Liberal effort to reset policy agenda panned by rivals as too much talk, not action

Liberal effort to reset policy agenda panned by rivals as too much talk, not action

OTTAWA — The minority Liberal government unveiled sweeping goals Wednesday to expand or extend supports for Canadians from nearly every sector of society in a throne speech billed as their “ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality.”

But the plan hit political reality very quickly, with two of the three main opposition parties in the House of Commons immediately saying they wouldn’t support it. The Liberals’ most likely dance partner, the NDP, waltzed around whether they’d vote yea or nay.

If they don’t, the country could head into an election just as public health officials are warning the country is on the cusp of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some areas already there.

The Liberals’ throne speech acknowledged that if they don’t first tackle the pandemic, they can’t move forward on previous commitments to fight climate change, address systemic racism and economic inequality.

“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.

Her words hung over a near-empty chamber as COVID-19 restrictions limited the number of people who could be there. Not far from Payette sat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wearing a mask.

Later Wednesday, Trudeau spoke to Canadians in a nationally televised address, warning that the dreaded second wave of the pandemic is already underway in the four largest provinces.

“We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,” he said.

He noted there were well over 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 in Canada on Tuesday, compared to just 47 new cases on March 13, when the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread began.

Trudeau said it’s “all too likely” families won’t be able to gather for Thanksgiving next month, but if Canadians do their part then he said there is hope on the horizon: “We still have a shot at Christmas.”

Trudeau used the televised address to summarize the contents of the throne speech unveiled just hours earlier.

The Liberals promised in the speech to do whatever they can to protect Canadian lives and help stave off another economically devastating lockdown, including creating a federal “testing assistance response team” to meet the surge in demand, and 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 promised to move ahead with a shift from emergency benefits to a more robust employment insurance system to 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 into next year.

But the immediate goals of the government to restart the economy and support Canadians are matched by the need of the Liberals, who hold a minority of seats in the House of Commons, to stay in power.

The eventual vote on the throne speech is a confidence motion and the Liberals need at least one of the three main opposition parties in the Commons to back their plan.

The Conservatives said they would not be one of them.

“The prime minister had an opportunity to present a real plan to Canadians, and he didn’t do that,” deputy party leader Candice Bergen said Wednesday.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet currently in isolation due to COVID-19, said his party would give the Liberals one week to meet Quebec’s demands for an immediate $28-billion increase in the annual federal transfer payments to provinces for health care.

“Otherwise, we will vote against it,” Blanchet said in an interview.

That left the fate of the government in the hands of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. He called the speech pretty words on paper and said his party has two conditions for its support: make sure that the end of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit in lieu of an expanded employment insurance program doesn’t mean people actually get less money, and introduce paid sick leave.

“We’ve not decided yes or no on the throne speech,” Singh said.

“I’m saying we need to see some actions to back up these words.”

Trudeau’s rivals dismissed his televised address as further proof the throne speech amounts to an election platform.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who is in isolation after he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19, videotaped his reply to Trudeau’s address from the front porch of his home.

He slammed the throne speech for failing to mention Western alienation or offer support to the devastated fossil fuel industry.

“We must show our fellow Canadians that we value them and respect their contributions to our country,” he said.

The Conservatives, who had also said they’d like to see some measure of fiscal restraint included after months of unchecked spending, saw those demands unmet.

“This is not the time for austerity,” the speech says.

Trudeau expanded on that during his televised address.

“Low interest rates mean we can afford it,” he said.

“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.”

The Liberals do hint, however, that the taps won’t run forever, promising they will be guided by “values of sustainability and prudence” when it comes to longer-term economic recovery measures. They say they will provide a fiscal update in the fall.

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 Liberals post-pandemic “resiliency agenda” also includes plans for broad national programs, including a decades-old Liberal promise to implement a national child-care program. They also say there should be national standards for long-term care.

There are also promises for tougher gun laws, legislation to address systemic racism in the justice system, more support for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and a new disability benefit regime.

But the cornerstone of the “resiliency agenda” is combating climate change, the Liberals said.

There are a series of commitments on that score, including legislation a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and investments in technologies to help achieve that goal.

The promises all come with no firm price tags, nor many specific timelines.

“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.

— with files from Joan Bryden

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Throne Speech

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