A Matter of Confidence: Where We Are Now 

Today’s Speech from the Throne will be accompanied by a confidence vote on Monday which will determine whether the Trudeau Liberal government can remain in power or if Canadians can expect to head to the polls. Minority Parliament math dictates that the government will require the backing of either the Bloc Québécois – unlikely despite their support for last December’s post-election throne speech – or the NDP, who need to be assured that the government means business and intends to act on its commitments.

Immediately and predictably, the Conservative opposition responded to the ambitious agenda set forth in the throne speech by saying they would vote against it. Deputy Leader Candice Bergen noted that the plan did not speak to western alienation nor offer any new specific supports for the energy and natural resources sector.

As Leader Erin O’Toole explained in a pre-taped statement from his home where he and his wife are recovering from COVID-19, the Conservatives do not believe the throne speech sets out a true recovery plan, especially in a way that addresses the key issues around returning to more normal economic activities through improved testing and support for small businesses. Watch for testing to become a flashpoint in the federal government’s public health response to the pandemic in the coming weeks and months.

Jagmeet Singh and the NDP remained coy about their support for the throne speech, with Singh saying that they had not made up their mind. He demanded that in return for his support, the government must take action to immediately reinstate the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and institute paid sick leave for workers across Canada.

Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc Leader who is currently in self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, expressed disappointment that the federal government hadn’t acquiesced to the demands of provincial premiers who made the trip to Ottawa last week demanding billions more in federal health transfers. Blanchet confirmed that his party will not support the throne speech unless the federal government delivers no strings attached health transfers to the province. At the same time, the Bloc also bristled at the federal government’s involvement in health care decisions in Quebec.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a similar reaction to Quebec Premier Francois Legault saying the federal government had missed an opportunity to step up with increased healthcare funding for provinces. Ford also singled out the need to approve additional testing methods that have already been approved in other jurisdictions too easily overwhelmed with COVID-19 assessment centres.

How Parliament Plans to Work   

Parties have put aside Parliament’s pandemic politics and agreed to a hybrid approach to proceedings which will allow for a limited number of members to be present in the chamber with the majority of members participating virtually. While the Conservatives had been arguing for in-person parliamentary business and against virtual votes, the motion tabled this afternoon was passed with unanimous consent. The agreement is in effect until December 11. Voting will be conducted via video conference until such time secure remote voting is assured. Committees will also be reconstituted.

How We Got Here: Pandemic Prorogation and Priority “Reset” 

For the full term of the Trudeau government’s first mandate, it seemed impossible to find a press release without the phrase “the middle class and those hoping to join it.” The mantra served its purpose; the Liberals knew from their own internal polling that they had successfully wooed the electorate in such battlegrounds as the Greater Toronto Area and Greater Vancouver with a platform that spoke to bread and butter concerns for childcare and pension planning while also appealing to the idealism of millennials (as well as many Gen X-ers and Boomers) who wanted to see substantive action on the environment and Indigenous reconciliation. Pre-COVID-19, despite a series of self-inflicted wounds that saw the Prime Minister tripped up on ethics scandals – including the SNC-Lavalin story which led to the expulsion of two of Trudeau’s strongest ministers – it was still a given that the Liberals had a strong base established with suburban families. The Canada Child Benefit – which led more than a quarter of a million kids out of poverty – and a buoyant economy with the strongest job numbers in decades helped a great deal.

And then came 2020 with a pandemic that has taken the wind out of the sails of the economy, leading to a radical shift in the priorities of Canadian families and the role government plays in their lives. This should ideally be the Liberals’ sweet spot, and for the first few months, they were performing very well with a rapid-fire rollout of stimulus measures and sound fundamentals of crisis management deployed daily.

But policy on the fly can lead to unintended consequences and slowly, an issue with a student program to be administered by the WE charity took on all the trappings of a scandal, with its familiar theme of ethical lapses and those with close ties to the Prime Minister receiving favourable treatment. Bill Morneau’s relationship with the principals in the WE story culminated in the disclosure of $40,000 in unreported expenses for a WE junket and led to his exit at Finance. What followed was a cabinet shuffle that has Chrystia Freeland sacrificing some of her Minister of Everything duties to take on the Finance role, while Dominic Leblanc is now in his role as the point minister for the provinces. These major changes, including prorogation, have been positioned as reflective of a government responding to the economic challenges of the pandemic. Yet no amount of positioning will set the course of action – and pre-election narrative – quite like this long-awaited Speech from the Throne.

Pandemic’s Second Wave is Upon Us 

In a first for Speeches from the Throne, for a year that continues to flout precedents, the Prime Minister addressed the nation at 6:30 PM to underscore the importance of the public’s role in recovery. He acknowledged that the four largest provinces are effectively in the second wave of this pandemic, and that the measures in the Speech – briefly summarized in his remarks – are reflective of one crucial, but not complete response to the challenges COVID-19 has placed before us. The key component is what we will all do to flatten this second curve. It is arguably smart politics, abridging the salient points of the Speech for those who may have been working and missed it, and it plays to the script of crisis response that was so effective for the government for the first few months of this pandemic, prior to the WE scandal. It has also set the frame for the Opposition’s response; we face serious challenges that transcend partisan considerations.

And yet, the Opposition shows little interest in currently playing to that frame. As we report below.

“A Stronger, More Resilient Canada” 

Governor General Julie Payette delivered the Speech from the Throne with less pomp and circumstance than is the norm for such occasions and to a significantly diminished congregation. The address reflects the government’s view of the pandemic’s impact on the social and economic conditions in Canada and sets forth the goals and policy initiatives that will take the foreground in parliament.

