Skip to main content

A Canadian flag flies by Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Never has a government bent so many times so quickly on such a big program. And thank goodness.

Two weeks ago, when a skeleton staff of MPs in the House of Commons met to pass the Liberal government’s first COVID-19 emergency-response bill, both the Conservatives and the NDP howled that it lacked a big wage subsidy to help companies, at least small businesses, keep workers on.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flip-flopped. Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced a 75-per-cent wage subsidy for all companies that had taken a 30-per-cent hit to their bottom line. And then companies, and business associations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, complained that the finicky rules would make the program unusable for too many.

On Tuesday, the government circulated a new draft bill that sanded off a lot of those sharp corners. The results, in the eyes of Dan Kelly, the president of the CFIB, are big changes.

“It certainly doesn’t address all of the problems,” he said in an interview. “But it does expand access to tens of thousands of businesses.”

So it’s imperfect, but way better. Again. Kudos are due to the government for flipping or flopping. Maybe we can work up a new slogan for crisis policy: better government through recognizing mistakes.

Opposition parties can claim they pushed the idea first. They deserve credit.

When MPs met to pass the first COVID-19 emergency bill on March 24, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s first comment in the House of Commons was to tell Mr. Morneau that his proposed 10-per-cent wage subsidy was not enough to help small businesses. Twenty minutes later, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was arguing it should be a 75-per-cent wage subsidy.

Maybe Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau didn’t change their minds simply because the opposition asked. It might have something to do with the economic freeze caused by coronavirus closures, the complaints of companies and the intense lobbying by business organizations. But it was certainly easier for the Liberals to veer to do something that opponents on both the left and right had pushed them to do.

And then opposition MPs such as Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic, quickly started complaining about the time it will take for the money to flow, and the persnickety rules. Good. Mr. Kelly and his organization were giving the Finance Department an earful, too.

For one thing, small businesses were complaining the rules were too rigid. They were expected to declare whether their revenues in March were 30-per-cent less than last March, but businesses had a variety of complaints. The rules didn’t work for companies that were new or growing. Some only started to see business slide at the end of March. Paper revenues didn’t match the cash crunch.

The draft bill made three big changes, in Mr. Kelly’s view. First, it allowed companies to compare their revenues now to January and February of this year, so new or growing companies wouldn’t lose out. Second, it allowed companies to qualify even if they saw revenues decline by only 15 per cent in the first period, from March 15 to April 11. And third, it allowed people to use cash accounting – making it more accessible to companies that had sent out a lot of invoices in March but hadn’t been paid by customers in a cash crunch.

Mr. Kelly said he still expects to hear from anxious business owners who will be left out – but that will be true under any program, and there have been substantial improvements.

Willingness to bend to critics isn’t usually a government virtue. Opposition politicians have struck a reasonably co-operative tone, too. Mr. Scheer and Mr. Poilievre have both offered credit to the government for taking the right general direction – getting cash out – while faulting it for specifics. NDP House Leader Peter Julian said in an interview that he gives the government a lot of credit for listening to his party’s suggestions.

Part of that may be a desire to be seen to be relevant in a crisis when there isn’t much attention paid to opposition politics. But the government would be wise to keep bending. If there is one thing it should be learning about drafting crisis policy, it’s that an eraser is just as useful as a pencil.