The Liberal government has been doing a lot of listening lately.
When we look back at this period, we might very well note that it showed, yet again, how a minority government can work effectively in the interests of citizens.
There has been some partisanship, of course, and some cheap-shot politics.
Derek Sloan, a first term Conservative MP from eastern Ontario, attacked the chief federal health official, Theresa Tam, in a crude and personal way, with barely disguised derogatory reference to her ethnicity.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, seemed too cowed by the more extreme fringes of his own party to call the MP (and leadership candidate) to order. But other Conservatives did, including Alberta MPs Michelle Rempel and Tim Uppal. And prominent voices in Sloan’s riding are calling on Scheer to kick him out of the caucus.
And we should note that during this crisis the Conservatives did offer at least one useful and constructive suggestion.
When the House met for the first time, in special session, to pass, among other measures, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), one Ottawa-area Conservative MP, Scott Reid, noticed that the Liberals had slipped a poison pill into the legislation, in the form of a provision that would give the government unchecked power to legislate, without parliamentary approval or oversight, for many months.
The Trudeau Liberals backtracked on that bad idea quickly. They even thanked the opposition parties for standing up for Parliament.
For the most part, though, it is the NDP that has played the most helpful role: supporting the government’s urgent series of economic responses to the crisis, while, at the same time, pointing out where gaps exist and suggesting how the government should fill them.
It was the NDP that pushed for more easily accessible employment insurance, for a 75 per cent wage subsidy for small businesses, and for comprehensive support for post-secondary students. The government responded in all cases, with a speed and urgency we have never before seen, except, perhaps, in wartime.
Few elected politicians are worrying about political credit or blame at this time. The focus is almost entirely on getting the job done.
(It is impossible not to notice the contrast with our neighbour to the south, where the man who occupies the White House daily expresses his obsessive need for fulsome credit and praise. It is stomach-churning to see serious scientists and government officials publicly kowtow to this mentally unbalanced, would-be dictator.)
Low-income seniors and small business, non-profit renters
Back in Canada, the NDP’s most recent concerns have been for low income senior citizens and small businesses whose rent is coming due.
Seniors who are entitled to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) — which goes to those whose income falls below the poverty line — normally establish their eligibility by filing taxes. That will not be easy this year.
Many poor seniors depend on agencies to help them do their taxes, but those agencies are now closed. And so, Ontario NDP MP Scott Duvall is asking the government to continue paying out the GIS even if recipients fail to file their tax forms.
Right now, there is some confusion as to what might happen to the two million Canadians who depend on the GIS this year, given the extension of the tax deadline to June 1. The NDP wants the government to clear it up, and relieve seniors — who have enough to worry about at the moment — of the fear of being cut off.
Don’t be surprised if the government responds favourably to that concern.
As for small businesses’ ability to pay rent, British Columbia NDP MPs Peter Julian and Gord Johns have been calling on the government to move quickly to prevent thousands of independent enterprises from going under.
“A lot of business owners are still falling through the cracks, because, with zero revenue, they cannot pay their rent,” Johns says, adding that it is “not the landlords’ fault either, they also have bills to pay.”
On Friday, April 24, the government showed, once again, that it is listening.
It announced a program to provide loans to landlords which will cover half of rent payments, for three months — rent which small businesses and non-profit / charitable organization tenants now “experiencing financial hardship” would normally have to pay.
The government will forgive the loans if the “property owner agrees to reduce the eligible small business tenants’ rent by at least 75 per cent for the three corresponding months.”
The landlord must also agree “not to evict the tenant while the agreement is in place.”
Again, these are strong signs that this minority Liberal government knows how to listen and is not too proud or partisan to take advice from opposition parties. There is just a chance these mature behaviours might carry on into the post coronavirus time.
Of course, it would be hoping for too much to expect the Justin Trudeau Liberals to heed every piece of advice they receive.
Tax avoiders who use offshore havens
Both the NDP and the non-profit Canadians for Tax Fairness have urged the government not to give a penny of relief money to corporations that resort to off-shore tax havens to avoid paying taxes in Canada, or to anonymous companies that don’t reveal their real owners.
Other countries, such as France, Denmark and Poland now refuse to give COVID-19 financial aid to such tax-dodging companies.
Canadians for Tax Fairness propose that the government “require large corporations that receive funding to publicly disclose their finances on a country by country basis.”
As well, for corporations that do receive funding, the tax fairness people want the government to “prohibit corporate stock buybacks, executive bonuses, golden parachutes and shareholder dividend payouts for at least one year.”
Finally, Canadians for Tax Fairness propose that the government “consider measures such as an excess profits tax to recover funds from companies that ultimately don’t need this funding.”
We should not hold our collective breath waiting for Justin Trudeau’s government to follow this counsel.
It’s one thing for the government to heed appeals for increased support for groups in need, such as students and seniors.
It is quite another to expect this Liberal government, that likes to be all things to all people, to take on powerful corporate interests, especially at a time of extreme economic emergency.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.