Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a politically charged message during a televised address Wednesday in support of the policy agenda his government unveiled earlier with a Speech from the Throne.
The Throne Speech pledges largely fell into two categories: how the government plans to manage the health and economic consequences of the pandemic over the coming months; and how it plans to tackle the issue of stimulating an economic recovery as the crisis begins to ease.
One of the economic promises was a vow to create one million new jobs through environmentally focused measures and incentives for companies to hire and train workers.
The Throne Speech was delivered at a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the pandemic in Canada as several provinces enter a second wave of rising case counts. On Tuesday, the country’s top doctors warned of a surge of coronavirus cases that could overwhelm health care systems, unless people start taking prevention methods more seriously.
In his televised address, Mr. Trudeau warned that a second wave of COVID-19 cases this fall could be worse than what the country experienced in the spring. He also highlighted his planned changes to Employment Insurance and said the federal wage subsidy for businesses will be extended until next summer.
“The federal government will have your back, whatever it takes, to help you get through this crisis,” he said, while also challenging criticism that his government is spending too much.
“Low interest rates mean we can afford it. And, in fact, doing less would end up costing far more. Doing less would mean a slower recovery and bigger deficits in the long run,” he said.
The three main opposition parties had largely negative initial reactions to the government’s agenda, meaning the minority Liberals will have more negotiating to do if they wish to survive an eventual confidence vote on the speech.
Conservative MPs said the speech promises irresponsible levels of new spending without any plan for dealing with the additional debt. Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen said the contents of the speech do not justify the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament last month, which shut down several committee investigations into his government’s handling of a since-cancelled contribution agreement with WE Charity to run a student volunteer program.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he was not seeking to bring down the government, but wanted clear evidence that Ottawa will act on income supports and paid sick leave.
In a section on public health, the Throne Speech said the the hours-long lineups some Canadians are facing as they wait for tests are unacceptable. It promised a testing assistance response team to “quickly meet surge-testing needs” and said Ottawa is “pursuing every technology and every option for faster tests.” The Conservatives have criticized the federal government for not moving faster in this area.
In a recorded video that followed Mr. Trudeau’s address, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the Liberals have failed to deliver on urgent health needs during the crisis.
“In March, the Prime Minister promised that rapid testing for Canadians would be his top priority. Half a year and half a trillion dollars later, Canadian families are lined up for hours for tests because the Prime Minister failed to deliver,” he said. Mr. O’Toole, who is quarantined at home after testing positive for COVID-19, recorded the video himself, according to his office. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet is also in quarantine due to a positive test for the coronavirus.
Wednesday’s Throne Speech was read in the Senate chamber by Governor-General Julie Payette. The Prime Minister’s rare move to ask for national air time on the same day meant that the government’s message would be primarily delivered by Mr. Trudeau rather than by Ms. Payette.
The backdrop of a surging pandemic didn’t lead to major new health initiatives in the Throne Speech. The lack of new spending for health care and public health prompted the Canadian Medical Association to say the speech “falls short of delivering on the promise of ensuring a resilient health care system and keeping Canadians healthy.”
As is common with Throne Speeches, no dollar figures were attached to the promises of significant new spending. The speech said financial details will be released later this year in a fiscal update. The lack of detail around many of the promises Wednesday was a frequent point of concern expressed by interest groups, regardless of whether they supported the government’s message.
Stating that now is not the time for austerity, the Throne Speech signalled major new spending in a wide range of areas, including a “significant, long-term” commitment to a Canada-wide early learning and child-care system and work toward a universal pharmacare program.
Left out of the speech is any mention of increasing health care transfers to the provinces. On Friday, Canada’s premiers asked for $28-billion more annually in base health care funding. The Prime Minister has agreed to meet with the premiers to discuss the request but didn’t promise new spending. The Throne Speech instead highlighted past commitments including $19-billion already sent to provinces to help with things such as contact tracing as the economy reopened.
Quebec Premier François Legault called the speech “disappointing,” and accused the Liberal government of interfering in provincial jurisdictions. He said premiers will speak by phone Thursday to discuss the issue. Mr. Blanchet echoed Mr. Legault’s concerns, using his televised time to say the speech is an affront that does not deserve Quebec’s support. He said the Bloc will vote against the speech unless Ottawa agrees to provincial demands for an increase in unconditional transfers within a week.
