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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 20, 2020
Trudeau government repeats its promise on child care as it outlines its plans for the coming year
The COVID-19 recovery was the focus of Wednesday’s speech from the throne, but resisitance to austerity, more messages on child care and the “Atlantic Loop” are raising eyebrows around Atlantic Canada.
The speech, delivered by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, outlined the priorities of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government for the coming session of the House of Commons.
Early in the speech, Payette, reading test prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “This is not the time for austerity.”
“Canada entered this crisis in the best fiscal position of its peers. And the government is using that fiscal firepower, on things like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, so that Canadians, businesses and our entire economy have the support needed to weather the storm.”
Brandon Ellis, senior manager with the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, says he agrees with the anti-austerity line, but that doesn’t mean the federal government can continue racking up debt.
“The parliamentary budget officer tends to make a good point when he came out and said a few weeks ago that this level of spending is not sustainable. We don’t know how long COVID-19 is going to go on for,” Ellis said.
“The definition of austerity would be to raise taxes and lower expenditures. I would tend to agree with the governor-general in that regard — it might not be the time to look at that. We might need some spending measures. At the same time, we have to be mindful that the spending measures don’t get out of control moving forward and they don’t become permanent fixtures within the Canadian budget.”
Ellis says the chamber applauds the federal commitment to continuing the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canadian Emergency Business Account, to continue through next summer.
“Those are two programs that we would be applauding government for at this point in time, if they follow through and renew them,” he said.
“At the same time, we need to look at just the sheer amount of money that is being spent in this country. We know that the debt levels are getting very high.”
University of P.E.I. professor Don Desserud says drawing a line in the sand on austerity could be a key feature of the eventual federal election campaign, expected sometime in the next 12 months.
“You know the Conservatives were just spinning when they heard that,” Desserud said.
“As an election strategy, that austerity rhetoric that we saw, going back through past Liberal and Conservative governments with Martin and so forth, never really rang true with the public. To say that, I think a lot of us thought, good. Open up the coffers and spend more money.”
While the Atlantic provinces saw just a few mentions by name in the speech, the plan to get Nova Scotia and New Brunswick off coal power and onto hydroelectricity coming from the Churchill River in Labrador did get a nod in the speech — and even a new name.
“The government will transform how we power our economy and communities by moving forward with the Clean Power Fund, including with projects like the Atlantic Loop that will connect surplus clean power to regions transitioning away from coal,” reads the speech.
Desserud took note of the “Atlantic Loop” statement in the speech, which could have major implications for the ongoing fiscal troubles in Newfoundland and Labrador surrounding the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam. The dam, which was originally scheduled to have been in service since 2017 at a cost of $6.2 billion, just announced first power on Wednesday and has a currect estimated pricetag of $13.1 billion. Desserud says if the federal government is looking to invest, it could be good news for the region.
“That seems to me pretty significant. It sounds like they’re going to help fund the Muskrat Falls project — if not the project itself, the infrastructure,” he said.
The idea of an “Atlantic Loop” — while not under that specific name — is already on the mind of policymakers in Atlantic Canada.
"It sounds like they’re going to help fund the Muskrat Falls project — if not the project itself, the infrastructure." — Don Desserud
In the mandate letter for Newfoundland and Labrador Energy Minister Andrew Parsons, Premier Andrew Furey outlines making such a connection of the Atlantic provinces a priority for his government.
"In collaboration with the Atlantic provinces, electric utilities and the Government of Canada, develop a clean power roadmap for Atlantic Canada, which will outline a collective vision for how jurisdictions can collaborate over the coming decades to build a clean power network across the region that will provide economic and environmental benefits,” reads the letter.
Further details on the loop are expected in the coming federal budget.
Advocates have long called for an expansion of accessibility for child care, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made the call particularly clear. Provincial governments have made it easier for essential workers to access child care through the pandemic, and the speech from the throne seemed to signal a hurried route toward a long-promised expansion of the program.
“It has been nearly 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women outlined the necessity of child-care services for women’s social and economic equality. We have long understood that Canada cannot succeed if half of the population is held back. Canadians need more accessible, affordable, inclusive and high-quality child care. Recognizing the urgency of this challenge, the government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and child-care system,” reads the speech.
“The government will build on previous investments, learn from the model that already exists in Quebec, and work with all provinces and territories to ensure that high-quality care is accessible to all.”
Gillian Pearson, an affordable child-care advocate in Newfoundland and Labrador, says she is choosing to be optimistic about the commitment, but it’s something she’s heard from Liberal governments in the past — without action.
“I’m really happy that they did do it. This is something that’s been on the agenda for Liberal administrations for quite some time. Paul Martin did attempt to introduce this strategy back in 2004 as well, but, unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition,” Pearson said.
“Even then, they referenced they would be basing it off the Quebec model. I’m happy to see it.”