NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter/Video screenshot

One of the many unprecedented aspects of our current crisis is the way the federal party in power has been ready to quickly accept constructive suggestions from opposition parties. 

On Tuesday, May 12, the Trudeau government yet again heeded an NDP proposal, and made a change to help a beleaguered group — in this case, senior citizens.

The government announced that it would give a one-time payment, on a sliding scale, of several hundred dollars, to seniors who now receive the basic pension, Old Age Security (OAS). The larger amount, $500, will go to those who also receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is designed to assist seniors on the poverty line. 

It is not a lot of money, but it is more than a gesture. The government is spending this money to help deal with the increased costs to seniors brought on by the pandemic. A good many older Canadians, who are not only fearful and worried for their health but for their ability to pay the bills, will welcome the extra cash. 

NDP MPs have been expressing concerns to the government about the fact that seniors are now facing additional financial challenges because of COVID-19. This new money goes at least part way toward addressing those concerns.

NDP persuaded Liberals to give GIS recipients a break

The new money for seniors is not the whole story, however. In the same announcement, the government addressed another area of NDP concern.

On April 24, we reported in this space that “seniors who are entitled to the GIS establish their eligibility by filing taxes, which 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.”

Asked and answered. 

On Tuesday, May 12, the prime minister announced that his government will “temporarily extend GIS payments even if seniors’ 2019 income information has not been assessed. This will ensure that the most vulnerable seniors continue to receive their benefits when they need them the most.”

This is not a permanent measure. The government still wants seniors who receive the GIS to file taxes. But the government has moved the filing deadline from June to October. 

Partisan political considerations should not be paramount during a crisis of frightening magnitude, such as the one we are now experiencing. But it is worth underscoring the success one opposition party, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, has had in influencing key government policies and programs aimed at: students, the unemployed, gig economy workers, front-line workers, small businesses, renters — and now, seniors. 

Never has an opposition party exerted so much influence on government policy in such a short time period. Everything we are talking about here has happened within a matter of weeks. 

In the past, the NDP and its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), successfully pushed Liberal and Conservative governments to enact old age pension, unemployment insurance, public broadcasting and universal health insurance legislation. But that process took years, sometimes decades. 

Now, the NDP makes a suggestion and mere days later the Trudeau government adopts it. That has happened on a number of occasions since the onset of the crisis, and it is testimony to how minority governments can deliver the best results.

In the 1960s it was the Lester Pearson minority governments — which needed NDP support — that gave us the Canada Pension Plan and medicare. 

In the 1970s, a similarly NDP-supported Pierre Trudeau government gave us the Foreign Investment Review Agency and Petro-Canada. 

When Canadians get to choose their next federal government, it would help if they knew the kind of work the various parties have been doing during the current crisis

It is more than a bit of a pity that, today, the mainstream media do not make much mention of the useful role the NDP has been playing during the fight against the effects of the coronavirus. 

The Conservatives have not been overtly or excessively partisan, but their critique has focused on trying to find flaws in the government’s performance — not an illegitimate goal — and worrying that the new programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response  Benefit CERB), are too generous and could act as a disincentive for low paid workers to go back to work. 

That worry is not borne out by empirical evidence. Few workers would prefer doing nothing to working. They have a right, however, to insist on a safe work environment. 

Some bosses, such as the U.S.-based owners of certain meat-packing plants, are only too happy to collude with provincial governments to force workers back into potentially unsafe workplaces. 

The federal government would be well-advised not to play the same game. It should continue to provide financial support, which, at the very least, gives vulnerable workers options. 

Provincial prerogatives become a Bloc talking point

The Bloc Québécois, like the NDP, has tended to push the government from the progressive side of the field. The Bloc has been particularly forceful on the issue of federal money for companies that use foreign tax havens. 

Despite Bloc and NDP efforts, when it came to companies that receive the new 75 per cent wage subsidy, the government resisted pressure to impose any conditions, arguing that all of that money flows through the companies to their workers. 

But Bloc and NDP persistence on tax havens did have an impact on the government’s recently announced loan program for large corporations. 

The Trudeau Liberals say they will impose significant transparency and disclosure conditions on that money. The Liberals promise they will not lend any of it to corporations that use various ruses, most notably offshore operations or subsidiaries, to avoid or evade taxes.

We’ll see how that works out.

And while it has done yeoman’s work on tax havens, the Bloc cannot help itself when it believes the federal government is, in any way whatsoever, disrespecting Quebec. 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed discomfort with Quebec Premier François Legault’s seeming haste to reopen his province outside of Montreal. The prime minister said he was speaking as a member of Parliament from Quebec, and as a citizen; but the Bloc was quick to take umbrage. 

How dare the federal leader interfere with the sacred prerogatives of Quebec? the Bloc leader said. 

In truth, Trudeau was only exercising his right of free speech. He did not use or abuse any federal power; did not endeavour to prevent the Quebec premier from doing what he deems to be appropriate. 

Anyone can ask if it is, perhaps, too early to be sending children back to school, in Quebec or anywhere else in Canada. We can all rightfully worry that Quebec’s opening up (perhaps) prematurely could jeopardize efforts we’ve all made over the past two months to slow down the spread of the virus. 

Those are legitimate questions. Merely asking them does not trample on Quebec’s constitutional jurisdiction. 

In any case, citizens of Quebec, and the rest of Canada, will be able to decide for themselves, soon enough, if Legault has made a wise or a rash choice. The virus has a way of telling its own tale.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter/Video screenshot

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...