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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, while on a tour of Asian countries, including India and Philippines, sat down with The Globe's Steven Chase to talk about international trade, U.S. politics, immigration and more.

The Globe and Mail: You've now visited India twice in three years and China twice in an even shorter period of time. Do you expect to make visits to these two countries a regular component of your approach to building these closer trade relationships?

Stephen Harper: The short answer is I suspect so. We haven't sat down and mapped out a schedule but as long as we're able to make progress we will continue doing the range of things we are doing. Which aren't just visits by the prime minister and/or governor general, but also ministerial visits that happen much more frequently. The opening, of course, in both countries and expansion of the consular presence, the presence of consulates and embassy staff and trade commissions. But, look, we will judge as we go forward the results we're getting for this. So far I am pleased but we have a long way to go.

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Are you surprised by the U.S. election result and how badly Republicans have been doing among a group that you in Canada have been able to reach out to effectively?

I don't know, in fairness, how much analysis I want to do of the U.S. election. I will just say that the result didn't surprise me.

I think the biggest thing to remember is that within the range of reasonable expectations we could have had radically different results, right? One or two per cent either way. But certainly I think in the end it probably was the most expected result, which was [Barack] Obama maintaining his presidency, the Republicans keeping the House and the Democrats keeping the Senate. I am not going to analyze Republican or Democratic politics in the United States.

Obviously in Canada, since we established the new Conservative Party of Canada, our goal has been to bring together all conservatives, and what we've meant by that is not merely people who belong to the predecessor parties – to the Progressive Conservatives or the Reform-Alliance – but also we're able to bring together in our party small-c conservatives from every conceivable region and walk of life and background. That's been our strategy rather than as some would have, watering down Conservatism.

In fact, if I can quote my minister Jason Kenney, he says the goal is to make sure small-c conservatives become big-C conservatives. That has been our philosophy but I am not going to get into what other countries may or may not do differently.

We spent a lot of time in India concerned about the outcome of the nuclear co-operation agreement. In 2010, your throne speech talked about ensuring that unnecessary regulation does not inhibit the growth of uranium mining and ensure it isn't unduly restricted by foreign investment restrictions.

Given that nuclear trade is a priority for you – and nuclear investment – do you still expect to introduce changes that will ease restrictions on foreign investment in uranium mining?

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I think as you know I am not going to comment on foreign investment rules at the present time. They are, as you know, a matter of some discussion and market interest so I am not going to say anything about them, other than to point out, in terms of the nuclear industry, that Canada is relatively rare in that we are a supplier of every aspect of civilian nuclear energy, all the way from uranium mining to the development and construction and operation of nuclear facilities.

In the case of India, they obviously have a need for every aspect of that, but there's also the particular advantage that they have tended historically to use technology very similar to Canadian technology. As you know we've already made significant changes in terms of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited: to privatize its commercial operations and we think better position it in the global commercial marketplace.

The Philippines is a major source of immigrants for Canada – and foreign workers …

It's the largest in the last two or three years.

The Canada Experience Class – the new category your government created – has grown substantially and you are expected to accept the greatest number of people in that category so far [in 2013].

The key is obviously people who have demonstrated they can fit into Canada and have the skills necessary. It seems to me that class embodies a lot of what you party, what your government has tried to do, in making the immigration system more useful, more helpful for Canada. Do you see this as a model for the future of immigration in Canada?

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We are making I think profound, and to this point, not fully appreciated changes to our immigration system.

The first thing to say about it is this government is very pro-immigration. This government believes Canada needs immigration, benefits from immigration and that those needs and benefits will become even greater in the future if this is done correctly.

We also believe that an immigration policy will ultimately have degrees of balance. There are economic reasons for immigration, there are family reunification reasons and there are strictly compassionate, humanitarian refugee-type considerations. So there will always be a range of streams. But within that context we are making significant change.

And the change, Steve, is really that we are shifting the country away from yes, a large-scale, pro-immigration policy but a large-scale … passive pro-immigration policy. An immigration policy that essentially operated on receiving applications and processing them in order. And when we took office that had left us with, in every single stream, backlogs of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of applications that we had been obliged by previous policy to literally process in order without any regard to what the country's actual immigration priorities were.

So what we are trying to do in key categories, especially economic categories, is shift to an activist policy where we define what the immigration needs are that we want, where we actually go out and try and recruit immigrants and to the extent that we receive applications we try and prioritize them to the country's objectives. Why is it important to do this? Well, first of all, there are some obvious advantages.

But also the world is going to shift. We have been relatively rare for decades in being one of a very small number of countries that is essentially an immigration-accepting country. There aren't many. There is Canada, the United States, Australia, Israel and historically there are only about a half dozen.

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But we're seeing as the demographic changes I've talked about, the aging population, start to bite, in many developed countries, we're seeing their immigration needs and their actual immigration intakes beginning to increase.

And in many cases they are in fact using more proactive and activist policies than we are.

And we will not be able to compete with our traditional system – because in the past we weren't competing with anyone.

You know, there were only so many countries people could immigrate to and Canada was one of them. That isn't going to be the case in the future.

Immigrants are going to be going to a whole lot of countries, mostly in the developed world and Canada is going to have to get out there, compete, and make sure we get the immigrants both in terms of volumes and particular attributes: skills, expertise and investment capacity.

So we're in a competition for high-value immigrants?

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We will be increasingly.

I only ask this because of the fact it's stayed the same for seven years: is there any need to increase the level of immigration and is there any thought being given to that?

Well, look, that's under constant review. I think the problem with answering the question is the generalization. There are probably some areas of immigration we need to increase and others we don't. That's the challenge. But the priority has been reorienting the system because we really have been bogged down by a system that is based on processing a backlog of applications – and it's taking some time to convert from that.

So this is going to have profound changes for Canada, you hope?

I believe so. I hope so. I mean it's all part of the five Ts I talked about [at the World Economic Forum in India]: the big changes we're trying to make to make sure we position our economy for sustained growth and job creation over the long term. (Editor's note: In the speech, Mr. Harper referred to taxes, training, technology, transformation of bureaucratic processes and trade.)

China has begun a once-in-a-decade leadership change. It's as far as I can tell very profound and is going to possibly mean a change in direction …

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We don't that. There's a change of leadership. It's a change of leadership. I think the honest truth is we don't know. And nothing I've read either publicly or in my confidential briefings has suggested that we really know much about what the change is at this point. So I think it will be interesting to watch.

Can I make maybe one comment about it, comparing China to India?


Because of the nature of the Chinese political system, change is occurring much more aggressively and much more rapidly and it's in a much more clear direction than the kinds of change we've seen in India. However it's also my judgment that because India is a democratic system, that the changes that happen in India will be much more profound in the society and sustainable over the longer term.

Whereas the Chinese political system can force profound change, rapid change, very quickly, there could be surprises along the way because we don't know whether that change is moving in the same direction as the underlying society.

What do you mean "surprises?"

Well, we don't know. We know that observers have commented on the strains that exist in Chinese society and really I think what we will see going forward is the increasing disconnect between economic wealth and freedom on the one hand and lack of political freedom on the other. And I think that in time that will lead to some interesting developments and much more difficult to predict over time.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

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