For weeks, the Liberals have been publicly wrestling with themselves. Would they use the Speech from the Throne to launch a massive pre-election spending spree – er, to unveil an ambitious plan to reshape Canada’s future, with the pandemic as the pretext and masses of cheap debt as the fuel? Or would they confine themselves to something rather less ambitious, a plan focused more on ending the pandemic than exploiting it?
In the event, they seem to have done a little of both. The last two-thirds of the speech could have been written weeks ago and probably was: a list of every past Liberal promise or future Liberal dream, hastily repurposed as responses to the pandemic, with all that it has supposedly “laid bare,” “revealed,” or at least “reminded us” of.
These vary wildly in plausibility. “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century” has a certain ring to it, even if it was plenty obvious before. The fact that “many more people have worked from home” in the past six months may indeed be evidence that it is “more important than ever that all Canadians have access to the internet,” unless they stop working from home after the pandemic is over.
But by the time you’re using it to justify spending on such garden-variety items as housing (“no one should be without a place to stay during a pandemic, or for that matter, a Canadian winter”) or city parks (“this pandemic has reminded Canadians of the importance of nature”), it starts to wear a little thin.
So, perhaps mindful of accusations that, in the middle of a public-health emergency, they were pursuing an entirely unrelated agenda, the Liberals tacked on a sober-minded preface that was All About the Pandemic, and what the government that had so signally failed to plan for the first wave was going to do about the second. (Not much, as it happens: A federal testing assistance response team and unspecified support for businesses affected by local shutdown orders were the only new measures.)
In design, then, the speech rather resembled a mullet: Business in front, party in the back. Language was likewise inserted assuring everyone that the whole thing was “fiscally sustainable.” The deficit may be at $380-billion and counting, spending may have nearly doubled in the space of a single year, the speech may promise billions more, but the government would “continue to be guided by values of sustainability and prudence.” In the phrase of the moment, it would “build back better … responsibly.”
Alas, that was all there was: no mention of fiscal anchors, no benchmarks by which to measure its commitment to sustainable responsibility, certainly no promise to eliminate or even reduce the deficit … ever. Its definition of prudence, moreover, would appear to preclude any reduction in spending (“this is not the time for austerity”) even from its current stratospheric levels.
Rather it consists of a) hoping interest rates stay at their current record lows, and b) raising taxes. The speech pledges the government to “identify additional ways to tax extreme wealth inequality,” and while it mentions as an example a previous promise to limit the tax deductibility of stock options, it clearly has other targets in mind. A wealth tax, such as the NDP has proposed? A home-equity tax?
Certainly it will include taxes on the “web giants,” such as Facebook and Google, whom it accuses of “taking Canadians' money while imposing their own priorities.” The stage is set, then, for the Liberals' mad scheme to tax social-media sites for linking to news stories, part of an even madder scheme to subject the whole of the internet, here and abroad, to Canadian content quotas and other regulations. Or in other words, taking Canadians' money while imposing their own priorities.
In fairness, as watery as the government’s commitment to fiscal discipline may be, its spending plans are even waterier. Much of the speech is given over to reannouncing previous policies, implemented or proposed (is this the fourth or fifth time that the Liberals have promised a national child-care plan?).
Often these are accompanied by some prefatory phrase or other intended to suggest newness: the government “will continue to do” x or “remains committed to” y, or perhaps that it will do “even more” of what it has already been doing. (This is the dilemma facing any government after it has been in power for a few years: how to impress people with your plans for transformative change without allowing that any change is still needed.)
Where it actually promises something new, it is as often as not in terms that are at best aspirational, at worst nonsensical. The pledge to launch “a campaign to create over one million jobs” is a familiar bit of political legerdemain, offered in the belief, usually justified, that the public can be induced to mistake a target for a commitment, or the wish for the deed. But the government “will do everything it can” to see that more COVID-19 tests are deployed? It will “take any action it can” to support seniors? Or, my favourite, “the course of events will determine what needs to be done when.” What … does … this … mean?
Even some of the more specific-sounding pledges dissolve on contact. The government will “immediately bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal”? We’re not even close to meeting the one we have. It “remains committed to a national, universal pharmacare program”? That’s nice. But when? How? With whom? The answers to these and other questions – what it would look like, how it would be paid for, and what would happen to the tens of millions of people who already have drug plans they like – are written on the wind.
On the other hand, the promise of legislation to entrench the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in federal law “before the end of this year” is unambiguous enough. It’s just that no one has the first clue what it would mean.
And of course, as others have noted, many of the most significant items on the Liberals' agenda would intrude the federal government into areas of provincial jurisdiction, much prized and zealously defended. At times, the speech seems to assume away any provincial objections: “Working with the provinces and territories,” it promises, the government will “make the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.” It will similarly “work with provinces” to “set new, national standards for long-term care,” to “ensure that high-quality [child] care is accessible to all,” and to “move forward” on pharmacare. But what if the provinces are unwilling to work with them?
We can only hope. This is what we’ve come to: The provinces have become the last bulwark of fiscal sanity, the only obstacle to a federal government that believes it has been given the key to Valhalla. A single line in the Throne Speech, extending the emergency wage subsidy program for another 12 months, is enough on its own to add another $30-billion or so to this year’s deficit. Not so long ago, that was the deficit.
Sum the cost of all the other promises strewn through the rest of the speech – not temporary programs aimed at relieving a short-term emergency, but permanent expansions of federal responsibility worth probably tens of billions of dollars annually – and it is entirely possible that we will never see another balanced budget in our lifetime. “An ambitious plan," the speech calls it, “for an unprecedented reality.” Unprecedented is certainly one word for it.
This is the prospect that has so entranced the Prime Minister’s Office: bundling all the policies they’d ever dreamed of together and passing them all in a rush – in the name of “the pandemic” – and doing it all with borrowed funds. The government that failed at so basic a state responsibility as safeguarding public health is eager to take on new challenges.
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