And while the bombastic, protectionist American president might make him “uncomfortable,” it’s politicians like Bernie Sanders who Harper says truly alarm him.
“I look at Donald Trump,” he said. “Obviously, there’s things that I’m uncomfortable with but the Bernie Sanders of the world or the Jeremy Corbyns in Britain are the ones that really, really frighten me.”
In an exclusive broadcast interview airing Sunday, the former prime minister joined the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson in New York City to talk global trade, protectionism, populism and how they tie together in his new book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.
He said his fear is that politicians like Sanders and Corbyn would do “irreversible” damage to global market economies if elected.
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“The Donald Trumps of the world, the Nigel Farages of the world — one can disagree with them, especially a conservative like myself,” he said.
“But they are at least trying to fix what they see ails democratic, capitalist, market-oriented societies and my fear is if they don’t have success or if conservatives do not adapt to the political pressures that are driving these movements, my concern is we will have the left-wing version of that, which will be anti-market, which will be socialist or Marxist economics, which I believe would turn us in an irreversible, downturn direction.”
Harper, who resigned as an MP following his party’s 2015 loss to the Liberals, has largely stayed out of the limelight in the years since while starting up a consulting firm, Harper & Associates, which saw him make headlines again last year after a leaked memo to clients suggested the current government was “napping on NAFTA” negotiations.
The deal, now renegotiated and dubbed the USMCA, was a frequent target of Trump in his bid to appeal to American voters who felt they’d gotten the raw end of both that deal and broader global trade agreements that have led to an outsourcing of blue collar manufacturing jobs to places like China.
In addition to the president slapping tariffs worth billions on Chinese goods, he and negotiating parties also agreed to include a provision in the new deal that requires the U.S., Canada and Mexico to give each other three months’ notice before they start free trade talks with a “non-market country.”
That’s code for China, which the U.S doesn’t recognize as a market economy.
Conservative MPs have argued that provision essentially makes Canada into a “vassal state.”
WATCH BELOW: USMCA offers ‘opportunity’ to fix trade imbalance with China: Harper
But Harper said it could actually help Canada gain a stronger position to fix what he described as the “very serious problem” of a trade imbalance with China.
“It’s certainly a novel chapter. We haven’t seen anything like it before in a trade deal. I think it’s very interesting,” he said.
“All three countries are suffering from growing trade imbalances with China so I think this is an opportunity for our government to work with the United States, frankly, on something that we could not do on our own. I think it would be very difficult for Canada alone to try and fix that structural trade imbalance problem.”
That imbalance has caused a one-way flow of jobs that has hurt the middle classes, he said, and will continue to do so if not addressed.
Harper said he views those concerns about economic instability as realigning the political spectrum.
Rather than a spectrum that runs from conservative to liberal, the extremes are swinging towards populism on one end and elitism on the other, with both traditionally blue and red parties fighting to adapt to the concerns shaping that evolution.
That need to adapt is putting pressure on politicians of all stripes, he said.
“But it’s actually on the centre-left that you see the worst effects,” Harper said, suggesting the Labour Party in Britain has been “taken over by extremists.”
“The Democratic Party is close to that in the United States.”
So who is best-placed to address the concerns fuelling the populist spread?
In Harper’s view, conservatives, both in Canada and abroad.
“I think conservatives are better placed to adapt because I think the fundamentals of what we stand for — the necessity of having a market economy, making that serve, you know, greater public interest, and also our belief in traditional institutions like faith, family, the nation state, nationalism,” he said.
“I think these things allow us — and are less ideological in nature — allow us to adapt.”
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