Justin Trudeau’s minority government has shrugged off the WE scandal, prorogued parliament, delivered a carefully crafted throne speech and lived to fight another day. It was an agile and impressive performance such as we have come to expect from Canada’s wily centre-right party of big business. However, we would be very foolish to imagine that the noble sounding phrases, dubious assurances and limited measures that were set before us in the speech are adequate protections for the harsh and crisis-ridden times ahead.
The second wave of the pandemic is looming over our communities and the economic impacts, already severe, are likely to intensify. Not only should we take the prime minister’s blurry blueprint for “a stronger and more resilient Canada” with a hefty grain of salt, but workers and communities under attack urgently need to develop a strategy based on independent demands and the social action needed to win them.
The throne speech was the political equivalent of a glossy marketing brochure: it sounds good, but you know you ought to be wary of the slick sales pitch and doubtful that the product delivered to your door will be quite as impressive. This ‘Team Canada’ effort targeted the Liberals’ mythical middle class and those, rather patronizingly, described as “people working hard to join it.” It sounded all the right progressive notes, with a lot of noble phrases, plenty of dubious assurances and some limited and inadequate measures of social provision. It promised “an action plan for women in the economy,” economic growth with fiscal sustainability, and a war on systemic racism. No major policy statement from the Trudeau Liberals could possibly be issued without yet another commitment to address climate change. The same can be said of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Rather tellingly, however, the Liberals made sure to delete from this particular set of fine words their undertaking to end all boil water advisories in Indigenous communities by next March.
Apart from these high-minded phrases, the speech assured us that universal child care and pharmacare are in the works. These, however, are almost ritualistic Liberal promises, trotted out whenever a bold progressive vision is called for. The pledge to generate a million new jobs is shaky, with the second wave of the pandemic looming and prospects for economic revival weak to say the least. Certainly, the Liberals have staked a great deal on providing subsidies and inducements to businesses, but whether such outlays of public funds will generate jobs under current conditions is a rather speculative proposition.
The speech informed us that a disability inclusion plan will be developed that will feature a new Canadian Disability Benefit modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors. How bold a step the Liberals intend to take here remains to be seen. On the key question of replacing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) with a somewhat strengthened system of Employment Insurance (EI) and a Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) for those who don’t qualify for EI, the pressure exerted by the NDP had an impact. In order to win the votes he would need for his government to survive, Trudeau was compelled to expand access to the sick leave benefit and to increase the base benefit for both EI and the CRB from $400 to $500 per week gross, making it the equivalent of the CERB payments it will replace. However, at least one source estimates that once the CERB comes to an end, 482,000 people will be left with no benefits at all.
The period that is opening up before us will see millions of working class people in Canada contending with the ongoing pandemic and the accompanying economic hardship. The social protections available to them at this critical time will be shaped at the federal level by the meagre measures so far taken and by whatever the Liberals craft out of the nebulous statements of intent contained in the throne speech. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh appears confident that he will be able to extract further concessions from the Liberals and talks openly of the possibility of propping up the Trudeau regime for the remaining three years of its mandate. I rather suspect, however, that the Liberals have a fairly clear idea of how far they will go in the face of the threat of a confidence vote and know exactly at what point they would choose to call Singh’s bluff and dare him to trigger an election.
A striking element of the throne speech was the assertion that the economic restart is “now well underway.” This may prove to have been an overly hasty assumption. Globally and in Canada we are clearly seeing strong evidence of a second wave of the pandemic. It is almost certain that this will seriously undermine the vaunted economic restart. Renewed and extended lockdowns are on the horizon and it is likely to be some time before the threat posed by COVID-19 has dissipated to the point that its impact on economic life is negligible. Moreover, the pandemic has delivered a devastating blow to a global economy that was already experiencing a downturn. The inadequate measures offered by the Liberals to grease the wheels of a reopening process will come up very short in the context of an ongoing public health crisis and a deep economic recession that involves long term mass unemployment.
Don’t trust the Liberals
The progressive tone of the throne speech was designed for domestic consumption, of course. But Trudeau has performed a comparable act on the world stage. He recently told the United Nations General Assembly: “The world is in crisis, and not just because of the last few months. Not just because of COVID-19. But because of the last few decades. And because of us.” Speaking as though he’d never allowed a single killing machine to be sold to Saudi Arabia or worked to put a pipeline through Indigenous territory, Trudeau had some uplifting things to say about defending human rights and dealing with climate change. Whether his audience is made up of world leaders or ordinary people in Canada trying to survive the crisis unleashed by the pandemic, there is a huge gap between Trudeau’s enlightened rhetoric and the reality of his political conduct. We would do well to understand that and to act accordingly in the months to come.
Even with the NDP prodding them to do the right thing, the Trudeau Liberals are not to be trusted. Trade unions, social movements and communities on the front lines of the present crisis need to develop, as a matter of urgent necessity, bold demands and an equally bold plan of action to win them. We need to be ready to confront governments at every level and to mobilize to defend those under attack in the present situation. We must have public healthcare systems in place that meet the challenges of COVID-19. We must have free public transit, universal child care, pharmacare and denticare. Social benefit systems that allow people to withstand pandemic lockdowns and severe economic downturns must be won. Huge increases in the commitment to social housing are vital. We must demand and obtain the transfer of resources from swollen police budgets to meet pressing community needs.
Throne speeches are part of a tradition of parliamentary hypocrisy. We may sometimes win things in those settings, but the far more decisive question is the struggle that is taken up on the streets. In this time of crisis, that is truer than ever before and we must build the movements to hammer out and win a post-pandemic future based on the needs of workers and communities rather than empty Liberal promises.