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Federal Politics

What’s in This Throne Speech Stew?

Straight from the pandemic cookbook, it’s light on green garnishes. No election on the menu.

Michael Harris 24 Sep 2020 |

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The Trudeau government’s blueprint for Canada’s future as laid out in the speech from the throne is like a menu without the prices. You don’t know if it is a good deal until the waiter brings the bill.

Maybe that’s why the Conservative Party of Canada says it can’t support the 150th speech from the throne.

And why NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tied himself in knots saying you can’t trust Liberals, but he’ll wait and see what legislation they come up with before judging the speech.

And why the Bloc Québécois doesn’t quite know how to disown the Liberal agenda, other than to accuse Ottawa of not practising their favourite form of politics, cheque-book federalism, and ignoring the demands of Quebec.

In any case, let’s run our eyes down the menu and see what the chef said today his government is cooking up.

A big helping of childcare.

Given the chaos engendered by COVID-19, supporters of a national daycare program think that the time has come to do much more than simply set up a childcare secretariat, as the Liberals have previously promised to do. Now the government is teasing them with the promise that a national plan is on their radar... again.

COVID-19 responses in large portions.

But the government’s agenda was in some cases crystal clear. What the throne speech said in spades is that the federal government’s major focus continues to be fighting the health-care crisis, and offering support to Canadians facing economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There won’t be much of an argument about that. The deadly virus has already killed more than 9,000 Canadians and appears to be entering a second phase with infection rates rising across the country. Worse, the coronavirus seems to be mutating while spreading in the United States.

The Public Health Agency of Canada projects that Canada is on track to log 5,000 coronavirus cases a day by late October if current trends continue. For the past seven days, the average number of daily cases of the virus in Canada has been 1,058.

Besides those grim numbers, two federal leaders, Conservative Erin O’Toole and Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois, have been infected by the virus. Both leaders were forced to delay their reaction to the throne speech because they are in quarantine. When O’Toole did finally respond, it was to babble about the need for job creation, Communist China, and complain about lack of COVID testing in Canada — a provincial responsibility.

So the opposition can huff and puff from a proper social distance, but after all the theatrics, here is the political reality.

What Canadian will be against increased testing for the virus, as outlined in the throne speech?

Is the issue here really one of jurisdiction, or of public safety?

What Canadian could be against coming up with national standards for long-term care facilities, where 80 per cent of the fatalities caused by the virus took place?

And what Canadian could be opposed to rewarding the heroic health-care workers on the frontlines of this battle?

If the Liberals have one thing figured out, it is pandemic politics. To pretend, as the CPC suggests, that the entire government “reset” was an attempt for Trudeau to extract himself from the WE controversy, is preposterous.

Copious amounts of federal gravy.

But that doesn’t mean Team Trudeau has hit a home-run here. For those who might have wanted to see Ottawa at least begin to turn down the tap on pandemic spending, there was disappointment. The throne speech made clear that the federal government will do “whatever it takes,” and spend whatever is needed, to get the country through this crisis — regardless of deficits.

With millions of Canadians out of work, or on fewer hours, that is understandable. But how will it all be paid for? According to the prime minister, it will be paid for by low interest rates for borrowing money. And no matter what the costs eventually are, Justin Trudeau says that the expenditures would have even been greater had the government opted to stand pat.

Comfort food.

In a curious address to the nation just hours after the Governor General spoke, the prime minister in effect gave a second, more succinct throne speech, emphasizing what Julie Payette had said. One touch almost rose to melancholy. He told his audience that Canadians won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but may be together for Christmas.

The PM’s speech was part pep-talk, part psycho-drama, and part sensible leadership. Wear your mask, get your flu shot, be patient and resilient and pull together at what he described as a national crossroads for Canada. Things are definitely changing, his message went, but “we can define the change.”

So the path forward for Ottawa is more spending. And that includes massive purchases of vaccines once they become available. It also means retooling the employment insurance program to replace the Canada Emergency Response Benefit when it runs out later this year.

Candice Bergen, deputy leader of the CPC, accused Trudeau of blowing an opportunity. “We still do not have a real plan,” she said.

But what is her plan? Worry about the price of water when the house is burning down? When the threat is existential, most people would probably prefer that their government is watching their back, not their pocketbook.

Light on the green stuff.

Although there had been a great deal of speculation that the Trudeau Liberals might roll out some form of a guaranteed basic income, the throne speech was more aspirational than pragmatic on Big Picture items. It was the worst feature of the speech. Why does idealism always look so lame in politics?

Instead of vision, embattled Governor General Julie Payette, herself facing an investigation into alleged workplace abuse of staff at Rideau Hall, laid out short-term help for Canadians on a variety of fronts, all of them laudable.

These included childcare, health care, pharmacare, homelessness, affordable housing, support for working women, Indigenous people, farmers, students, racial minorities and yes, economic recovery. This was the walking on water speech from the throne. Part compassionate federalism, part platitude paradise.

And yet, for those voters, many of them millennials, who were hoping for bold and definitive new policy initiatives, a kind of political and cultural watershed sparked by the pandemic — the throne speech was stone soup.

Various nothing burgers.

Beyond the usual rhetorical nods to big issues like the environment and income support, the government offered a boat load of nothing burgers on exactly how it might use the pandemic to build back better.

For example, it was nice to hear that Ottawa planned to create a million new jobs — less comforting that the throne speech only hinted at generalities as to how that might be done by turning to a green economy. In fact, it was somewhat surprising that Trudeau didn’t do more on the environmental front, where the pre-speech buzz was that major new green initiatives would be unveiled. Multiple sources told The Tyee that the government’s plan was derailed by disturbing increases in COVID-19 infections across the country.

To be fair to the Trudeau government, the lack of substantive detail is nothing new in a speech from the throne. You don’t go to Coles Notes when you want to understand Ulysses. Nor does it mean that the government won’t be offering more detail down the road. It most certainly will be.

There are two most likely sources for putting meat on the bones of the Governor General’s speech. The first will be a budget or fiscal update from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. The second will be decisions taken at the upcoming Liberal policy convention in Ottawa this November. If Canada does get universal childcare, pharmacare, and paid sick leave for workers affected by COVID-19, that is where it will be made real.

Maybe some commercial rent assistance garnish.

If some millennials were doubtlessly disappointed in the throne speech, other interested parties may have seen light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel — depending on what the numbers turn out to be.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business had been underwhelmed by the promise of rejigging the commercial rent-assistance program that got a one-handed clap from the people it was supposed to help.

What the organization and its members wanted is the kind of hard financial assistance that will allow to survive hundreds of thousands of businesses now on the ropes. Although thousands of businesses have been helped by the program to the tune of over a billion dollars, many thousands more have received no government assistance at all.

Without saying how much or how, the throne speech held out some hope that might be changing, with more financial support for struggling businesses on the way.

Election? Not on the menu.

One could cheer, boo, or sit on one’s hands in assessing this throne speech. One could dismiss its optimism and initiative as naiveté and poor judgment. But one thing that the words of the government as delivered through the person of the Governor General will not do is trigger an election.

The battle will not take place while the battle lines are still being drawn up.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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