OTTAWA – The minority Liberal government has unveiled what it calls an “ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality” that pledges to create over one million jobs and massively expand or introduce benefit programs and support for nearly every sector of society.
But while Wednesday’s throne speech signals that the Liberals intend to follow through on promised efforts to combat climate change, economic inequality and systemic racism, they’re also acknowledging that not much can be done if the COVID-19 pandemic is not brought under control.
“We must address these challenges of today. But we also cannot forget about the tests of the future,” said the text of the speech, read in the Senate by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sitting by her side, wearing a mask.
Public health officials have increasingly sounded the alarm in recent days that if stricter controls aren’t in place or enforced, a full-blown second wave of the pandemic risks drowning the economy. Case counts in some areas are now at highs not seen since the early days of the pandemic.
The Liberals promised Wednesday they’ll do what they can to help, including boosting testing capacity, by among other things, creating a federal “testing assistance response team” to meet surge demand, and providing targeted support to businesses forced to close due to local public health orders. With millions of Canadians lives and livelihoods still teetering after the pandemic’s first wave, the Liberals are also promising to move ahead with a shift from emergency benefits to a more robust employment insurance system that would incorporate COVID-19 supports. They’ve also reversed course on a planned end to the federal wage subsidy program, now saying they’ll extend it through next year.
The immediate goals of the government to help get the economy back on its feet and support Canadians are matched by the need of the minority Liberals to stay in power. The eventual vote on the throne speech is a confidence motion and they need at least one of the three main opposition parties in the Commons to back their plan.
The Liberals framed their approach Wednesday as giving Canadians a choice, in an echo of their 2019 election campaign strategy.
“Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind?” the speech said.
“Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed?”
Trudeau is scheduled to address the country in a nationally televised address later Wednesday, a move designed to underscore the ongoing severity of the pandemic, but one his political rivals have argued is a political stunt and lends credence to the idea of the throne speech as the Liberals’ platform for the next election. The NDP had been agitating for action to address the gaps in the existing benefits and EI system, and might also take some comfort in a pledge in the speech to move forward with elements of a national pharmacare plan.
That pitch is part of a broad suite of ideas the Liberals are laying out for the post-pandemic period, through what they’re calling a “resiliency agenda.”
“This will include addressing the gaps in our social systems, investing in health care, and creating jobs,” the speech said.
“It will also include fighting climate change, and maintaining a commitment to fiscal sustainability and economic growth as the foundation of a strong and vibrant society.”
Other parts of that package: national standards for long-term care homes, a new Canadian disability benefit regime and “full and fair compensation” for farmers for recent trade agreements. There are also promises for tougher gun laws, action to address systemic racism in the justice system and elsewhere and a refreshed list of promises to Indigenous Peoples.
But the cornerstone, the Liberals say, will be action to tackle climate change, which will include legislation to get to Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and investments to attract the development of net-zero technology.
The federal Conservatives, who had said before the speech they’d like to see some measure of fiscal restraint included after months of unchecked spending, will see those demands unanswered.
“This is not the time for austerity,“ the speech says.
“Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder.”
The Liberals do hint, however, that the taps won’t run forever, promising they will be guided by “values of sustainability and prudence.”
They are also promising some new sources of revenue, including looking for ways to tax “extreme wealth inequality,” and addressing digital giants perceived not to be paying their fair share of taxes.
The promises come with no firm price tags, nor many specific timelines.
“Taken together, this is an ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality,” it says.
“The course of events will determine what needs to be done when. But throughout, protecting and supporting Canadians will stay the top priority.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.