OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the new session of Parliament with a reprioritized national agenda, fixated primarily on how to keep financially supporting Canadians through COVID-19, while repairing the inequalities the pandemic has exposed.
Being billed as “an ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality,” the Liberals are committing to a “resiliency agenda for the middle class” that includes more money for COVID-19 testing and long-term care homes, pledging to create over one million jobs while topping up and extending existing aid programs, and building a national child-care program.
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette presented the minority government’s speech from the throne in the Senate Chamber, it detailed a four-pronged approach to pandemic survival and recovery, emphasizing that Canada has to both address today’s challenges and think of the future by tackling climate change, systemic racism, and gender inequity.
“This is our generation’s crossroads. Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind? Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed? This is the time to remember who we are as Canadians,” Payette said. “This is the opportunity to contain the global crisis and build back better, together.”
The speech framed how the new session of Parliament will be focused on different priorities than those spelled out in the Liberal’s 2019 speech before COVID-19 changed the country and forced the government back to the drawing board on its vision for the future and plan to get there.
“Less than a year ago, we gathered here for a throne speech to open the 43rd Parliament. Since then, our realities have changed. And so must our approach,” read Payette. “It is no small task to build a stronger, more resilient country. It will take hard work. It will require a commitment to finding common ground,” she said.
Since Parliament was halted, COVID-19 cases have jumped nationally, from about 300 cases per day in mid-August to 1,248 on Tuesday, prompting Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam to implore Canadians and public health policy-makers to redouble infection prevention efforts now, or face a “very sharp and intense peak” in new COVID-19 cases that would likely lead to a return of national lockdowns.
- Scroll down or click here to recap our live blog of the throne speech
The government says its approach to the months and years ahead will have four foundations: fighting the pandemic and saving lives; supporting businesses and people through the crisis; building back a more resilient Canada; and standing up for who Canadians are.
TESTING, LONG-TERM CARE STANDARDS
As anticipated in the days prior, the throne speech focused heavily on the reality of a resurging COVID-19 spread. It’s stated plainly in the speech that it is the government’s top priority.
In terms of health care commitments, the Liberals are promising to help provinces with testing capacity and speed to meet surge needs so that Canadians aren’t waiting hours in line for a test. This will include the creation of a federal “testing assistance response team” that can be deployed locally or to remote communities.
After seeing a spring where military members were deployed to Canadian nursing homes, the government says it plans to increase supports for long-term care facilities and will move forward with legislating Criminal Code of Canada amendments to penalize elder neglect.
The Liberals are also promising to offer targeted support to local communities and the businesses within them that might have to lockdown to control new outbreaks, and to keep stockpiling essential supplies like personal protective equipment, including those from Canadian manufacturers that have retooled.
The speech also reflected on how Canadians did their part during the first wave of COVID-19, adapting to new habits and changing plans, while driving home the message that there remains a need for continued collaboration, both among politicians and everyday people to prevent overwhelming the health-care system this winter.
WAGE SUBSIDY EXTENDED, 1M JOBS
When it comes to the economy, Trudeau is vowing to support people and businesses through this crisis through launching a campaign to create one million jobs in an effort to offset the high unemployment rate.
“This will be done by using a range of tools, including direct investments in the social sector and infrastructure, immediate training to quickly skill up workers, and incentives for employers to hire and retain workers,” the speech read.
The Liberals will also be extending the wage subsidy for workers until next summer. The program has allowed businesses to bring back workers, while the federal government covered up to 75 per cent of their wages.
Continuing this program is just one of the business aid benefits or loan programs being carried over.
In terms of personal finances, as already promised the Liberals will soon be moving ahead with legislation to implement three new temporary benefits meant as part of a package of Employment Insurance (EI) reforms that include transitioning the millions of people who are still claiming the $2,000 a month Canada Emergency Response Benefit onto EI after it expires in September.
In an effort to mitigate the impact of the “she-cession,” the Liberals want to create an action plan for women in the economy, to help get many back to work.
“Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder,” read the speech.
CHILD CARE, CLIMATE PLAN
In still referencing the need to get parents back to work, the government says it will make “a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and child-care system.”
Leaning on the Quebec model, the federal government wants to work with all provinces and territories to ensure that all who need it, can access affordable care.
Similarly, promises were made around affordable housing, a new “disability inclusion plan,” that includes an employment strategy and a new benefit similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors.
The speech also included a more moderate focus on the green recovery than initially anticipated, stating that climate action will be key to economic growth. The Liberals said they will plant all 2 billion trees they’ve yet to begin planting, will move ahead with their 2021 ban on single-use plastics, and present legislation formalizing their goal of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.
RIGHTING WRONGS AT HOME, ABROAD
In terms of standing up for who Canadians are, the Liberals have made commitments to tackle systemic racism and pursue plans toward Indigenous reconciliation including legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the end of the year.
Plans are also being made to modernize training for police and law enforcement, including standards around the use of force and implementing civilian oversight of the RCMP.
“Canada must continue to stand up for the values that define this country, whether that’s welcoming newcomers, celebrating with pride the contributions of LGBTQ2 communities, or embracing two official languages. There is work still to be done, including on the road of reconciliation, and in addressing systemic racism,” read the speech.
