House Call with Carol Hughes

Government knows what it will take to pass its Throne Speech

The government delivered its Throne Speech last week and, as expected, it was filled with nice sound bites. While the chattering class in Ottawa speculates breathlessly about whether any opposition party will support it—spoiler, the Conservatives immediately said they wouldn’t—Canadians are left to wonder where they fit into the discussion.

At the outset, it’s important to remember that a throne speech is just that, a speech. There is no legislation attached and no real measures to evaluate. It is a collection of ideas that will be fleshed out in parliament. Unfortunately, the prime minister has shown us over and over that his actions don’t match his words. As a tonic to that, there have been successful negotiations with New Democrats that helped his government focus on the real needs that Canadians are experiencing.

A great example is how we helped the government come to understand that Employment Insurance (EI) was never going to meet the nation’s need during the first wave of the pandemic. At the time, the government believed EI would absorb the shock despite decades of work by New Democrats that proved the system was helping fewer people due to the changing nature of work and the fact that the fund was raided for years and applied to general revenues ($54 billion was diverted from the fund by the Chretien and Martin governments turning EI premiums into an unfair tax on jobs). In many ways EI had become more difficult to access and often didn’t provide enough relief to secure households through normal bouts of unemployment. It was clear that it didn’t have the ability to address the pandemic’s shock to our economy. That led to the CERB being installed, reluctantly.

Now we are hearing EI will be revamped to reflect our current models of employment which includes gig workers, those who hold multiple part-time jobs, and the self employed in greater numbers every year. This is overdue and welcome news if the government goes about the exercise properly, but past experience suggests they’ll need help to ensure it actually delivers.

In the meantime, CERB is winding down and the transition measures are set to offer recipients less at the same time as the second wave of the pandemic seems to be settling in. That’s what needs to be immediately addressed and where New Democrat efforts are going to be focused. We’re concerned that the government’s stated plan for those relying on CERB will deliver $400 less per month. (As I write this, it would seem the government will relent to this demand to maintain the original rate.) The other is the lack of paid sick leave during a pandemic.

This point is critical to negotiations. With self-isolation being demanded of those infected with COIVD-19, there must be a remedy to support these individuals during that period. Without that support, we risk greater spread and could quickly reach the limit of our health care system to respond. We can’t forget the experience of other nations that dealt with larger outbreaks and had to choose who to help based on age, like was the case in Italy. Avoiding that scenario is why we desperately need two weeks paid sick leave for everyone who holds a job.

The quick criticism of the idea is that these are provincial concerns, but that ignores the fact that the federal government has done more of the heavy lifting during the pandemic. There are other avenues to explore for this. Employment Insurance is one route that is available, but so is a program designed specifically for the pandemic such as CERB which could be re-branded into a sick benefit. This too seems to have been negotiated but it is uncertain what form it will take.

Every step of the way, New Democrats have had to fight for people and convince the government to work with us to deliver appropriate assistance. We were clear what it would take to ensure our support for the throne speech, but the government chose to go it alone forcing last minute negotiations that were avoidable. It doesn’t need to be this way, but we are prepared to do the work time and again to ensure Canadians get the support they need during the pandemic.