 The Four Pillars 

  1. Fighting the Pandemic
  1. Supporting Canadians and Businesses through the Pandemic
  1. Building Back Better
  1. Standing up for who we are as Canadians

Protecting Public Health 

The government affirmed that its largest point of focus going forward will remain, unsurprisingly, the public health and safety of Canadians as we brace ourselves for this second wave of the pandemic. The Speech outlined strong commitments for contact tracing, for the increase of testing capacity from province to province, and for the processes for faster testing and new technologies. It also mentioned the creation of a new federal testing response team to meet testing needs, especially in remote communities.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – its sourcing and provision across the country – continues to take up a great deal of the conversation for procurement, and the Speech’s strong language on ensuring adequate supplies signals that this remains a top priority.

However, the central question for any real recovery, with its promise of a new normal, is the advent of a safe and effective vaccine. The government continues to explore the “full range of options,” yet all the Speech affirmed beyond this was continued support for the Vaccine Task Force,” focused on purchasing and roll-out”, and the Immunity Task Force, which is addressing the pandemic’s effects on vulnerable populations.

Supporting Canadians and Businesses 

With the second pillar, the Speech has affirmed that, as we have heard from the Prime Minister’s Office for weeks now, this is not a time for austerity. Due mention was given to the role the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will play in addressing lost income, and what the wage subsidy for businesses (CEWS) will continue to provide for business owners, especially small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

The most welcome news for many struggling businesses is that CEWS will continue until next summer. New developments include expanded support for the Canada Emergency Business Account, improvements to the Business Credit Availability Program and what might be a package of support for tourism, hospitality and cultural sectors. As for the CERB, it will be rolled into EI for those who qualify. A new program, for those who do not, will be introduced: the Canada Recovery Benefit.

Will this new benefit essentially be a form of universal basic income? Details, details … we’ll wait and see.

There is a welcome focus on women in the economy in this pillar. The Speech has announced an Action Plan for Women in the Economy, but what that will mean yet by way of recommendations remains to be seen – especially in what might be a mandate of less than half a year.

Most significant for families might turn out to be a “significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system.”

Much has been made, prior to this Speech, about the government signaling an ambitious green recovery under the rubric of “building back better.” Though there is significant mention of this government’s continued focus on fighting climate change, investing in clean technology and renewable fuels, the Speech stresses that it is moving forward with a “resiliency agenda” focused on the middle class. That means it will be looking to tax “extreme wealth inequality,” and it is also going after the Facebooks and Googles of the world, “ensuring their revenue is shared more fairly with our creators and media.” The government clearly sees, like most governments around the world, that the pandemic has lifted a veil back on inequities that require addressing like never before.

Building Back Better 

What that might mean for more major policy announcements is still, as expected, sketched out. The most vulnerable have been given strong mention, with a plan for national standards for long term care, an increase for Old Age Security (OAS) once a senior turns 75, and notably, a Disability Inclusion Plan with a disability benefit and an “employment strategy” in the works for these Canadians.

It will be no surprise, given the last campaign of the Liberals, that commitments to national, universal pharmacare, a national formulary to keep drug prices low and an ambitious vision for its National Housing Strategy have been maintained. Building back better means bringing back the platform better too.

As for the much discussed environmental agenda, the Liberal government is of course standing firm on the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, but as much as possible, it is translating that commitment to transformational change into the terms that look workable to its much-mentioned middle class: funding for retrofits to homes and buildings, more transit options, a plan to make zero-emissions vehicles more affordable while creating the charging infrastructure for these cars and trucks. The banning of single use plastics has merited a return mention from the last Liberal platform as well.

Upholding Canadian Values 

The last pillar, the one apparent late entry into the speech, focuses on Canadian values. For the Liberals that means “welcoming newcomers, celebrating LGBTQ2 communities and embracing two official languages.” Notably, it also means a continued commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples; however it mostly “remains focused on implementing commitments made in 2019: distinctions-based Indigenous health legislation, the national action plan responding to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, as well as addressing the significant infrastructure gap for so many First Nations communities.

New and welcome is a commitment to addressing systemic racism. Building on the government’s controversial anti-racism strategy, the Speech affirms that the government will do more. Yet all that is mentioned is a redoubling of efforts to address on-line hate, economically empower specific communities and implement an action plan for diversity in the Public Service. As for Black Canadians, apart from the previously announced Black Entrepreneurship Program, the speech mentions the government will be “taking steps to support the artistic and economic contributions of Black Canadian culture and heritage.” For many those steps can’t hurry along fast enough. Where there may be real impact, however, is in the Speech’s commitment to enhanced civilian oversight for law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP.

As with all of the pillars and the strong language for a renewed progressive vision, action more than words will mean everything in the months ahead.

Parliamentary Agenda 

There are two proposed pieces of legislation already on deck for parliament’s consideration:

  • An Act relating to economic recovery in response to COVID-19 sponsored by Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. Qualtrough’s Bill C-17 from the previous session would have implemented payments to Canadians with disabilities was killed with prorogation. This proposed legislation may seek to revive that outstanding measure.
  • An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19 sponsored by Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Over the course of the pandemic, the finance minister has introduced legislation to enact financial aid packages for government, Canadians and businesses.

These bills may provide Jagmeet Sigh the political cover and policy concessions being sought on national sick leave and/or income support to garner the NDP’s vote in favour of the speech.

The throne speech also signals a number of legislative measures that will be put before Parliament over the course of the next session. They include:

  • Implementation of measures outlined in the speech by way of a fall update to Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan
  • Criminal Code amendments to explicitly penalize those who neglect seniors under their care
  • Legislation to address systemic inequities throughout the criminal justice system
  • Legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Legislation to ensure “web giants” contribute revenues reflective of their market dominance

  • Co-developed distinctions-based Indigenous health legislation

Program spending will be accounted for in the Fiscal Update.