Alberta and Saskatchewan also criticized the plan. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the speech ignored the crisis in Canada’s energy sector and instead provided “a litany of policies that would strangle investment and jeopardize resource jobs.”
Mr. Singh said the NDP will wait to see promised legislation on emergency programs before deciding whether to vote in favour of the Throne Speech.
"We have not decided – ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ " Mr. Singh told reporters. “I don’t want an election, because I don’t think that’s going to help people.”
The Throne Speech does not extend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which is set to expire later this month. Instead, it said the recently announced enhancements to Employment Insurance will be the focus of its income support plan and that the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy – which flows through employers to help cover staffing costs – will be extended to next summer.
Perrin Beatty, President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, applauded the move to extend the wage subsidy but said it’s urgent for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to bring down a mini-budget next month rather than an economic statement, as the speech suggests.
Mr. Beatty expressed disappointment that the government did not lay out a national plan to manage the pandemic.
“What we were looking for was a coherent COVID strategy. What they offered is a series of individual initiatives but nothing that stitches together a plan that will enable us to reopen the economy more quickly,” he said.
The government’s recovery phase will include a two-year effort focused on infrastructure, energy-efficient retrofits, clean energy, rural broadband and affordable housing.
“Climate action will be a cornerstone of our plan to support and create a million jobs across the country,” the speech said. “This is where the world is going.”
On climate change, the Throne Speech mostly repeated promises from the 2019 election. After delays prompted by the pandemic, the speech said the government’s plan to do better than "the 2030 emissions targets will be released “immediately.” But that time frame was played down within an hour of the speech being read. A government source said it will be released over the course of the fall and it still needs consultation.
The Globe is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
Wednesday’s speech signalled plans to raise tax revenue, stating that the government will “identify additional ways to tax extreme wealth inequality.” It says this will include limiting the stock-option deduction “for wealthy individuals at large, established corporations, and addressing corporate tax avoidance by digital giants.”
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has recently mused about imposing new taxes and regulations on companies such as Facebook.
The speech confirmed Canada will move ahead with that approach, noting that “Web giants are taking Canadians' money while imposing their own priorities.”
The Throne Speech promised more money for businesses that are forced to shut down under local public-health orders. The move is part of the “surgical approach” Health Minister Patty Hajdu has pledged for future pandemic waves. The goal is to avoid a countrywide shutdown and instead rely on lockdowns targeting specific regions or sectors.
The speech also promised to protect seniors in long-term care. During the pandemic’s first wave, the Canadian military documented abuse and neglect of seniors in some long-term care homes. Ottawa said it will amend the Criminal Code to “explicitly penalize those who neglect seniors under their care” and to set new national standards for the long-term care sector.
As expected, the speech made specific mention of women, who have been particularly hard hit by the economic impact of the pandemic, and it promised to do more to address the systemic racism that Indigenous and racialized people experience in Canada.
With few details, the Throne Speech promised to “help more women get back into the work force” and to create a related action plan and appoint a task force.
To better support racialized Canadians, the speech said the goverment will collect better disaggregated data and create a plan to increase representation in the public service.
Wednesday’s pledge to extend the wage subsidy comes just over a month after Ottawa announced $37-billion in related income-support measures and the phaseout of the CERB as of Sept. 26. The government has not yet negotiated support for this from opposition parties.
The August announcement drastically eased eligibility rules for Employment Insurance on a temporary basis. Under the new EI plan, the floor in income support for individuals would be $100 less per week than through the CERB. The government’s August announcement also promised a new Canada Recovery Benefit for people who would not traditionally qualify for EI.
The $37-billion package came after a July fiscal snapshot that said this year’s federal deficit was projected to be $343-billion.
In recent weeks, several economists and policy experts have expressed concern that Ottawa has not outlined a plan for dealing with the rapidly expanding federal debt resulting from this year’s emergency spending.
Wednesday’s Throne Speech did not outline a plan for dealing with the debt.
“This is not the time for austerity,” it said.
With a report from Robert Fife
In their new speech from the throne, read by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, the federal Liberals promised everything from help speeding up COVID-19 tests to reforming the RCMP. They made four batches of pledges to try to fight off the pandemic and rebuild the economy in what the Liberals argue will be a better way.
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