As for how Trudeau sees Canada’s current standing on the world stage, the speech included promises to help the global distribution of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, while continuing to defend free trade and human rights internationally.
“Throughout, protecting and supporting Canadians will stay the top priority, and the core values that have driven the government since day one remain the same,” said Payette near the end of the nearly hour-long speech.
FISCAL UPDATE COMING
While most of the Liberals’ 2019 election playbook got usurped by the pandemic, the speech included signs the government still plans to pursue some pre-existing commitments, including implementing national pharmacare, restricting handguns, improving rural broadband access, and investing in public transit and energy efficient retrofits.
In the speech, the government also committed to presenting a fall economic update, including fiscal projections and more details on promises to tax the extremely wealthy, and implementing fairer revenue sharing including from tech giants, while emphasizing that in the meantime the Liberals will use whatever “fiscal firepower” it takes to get through the immediate crisis.
“The economic impact of COVID-19 on Canadians has already been worse than the 2008 financial crisis. These consequences will not be short-lived,” the speech read. “This is not the time for austerity.”
OPPOSITION SUPPORT UNCERTAIN
Later, Trudeau will deliver a rare address to the nation at 6:30 p.m. from his West Block office, where he’s expected to personally pitch the plan to Canadians and speak to the state of the growing outbreak in many parts of the country.
The three main opposition parties will also be offered shorter windows to address the nation following Trudeau’s comments this evening, but in advance of these prime-time windows to address Canadians, opposition parties were quick to offer their reaction to the throne speech and it’s many promises.
The eventual vote on the throne speech will be one of an anticipated series of key confidence tests the Liberal minority will face in the days ahead. The minority Liberals will need to secure at least some support from across the aisle for the throne speech, or risk triggering a federal election.
Early indications were that this support, may not be as secure as the Liberals might like.
While the Green Party came the closest to voicing satisfaction with the government’s reworked agenda, their three votes will not be enough to give the Liberals the majority they need to pass the speech.
The next most ideologically-compatible Bloc Quebecois and NDP caucuses didn’t outright indicate how they’d vote, with the Bloc issuing a statement saying that Ottawa has not listened to Quebec’s demands for more health funding, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh saying he hasn’t decided yet.
“We are making it very clear to the prime minister, if you want New Democrat support, if you want my support, then you have to stop the proposal to cut help to Canadians who cannot get back to work,” referring to the Liberal intention to transition CERB recipients on to EI.
One thing was clear, the Conservatives will not be voting to prop up the Liberals.
“We’ve looked at this speech from the throne and Conservatives cannot support it. It is another speech that is full of Liberal buzzwords and grand gestures, with very little, to no follow-up plan,” said Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen.
“Conservatives are ready for an election if that’s where this goes. I think the prime minister had an opportunity to present a real plan to Canadians and he didn’t do that,” she said.
NEW SESSION OF PARLIAMENT OPENS
The throne speech comes more than a month after Trudeau prorogued Parliament for the first time as prime minister on Aug. 18. Prorogation also hit pause on the ongoing committee probes into his government and the WE Charity student grant controversy, but also suspended any ability to pass emergency aid legislation. Moving on new bills to advance Wednesday’s promises and any other urgent COVID-19 response packages, will likely be a top priority in the weeks ahead.
Under the terms of the new agreement for how the hybrid House of Commons fall sitting will run, MPs will be able to participate in-person or virtually, and an agreement has been struck to temporarily allow remote voting.
The new deal will expire on Dec. 11, but until then, special provisions are being made to allow for the electronic tabling of documents, the physical distancing of MPs within the chamber, and new certainties around the timing of votes.
For now, the remote voting will be done as a roll call vote, which the House has tested out in anticipation of the new session. This sees MPs attending in-person and those at home able to be counted one by one. During the test it took more than an hour to complete, whereas most votes in-person can be held within 15 minutes or so.
“As we learn to adapt to constraints brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that while many of the House rules and practices can be adapted to allow for the remote participation of members, votes appear to require a departure from established practice,” said House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota in a statement to MPs outlining the new special exceptions and technical snafu workarounds the House administration has implemented.
Eventually, pending more testing, MPs will be moving to a secure form of voting through an app, described as “a secure remote voting application that would include a visual component to authenticate members’ identities and a notification to all members’ House-managed mobile devices.”
As of late Tuesday evening, talks were still underway on ironing out the logistical plan for how the new session will run, with the Conservatives wanting an assurance that all committee work be revived from the first session.
While that didn’t happen, one all-party committee tasked with studying Canada-China relations will be coming back, while other key committees have more pressing deadlines to resume their work including the health, finance, and ethics committees.
Debate in response to the speech got underway on Trudeau’s urging, following its delivery. There can be up to six days of debate on the speech and they don’t have to be consecutive.
The formal leaders’ addresses in response to the speech from the throne in the House of Commons will begin in the days ahead, with both Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet hoping to deliver theirs from the Chamber after recovering from COVID-19. Both are to remain in self-isolation until given the all-clear from public health.
Over the next few months MPs will have nine “opposition days” where the opposition parties will take turns raising motions or other matters they want debated. It’s also their prerogative to move their own motions of non-confidence in the government on these days if they see that necessary.
LIVE BLOG RECAP:
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