending more, and fiscally conservative means spending less. How do you square that?

A: Well, take the environment. You can be in favour of sustainable development and be fiscally responsible. That's not inconsistent.

Q: How do you apply it to child care?

A: Child care is important not only in social terms but also in economic terms, because it allows people to participate in the labour force. The idea is to maximize the human resources potential of our country.

Q: Would you cancel the new Conservative policy giving every parent $1,200 per child towards child care?

A: I think that choice is important, in child care as well, and it's not an either/or option for me. I think that's where the debate has to go. I mean, you have parents who are staying home, and you have parents who work. They're both part of our country, and they both contribute to our country, and they both should be recognized.

Q: So do you support the Conservative policy?

A: No, what I am saying is that for me it's not an either/or proposition, I think you can have a mix of the two.

Q: So you would let it stand, then?

A: If I was in charge and had access to all the numbers and everything the government has, I would certainly look at it.

Q: You have children?

A: Yes, I do. Aged 18 and 16.

Q: Did you use daycare?

A: Actually [my wife] Elena, who's going back to the private sector in June, back to the family firm - we decided we were going to raise our children at home.

Q: Where do you stand on bank mergers?

A: I think that it's really unfortunate that in a 21st-century economy like Canada's, a sector as important as the financial services sector does not have merger guidelines.

Q: The Liberal party just lost an election. It lost a big part of its base in Quebec. I saw a stat recently that suggested six times more Canadians gave money to the Conservatives than to the Liberals, and private donations to the Liberals were only $200,000 more than what the NDP raised. Why do you want to lead this party?

A: Well, there's a lot of work to do, there's no question about that. But I'm not as pessimistic as some observers. We still have over a hundred seats, and we still had a great number of Canadians voting for us.

Q: Some of the front-running candidates for the Liberal leadership are new to the party - Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae and Scott Brison. Ignatieff is almost new to the country. As somebody who's worked for 18 years as a Liberal, how does that sit with you?

A: You know, Ken, this is democracy, right? People can join our party and run for the leadership. But I think people know a little bit about me. I'm the sort of individual who every step of the way has contributed to the party. I've written 10 reports on issues from youth to social security to budgets and productivity. That's the type of person I am. I'm going to continue to work for the party, with the hope that we can regain power, and very soon.

Q: You worked closely with Paul Martin in the Chrétien government. Why didn't Paul Martin put you in cabinet?

A: I think it's no secret that I had different views than some of the people around him on party-related issues.

Q: There's a whole elaborate theory out there about you not being in cabinet because of a disagreement over bank mergers.

A: No, that's not ... that's way off.

Q: Others say you refused to take sides in a lot of the intramural jousting that had been going on between the Chrétienites and the Martinites. Is that accurate?

A: I have a great deal of respect for the office of the prime minister and the prime ministers. The decision not to put me in cabinet was prime minister Martin's decision.

Q: Paul Martin's inner circle tended to take a you're-with-us-or-against-us attitude. Did your unwillingness to take sides set you back in your career?

A: I believe that different people have different styles of managing government and making decisions. I make my decisions and I live with them. I have no regrets.

Q: When it comes time for a leadership vote next winter and all of the candidates are searching for allies on the convention floor, do you think you'll benefit from not having contributed to divisiveness in the party?

A: I think Liberals across the country know that the party's unity has been very important in my political career.

Q: You have a child named Jean-Paul?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Does that have something to do with the party leaders you served, or religious affiliation?

A: No, no. I wouldn't go that far for party unity!

Q: Why aren't you a Conservative? I haven't seen anything that Harper's done so far in government that you would strongly object to.

A: Is that a question?

Q: Yeah.

A: No, I'm a Liberal. I feel very comfortable ...

Q: I know you're a Liberal, but why are you a Liberal and not a Conservative? This government has been rather centrist so far. What, in policy terms, would make you not feel at home there?

A: I don't think the Conservative party is a socially progressive party, and that's the reason why I'm not a Tory, essentially.

Q: What social issues do they stand for that you find distasteful?

A: Same-sex marriage is one issue that comes to mind, but it's also the approach to governing. The Liberal party, I find, is a party that is very inclusive, that practises the politics of inclusion. I think it also represents a wider spectrum of Canadian society, and that's very important to me.

Q: There seems to be some disagreement within the Liberal party as to whether to move to the right to meet the Conservative challenge or move to the left, show a clearer alternative, and crowd out the New Democrats.

A: I have no interest in shifting the Liberal party to the left or uniting with the left, as has been suggested. I don't see the answers to my agenda of prosperity found in New Democratic economic policy. Because I've been around since 1988 in the Liberal party, I can tell you Canada's economic renaissance was only possible because we exercised fiscal discipline, and every single action that we took toward the elimination of the deficit, paying down the debt, reducing taxes, has brought multiple rewards. And some of those rewards include the creation of 3.5 million new jobs and the reduction of poverty in Canada. That's a perfect example of how being fiscally responsible has obvious social benefits. And that's where we need to stay.

Q: Those were the things that kept the Liberals in power for 13 years.

A: That's correct. There's no need for our party to panic. We have to stay focused, and we have to stick to our principles. The results speak for themselves. There is no way I'm going to abandon the record of the Liberal party in this campaign, or the agenda that brought us there.

Maclean's May 15, 2006