Opinion: Freeland faces high expectations

It was Motherís Day weekend and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was at yet another noon news conference, patiently explaining once again what the government was doing to control the COVID-19 pandemic. And then she made a quick turn.

Focusing on any children stuck listening as their parents worked, Freeland made a plea that went straight to every mother’s heart: Please give your moms a hug, she said, and then go clean your rooms.

“I think that would be the biggest present for every mother in Canada,” she said, “and I am speaking from personal experience.”

Freeland gets it – the unsustainable strain on households as parents try to work from home while also trying to care for and educate their children under pandemic restrictions.

As finance minister, she’ll need all that intuition and then some. Fiscal policy is at a turning point, and there is an urgent need for decisive direction.

The generous benefits of the past few months are winding down and recovery has begun, but unemployment – especially in the service sector and other areas hit hardest by the pandemic shutdown – is still sky-high.

And businesses, especially those run by entrepreneurs, are still shutting down in alarming numbers.

Women are having an especially hard time getting back into the workplace, having lost their jobs in larger numbers than men and now left wondering whether their kids will be well taken care of in September.

“It’s hitting mothers particularly hard,” Freeland acknowledged in her first remarks as finance minister on Tuesday.

Government support for these groups – unemployed workers, struggling entrepreneurs, working parents – needs to be revamped, enriched and rushed out the door for a recovery to truly take hold. Freeland will be the one to drive those initiatives, and the effort undoubtedly will be expensive and long term to allow the recovery to gradually blossom.

But that’s probably just the easy part.

Freeland will also have to quickly make some tough calls on the ambitions of her own colleagues, from the prime minister on down, who are talking louder and louder about “building back better.”

The plans to turn the pandemic recovery into an opportunity to confront climate change, develop new competitive advantages, combat racism, eradicate homelessness, eliminate inequality and embrace a digital economy are multiplying and morphing in double time, in the hopes of claiming a spot in the budget or fiscal update this fall. They will all cost serious money, and they won’t necessarily help the people hardest hit by the pandemic.

But the new minister may soon find herself in the same kind of corner as her predecessor.

While she may have a sympathetic ear for the coterie of dreamers, she is squarely assigned to the more practical side of government, where her main job is to maintain fiscal responsibility and promote growth. Although insiders believe she will be less tight-fisted than Morneau, she won’t be able to say yes to everything.

For most of his tenure, Morneau had the benefit of a widely declared fiscal rule in place. A government-wide commitment to continually reduce the debt burden was obviously not nearly as stringent as the promise to balance the books that the Liberals once ran on, but it was enough of a tool to support Morneau in saying an occasional no.

It was that naysaying, however, that led to a frustrating relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which eventually boiled over and contributed to his resignation this week.

Freeland doesn’t have any fiscal rules at the ready, and she already faces high expectations that she will enable – and finance – a broad policy agenda.

Indeed, when Trudeau launched her new appointment with a visionary speech on Tuesday, he listed many aspirations but made not a single mention of the price tag.

“The time is now to be engaged in bold thinking,” Trudeau said, claiming that since Canada is in solid fiscal shape, the government has “an obligation to invest” in a recovery that addresses inequality, environmental challenges, better health care, better child care and more jobs.

She also faces a projected deficit of $347 billion, a ballooning debt that will soon top $1 trillion and gloomy forecasts for a rough recovery that drags into 2022.

The business community sent a warning shot on Tuesday. In a letter to Freeland, the Business Council of Canada urged the government to keep its fiscal powder dry, and to not spend frivolously.

“Canadians need to know that there is a plan to rein in federal spending and ensure the sustainability of government finances,” the letter states.

Freeland sent all the right signals Tuesday to her aspirational colleagues in government as well as parents, the unemployed, environmentalists and people worried about coronavirus. The juggling act will be in also gaining the confidence of the business community.

But as a successful working mom, she knows all about juggling.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

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