The Trudeau government has spent more than two years scrambling to respond to events: SNC-Lavalin, Trump’s tariffs and CUMSA, Chinese hostage diplomacy, Trudeau’s blackface, a new minority Parliament, Iranian missiles, Indigenous blockades, and, the ultimate disruptor, COVID-19. Today’s Throne Speech, read by Governor-General Julie Payette, and an unprecedented live network broadcast by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempted to recapture some initiative. Both speeches were focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the longer-term recovery, directly appealing to Canadians to come together to fight the pandemic and placing the entirety of the government’s agenda within the scope of that battle.
Throne Speeches are typically long on values and short on specifics; this one was more expansive than any in recent memory. The first two sections announced multiple new measures to combat the COVID-19 surge this autumn and a score of immediate financial actions to assist workers, women, children, and businesses through the pandemic.
The more audacious moments in both the Throne Speech and Trudeau’s television remarks repeatedly referenced the Second World War, with Trudeau saying the greatest generation built the world of today and now we must build the world of tomorrow. From national pharmacare and childcare to eliminating homelessness, from Indigenous reconciliation to exceeding Canada’s climate change commitments, the implementation of the entire agenda put forward today would indeed be transformational.
This approach serves a dual purpose. The immediate new announcements could enjoy broad public support and seem designed to try to achieve passage of the Throne Speech within the context of an urgent emergency response. The second half of the speech is more political and could serve as the foundational elements of an electoral platform, should the Speech be defeated by a confidence vote in the House of Commons.
Fundamentally, today’s speeches were designed to rally Canadians during the current crisis, take immediate action to fight COVID-19 and its impacts, attach the cause of combatting the pandemic to the government’s broader goals, and leave the Prime Minister with the room to implement the broader political goals of the government. As a minority government, limited in its scope of action by provincial/territorial jurisdiction and social license, it went as far as possible before testing both the confidence of Parliament and of Canadians.
Trudeau’s early evening speech was especially remarkable for its framing. By taking ownership of the fight against COVID-19 and linking the entirety of the government’s agenda to that fight, he attempted to recast himself as a statesman who is above politics. The opposition leaders, who were also each given airtime tonight, faced the difficult task of responding to the Prime Minister’s remarks without knowing what he was going to say.
A more detailed update to Canada’ COVID-19 Economic Response Plan will be delivered later this fall as a “mini-budget,” which will outline the country’s economic position, provide fiscal projections, and set out new measures to implement the Throne Speech. Further details are also expected in updated Mandate Letters to all Ministers.
A Stronger and More Resilient Canada
The Speech from the Throne set forward a broad plan for the federal government to focus on two key elements: the acute challenge that COVID-19 will pose this autumn and through the winter, and an ambitious plan for a long-term recovery from the havoc the pandemic brought to the economy and employment, especially for women and younger Canadians.
The Speech outlined four foundational elements of the federal government’s plan. These foundations build off the government’s COVID-19 response over the past six months and commit to expanded actions on health, the economy, equality and equity, and the environment to contain the pandemic, ‘build back better,’ and seek to create jobs.
Foundation 1: Protecting Canadians from COVID-19
The government reinforced its commitment to do even more to fight COVID-19 as the seasons change and positive cases increase. The government committed to:
- Working with the provinces and territories to increase their testing capacity and pursue faster COVID-19 tests – to be deployed as soon as they are approved
- Creating a federal Testing Assistance Response Team to meet surge testing needs, including in remote and isolated communities
- Continuing to build domestic capacity to manufacture PPE and secure supply chains to keep Canadians safe and create jobs
- Exploring the full range of options for vaccines, making further investments in capacity for vaccine distribution, and seeking advice from the Vaccine Task Force and Immunity Task Force to guide government decision-making
Foundation 2: Helping Canadians through the Pandemic
Reinforcing the government’s belief that this is not a time for austerity, the government committed to creating over one million jobs through direct investments in the social sector and infrastructure, immediate training for workers, and incentives to hire and retain workers.
