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After the throne speech: a test of our resolve

September 24, 2020

6-minute read

Overcoming this pandemic that we’re living in requires the work and resolve of every order of government, every community, and each one of us—throne speech 2020 is a test of that resolve.

It sets the stage for whether the federal government is going all in to ensure that no one is left behind, in this pandemic and beyond. 

COVID-19 definitely shaped the arc of this speech. The government committed to continue to support businesses and individuals through this pandemic, importantly signaling that “this is not the time for austerity.”

Yes. Canada will need government leadership—and major investments—for a long time to help Canadians weather the pandemic and to ensure a just recovery. 

In terms of that just recovery, there are a number of areas in which the federal government is signalling a welcome significant shift in public policy.

Child care: At long last, the throne speech promises the potential of a Canada-wide child care system. Advocates have been calling for such a plan for so many decades, some of them are already great-grandmothers. Given the pressures of COVID-19 on working parents, particularly mothers, there is no time to waste. We need the same quick action on child care—including major infrastructure and staffing investments—that  the government proved was possible when it implemented the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Disability benefit: Short on details but equally important, the throne speech promises a new national disability benefit modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors—the closest to a basic income promise that the throne speech features. This still leaves too many Canadians behind—especially those trapped in a punitive and archaic social assistance system, but it is a promising step forward for people with disabilities. This is even more relevant in the age of a pandemic that will likely leave more Canadians living with disabilities than before.

National standards for seniors care: Again, the devil is in the details, but a promise to set national standards for seniors’ care—a need made starkly clear as COVID-19 ripped through long-term care facilities—is a major step forward. It’s something that workers, families, and advocates have long called for. How we go about it matters greatly. Federal regulations as well as investments will be critical to turning words into meaningful action. The throne speech also signaled further support for personal support workers, which it should, though we await details.

Treat stock options like income: For followers of the CCPA’s annual CEO report, the throne speech promises to move forward on limiting the stock option tax deduction for wealthy individuals—a policy area that the CCPA has been pushing against the wind for over a decade. It’s more meaningful given recent CCPA analysis that shows Canada’s richest billionaires have been raking in profits during the pandemic. This, combined with taxing wealthy Canadians, not only has majority public support, it’s critical to raising revenue needed to weather this fiscal storm. We need all hands on deck.

The throne speech promises a national pharmacare program. It’s not a new announcement, but it remains on the government’s agenda—time to put on some speed.

So … progress. And, yet.

And, yet

The throne speech failed to address what the CCPA has been highlighting for weeks: millions of Canadians will be worse off as we transition off of CERB onto EI or the new Canada Recovery programs. Among the millions who will be worse off, 500,000 will stop receiving any federal support; the rest will get EI or one of the new Canada Recovery programs. On average, CERB recipients will move from receiving $500 a week to, on average, $377 a week post-CERB. (Update: the federal government has since announced the EI floor will be raised to $500.)

Students, youth, and migrant workers—they’re hugely impacted by COVID-19 and yet little air time was allocated to their needs. The CCPA has signed on to the Together For Full & Permanent Immigration Status For All campaign, which calls for a single-tier immigration system. It should be a part of Canada’s just recovery.

The throne speech also fell short on support for a resilient public health care system—public health units, in particular, have been long underfunded. That left Canada flat-footed when the pandemic struck. With multiple crises—such as the opioid crisis, a looming mental health crisis due to the pandemic, and ongoing climate emergencies— public health can no longer be the neglected child of health care policy. 

If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that the economy and community well-being relies on strong public health policy informed by the social determinants of health. After SARS, recommendations were made and left to die on a bookshelf. The throne speech missed out on the urgency of the moment—even the historic nature of this moment.

The next economic update cannot.

The thing about the throne speech is that words need to be matched with stringent conditions and funding commitments. For that reason, all eyes will be on the next economic update, because that will script whether or not this government truly intends to put its money where its mouth is.

I don’t mean to be cynical. Exactly the opposite: I see the Overton Window moving in real time on child care, supports for people with disabilities, a basic income, dignity for seniors, taxation on the wealthy and checks on CEO pay loopholes. I see a government responding, if not always in full measure. 

You can’t follow Canadian public policy and leave fully disappointed by the words in this throne speech. And, yet. There are trigger words that we’ve heard before, that force you to remember that the devil is always in the details. 

Acceleration. Now there’s a word that popped up several times in this throne speech. Eight times, to be exact. Acceleration is not a timeline. It’s kind of like the status quo, but a bit faster. Like finally planting those 2 billion trees that never got planted after the last throne speech.

A similar number of references went to the much vaunted “middle class”—but there was only one mention of low-income Canadians and one mention of poverty. Even something as basic as addressing the inadequacy of the minimum wage in Canada goes without mention.

Governments pore over the words they use in a throne speech. Words matter because they signal priorities. Middle class politics in Canada, to date, have been extremely disappointing. They often focus on tax cuts, and those tax cuts have tended to benefit the well off more than anyone, while leaving fiscal coffers lighter.

The government is not wrong to think about policies that will fortify a middle class that has been made more vulnerable by the economic shocks of COVID-19—but the pandemic also threatens to exacerbate existing inequities and to worsen poverty. 

We need to shift that frame to include those who fall further behind because of Employment Insurance shortcomings and an increasingly precarious labour market; to include those who face barriers due to racial and Indigenous injustices; to ensure women’s social and political gains don’t unravel. The throne speech made some nods in this direction—acknowledging systemic racism, the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and promising to take an intersectional feminist approach, to ensure well-being for all. The government acknowledged that:

Progress must also be made throughout the policing and justice systems. All Canadians must have the confidence that the justice system is there to protect them, not to harm them. Black Canadians and Indigenous Peoples are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. That has to change.”

Yet the throne speech fails to act on calls to defund the police. And its proposed measures are largely downstream measures, rather than investing in the root causes of incarceration for racialized and Indigenous peoples—something Black and Indigenous activists have long called for, and that Heather Lawson looks at in this CCPA Decriminalizing Race report.

Now let’s talk about that elephant in the room, climate change. The magnitude of climate emergencies is equal to, if not greater than, the current global pandemic. Again, the urgency of this issue got lost in the throne speech.

CCPA Senior Researcher Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood says that on the climate file, the throne speech includes a number of welcome carrots—from investments in building retrofits to additional support for public transit to climate change adaptation—but none of the sticks that are necessary for a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. 

He notes that the forces behind fossil fuel emissions, in particular, got off easily at precisely the moment when we should be committing to a complete fossil fuel phase out. A promise to cut the corporate tax rate in half for clean tech companies could incentivize productive investment, but also risks becoming just another loophole for Canada’s undertaxed corporate sector.

The government also promised to enhance Canada’s greenhouse gas emission reduction target for 2030. But given how badly we are set to miss the current target, this new promise means little without supporting policies to rapidly phase out fossil fuel production and consumption.

Here I invoke Seth Klein, whose new book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the climate emergency, reminds us that we must adopt an emergency mindset. 

There is much more to unpack from the throne speech—and CCPA analysts will be weighing in with more detailed analysis in the days to come. 

But the bottom line is this: if the throne speech passes a confidence vote, all eyes will be on the next economic update, to see if it’s more than words and actually invests in transformative change. 

To overcome the pandemic and its impact, it will have to be one for the history books.

Trish Hennessy is director of Think Upstream, a project of the CCPA. Follow Trish on Twitter: @trishhennessy.

Warm thanks to my CCPA colleagues for their rapid response analysis of the throne speech, which helped shape this analysis.

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