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Bill Morneau's COVID-19 response: This economic and health crisis is no time for timidity or hesitation

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Image: Bill Morneau/Facebook

According to Bill Morneau, "as minister of finance, my only job is to make sure that Canadians can keep food in the fridge."

That's actually a rare useful thought for a federal finance minister to keep front of mind in calamitous circumstances like the present ones.

It's also a hopeful sign that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is prepared to plow $87 billion as quickly as possible into fighting the catastrophe that threatens us, and likely more later, without letting dogmatic conservative talking points about debt and deficit get in the way of sound policy.

It's certainly a refreshing contrast to the clown show in Edmonton, where Premier Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper's man on the barricades for the 1%, is hell bent on implementing his fantasy-based austerity budget between trips to the airport's safely empty arrivals level for publicity shots.

"Incredibly," wrote economist Jim Stanford in a post on the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Behind the Numbers blog, "Conservatives like Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre have still been scare-mongering about deficits, even as the public health emergency gathered momentum.

"Kenney in particular should be politically shunned for his incredible decision to attack Alberta's doctors and rip up their employment contracts (alongside his other attacks on public health workers) just as we ask them to risk their lives, to save ours," continued Stanford, an Edmonton native who is director of Australia's Centre for Future Work. "This tired old deficit-mania will have zero resonance with the public in coming months: they are quite rightly preoccupied with more important things."

Well, it may not have been a wise and provident god that kept Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party of Canada out of the Prime Minister's Office last October, but by god it was a wise and provident Canadian electorate that hesitated at the last minute!

One shudders to think how Scheer would have reacted to COVID-19. It wouldn't have been pretty. It probably would have involved deep tax cuts for oil companies and billionaires that would have eventually left us in a bigger hole than the imperfect Liberal program, and without its benefits.

The thing is, if you look through the policies being put forward by Morneau -- as CCPA Senior Economist David Macdonald did in an extremely useful summary yesterday -- you will see that the first of its good if insufficiently aggressive ideas won't come into effect until next month, and some much later than that. That means cash is unlikely to get into anyone's hands before May.

As Macdonald explained, "this package of measures has to pass a vote in the House of Commons first." And it wouldn't be a complete surprise if Scheer and company tried to throw roadblocks in its way.

That's bad because, quoting Macdonald again, "we can't sweat the small stuff when we've laid off the entire retail, food and hospitality sectors in a single week. The effects of keeping them off work for only a few weeks will be economically catastrophic."

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe suggested yesterday that March 2020 may show the biggest one-month employment drop in Canadian history.

In other words, even without considering the health implications of this crisis, it's terrible now, but it's going to get worse -- driven not just by the global COVID-19 pandemic passing like tsunami over our heads, but the fragility and brittleness of the neoliberal worldwide "just-in-time" distribution system that has been cobbled together over 30 years while none of us paid attention. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and now it has.

If you haven't noticed this already, you will when the toilet paper runs out.

And is there even a single manufacturer of medical ventilators in Canada today?

What we need now, Stanford observed, is to "go big, go fast."

"We don't yet fully realize the scale of the layoffs and their economic impact," Macdonald said. "Here's to hoping that governments are already planning for Phase Two."

Indeed, if there is any lesson here it's that now is the time for a guaranteed universal annual income, from which our country would benefit for generations.

The countries that come out of this worldwide phenomenon in the best condition and the fastest will be the ones willing to spend more and spend it fast.

Like the Second World War, to which the COVID-19 crisis is increasingly being compared, this is no time for timidity or hesitation.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

Alberta COVID-19 update

With 22 new COVID-19 cases confirmed yesterday, Alberta now has 119 confirmed cases, with infected individuals found in all of Alberta Health Services' five zones. The provincial hotspot is Calgary, with 83 cases. Of these cases, six are currently hospitalized, three in intensive care. Multiple infections appear to stem from a dental conference in Vancouver in early March.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Bill Morneau/Facebook

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