Key commitments include:
- Extending the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy through to Summer 2021 and working with business and labour to meet the needs of the health and economic situation as it evolves
- Expanding the Canada Emergency Business Account and improving the Business Credit Availability Program
- Creating the transitional Canada Recovery Benefit for people who would not traditionally qualify for Employment Insurance and transform the EI system to become the sole delivery mechanism for employment benefits, including self-employed and gig economy workers
- Delivering significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system
- Introducing sector supports for hardest hit sectors, including travel and tourism, hospitality, and cultural industries, like the performing arts
Foundation 3: Building Back Better
The government committed to creating a “resiliency agenda” to address gaps in the social system. It will make investments with a focus on supporting health care and communities through measures that can create jobs and support resiliency.
Climate action forms a cornerstone of the government’s plan to create one million jobs across the country and develop the competitive economy for the future.
New commitments include:
- Supporting seniors, including setting national standards for long-term care
- Accelerating the steps to achieve its commitment to a national, universal pharmacare program, which includes creating a rare disease strategy, establishing a national formulary to keep drug prices low, and working with provinces and territories that are willing to move forward without delay
- Immediately developing a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal and legislate Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050
- Investing in all types of infrastructure, including public transit, energy efficient retrofits, clean energy, rural broadband (including accelerating the Universal Broadband Fund), and affordable housing, as well as working with partners to support regional routes for airlines
- Eliminating chronic homelessness entirely in Canada and expanding the National Housing Strategy, including directing short term investments in rapid housing and enhancing the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive
Foundation 4: The Canada We’re Fighting For
The section is about ensuring that everyone can participate to their full potential, including a focus on the road of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, fighting systemic racism, and highlighting Canada’s diversity as a competitive advantage.
The Speech also explicitly called for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to be returned to Canada and to continue the commitment to standing up for human rights and the rule of law.
On a normal day, a Speech from the Throne would be an ideal platform for the Official Opposition Conservatives to highlight their new Leader, Erin O’Toole. Given the recent announcements that both he and his partner have tested positive for COVID-19, this was not the entry onto the public stage that O’Toole may have hoped for. However, given the Prime Minister’s request for live television time to address the nation, with each opposition leader being given the same opportunity, O’Toole was able to introduce himself on network television during “prime time.” O’Toole used the opportunity to make a self-deprecating joke, putting a human face on a challenging situation.
As the Official Opposition, the Conservatives were expected to oppose the Throne Speech outright, and they did so quickly, citing the government’s failure to address western alienation, provide help for Alberta’s embattled energy sector, as well as assistance for small business. The Conservatives also asserted, through Deputy Leader Candice Bergen, that the reason for suspending Parliament was simply to hide from multiple ethics issues that had bedeviled the Trudeau Liberals over the spring and summer. O’Toole himself was critical of the Prime Minister for failing to approve new rapid tests for COVID-19 that would help dispel the long wait times for testing that many Canadians are experiencing.
Opposition also came swiftly from Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who tweeted from his own self-isolation after he and his partner both tested positive for COVID-19, that the Speech had not listened to the “urgent and legitimate demands of Quebec and the provinces,” primarily on health care. Blanchet’s tweets echoed those of Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who said he would be discussing the Speech with his provincial counterparts tomorrow.
This leaves the NDP as the most likely partner to support the Liberals in upcoming confidence votes on the Speech from the Throne in the House of Commons. At this time, the support is not guaranteed. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that he and his caucus had not yet decided whether to support the government. Prior to the speech, the NDP was seeking an extension to the CERB and paid sick leave for workers. Today, Singh called for concrete commitments to be put into legislation for these two measures. However, Singh indicated that he was not seeking amendments to the Speech, thereby creating an opening for future action in exchange for support on the Speech from the Throne.
While the door remains open to a potential loss of confidence in Parliament and an autumn election, such an outcome seems unlikely. The BC NDP government’s recent election call and poor fundraising results strain the federal NDP’s ability to force an election. The upswing in COVID-19 cases and the Prime Minister’s own rhetoric about maintaining all pandemic precautions would make a preemptory election call by Trudeau unexpected.