Trudeau’s Throne Speech seeks balance between COVID-19 crisis and plans for economic recovery

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters alongside Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, August 18, 2020.

PATRICK DOYLE / Reuters

The Liberal government’s throne speech on Wednesday will be a political balancing act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his party are eager to implement the green and social agenda they campaigned for last fall, but rising cases of COVID-19 as children return to school underscore the fact that talking about recovery may be premature.

Amid that tension, Wednesday’s speech will aim to emphasize the short term, while also presenting plans for the economy once the pandemic is under control.

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The document will have three main themes, according to a senior government official. The Globe and Mail does not identify the official because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The first will focus on the immediate measures the government is taking to respond to the pandemic from a health perspective. The second will focus on federal income support for Canadians who still need help, including potential options for more regional programs as needed.

A third section will describe the eventual recovery phase, including green economy jobs in areas such as building upgrades and electric vehicles and measures targeting the Canadian information technology sector, among other plans.

Like most Speeches from the Throne, the document should not provide detailed plans. Those details will come later when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues new mandate letters to his ministers.

How much it will cost and how the new debt will be handled is a topic that will be left to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to explain this fall in an economic update or budget, according to the official.

Federal ministers spent the first part of last week huddled in a largely empty federal building in Ottawa for a Cabinet retreat. The common theme of their public comments was that the government’s top priority is the COVID-19 crisis. Action on an economic stimulus plan should wait.

It was a brutal reversal.

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Just a month earlier, the Prime Minister stood in the Hall of Commons with his new Minister of Finance, Ms Freeland, explaining why he had just prorogued Parliament to set the stage for a Speech from the Throne.

“We can choose to embrace bold new solutions to the challenges we face and refuse to be held back by old ways of thinking. While this pandemic is an unexpected challenge, it is also an unprecedented opportunity, “he said in August.” This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada, a healthier and safer Canada, more green and more competitive, a Canada is more welcoming and fairer. ”

It was then. The Trudeau government’s Speech from the Throne is still expected to give way to an activist agenda on environmental and social issues, but that kind of political speech is no longer said out loud.

“It was really pretty deaf,” former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon said of the government’s initial explanation. “I think they’ve read the tea leaves that it’s not time for a diary of their own. It’s time to focus on the fundamentals. “

Ms. MacKinnon co-chairs the CD Howe Institute’s Finance and Taxation Working Group with former Liberal Finance Minister John Manley. In a recent report, they urged the federal government to set spending limits and ensure that when spending is approved it is really necessary and contributes to Canada’s long-term productivity.

This year’s one-time payments to seniors, rather than targeting funds to those who need it most, are the type of pandemic spending that is of concern, Ms. MacKinnon said. In contrast, she said the new programs expected to encourage home and building retrofits to reduce energy use are the types of initiatives that create jobs while leaving a lasting benefit.

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Mr. Trudeau’s return to the pandemic reflects the plight of Canadians, said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute. After a summer where Trudeau was “bruised” by the WE charity controversy, she said it made political sense for the Liberals to begin the retreat to safer territory.

The pivot suggests that the prime minister is hoping his ‘we support you’ message on the coronavirus resonates again, Ms Kurl said. At the same time, she said the climate remains a key issue, especially for Liberal voters, so the government cannot afford to drop it on the agenda.

The frontline response to COVID-19 falls primarily under provincial jurisdiction. This summer, Ottawa negotiated a $ 19 billion deal to help cover unforeseen costs associated with tracing contacts and maintaining transit systems that have lost their riders. Premiers on Friday called for billions more for infrastructure and $ 28 billion more in annual health transfers to the provinces. This would drop Ottawa’s share of health care costs to 35%. 100, compared to 22 p.

The Prime Minister has already said he will meet with provincial leaders later this fall to discuss funding for health care.

Policy advocates who contacted federal officials told The Globe they expected the speech to indicate how the government will address the challenges women face in the workforce, systemic racism and reiterate its claims. reconciliation commitments.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who met with the Prime Minister on Friday, said he hopes the Speech from the Throne refers to the police as an essential service and only if it doesn’t is not included, it must be mentioned in the mandate letters. sent to ministers.

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The Liberals promised a national pharmacare program in their last Speech from the Throne just over nine months ago. Eric Hoskins, chairman of a 2019 federal advisory board that called for a national pharmacare program, told The Globe this week he was confident the program would get a nod again.

Climate change was at the center of the agenda in the December Throne Speech, but even the most ardent environmentalists in the federal Cabinet took the issue on the back burner this week. While Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has put the pandemic response first, he said climate change “remains a huge priority” and the government “will take significant action” on it.

Mr Wilkinson this week acknowledged that time is running out and said the government will rely on a mix of regulations, tax incentives and “big spending” to “meet and exceed our 2030 target.”

Support for zero-emission vehicles, home energy retrofits and investments in clean energy sources like hydrogen were mentioned by Wilkinson and his supporters this week and should be recognized in the Speech from the Throne. The Non-Governmental Task Force for a Resilient Recovery called for $ 55.4 billion in new spending over five years. “Our role is to keep up with the changing world economy,” said Merran Smith, CEO of Clean Energy Canada.

Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie, who champions domestic tech companies as chairman of the Canadian Innovators Council, said he was receiving positive signals the government is considering intellectual property measures and efforts to retain and attract talent In an interview, he said he will monitor to see if a clear change in the government’s economic approach emerges.

“The goal is a prosperous country in a world that has shifted from tangible to intangible,” he said.

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With a report from Kristy Kirkup

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