Canada prepares to vote on COVID-19 measures while U.S. president decries socialism

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

A handful of MPs within driving distance of Parliament Hill in Ottawa will meet Tuesday to pass the government's $82-billion emergency economic response. They'll do it quickly and without fuss and bother. There will be no partisan posturing.

There is no appetite for political sniping in Canada. Witness this tweet from federal NDP communications director George Soule:

"I really feel for the PM, the Ministers, and their staff. They are working their assses off under immense stress. We don't agree on everything but we're all in this together."

A cynic might argue that the NDP knows its voters, even its hardcore base, would want their party to take the high road right now. There is a big overlap between Liberal and NDP supporters.

But even Conservatives -- who until recently had been rubbing their hands at what they saw as the Trudeau Liberals' increasing vulnerability, and whose hardcore base has been virulently, almost irrationally, hostile to the Justin Trudeau government -- are now playing nice.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told the Canadian Press that rather than politicize their differences with the government -- which are mostly on such details as the level of support for small business -- Conservatives have chosen to communicate their concerns directly and privately with senior Trudeau cabinet members, notably Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"We're just trying to make sure we can communicate directly with the government when we do have concerns or when we think that there may be gaps, that we do it directly and through channels that are really aimed at getting results and not so much scoring political points," Scheer said.

Many economists have noted that, given the magnitude and depth of the crisis, the Trudeau government's package is but a first step, and the prime minister has admitted as much. 

The government argues that Canada has the "fiscal firepower" to do what is necessary. By that it means our level of indebtedness is low relative to that of comparable countries, despite that fact that we have been running deficits over the past few years.

On the progressive side of the political field, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has been doing excellent, fact-and-data-based work during the crisis. 

Most recently the CCPA issued a report on the millions of Canadian renters, who live, quite literally, paycheque-to-paycheque and will require urgent relief very soon.

The CCPA and others with a similar worldview will want to carefully watch what further measures the government decides to take. They will want to make sure those measures do not take the form of the obscene opportunity for corporate profiteering we're seeing south of the border.

Nationalization is bad, says Trump

In the U.S., there is not yet consensus on a federal government economic relief package. 

President Trump and his Republican allies are pushing a measure that includes direct cash payments to families and expanded unemployment insurance, but also massive payouts to corporations, without, Democrats argue, anything resembling adequate accountability. We've seen this movie before, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Democrats also say the Republican bill does not provide adequate financial support for the beleaguered health-care sector.

The Senate in the U.S. is controlled by the Republicans, but the House of Representatives has a Democratic majority, and it is working on its own, alternative economic package. 

It will take a while before the two houses of the U.S. legislative branch get together on a common bill, which would also be acceptable to the mercurial and often irrational current president. 

U.S. President Donald Trump is getting some begrudging credit of late for not being completely off-the-wall and infantile.

That is a pretty low bar. And it would be foolhardy to seriously expect this particular leopard to change his spots.

When a journalist informed Trump that one of his harshest critics, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, has isolated himself because of his contact with another senator, Kentucky's Rand Paul, who tested positive for the coronavirus, Trump's response was a smirking "too bad." 

When state and local officials urged the U.S. president to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to get companies to divert their facilities to manufacture desperately needed medical supplies, Trump launched, incongruously, into an anti-socialist rant.

He invited Americans to ask Venezuelans how nationalization of their businesses worked out, and then added "the concept of nationalizing our businesses is not good."

On another occasion, Trump said the U.S. federal government is not a "shipping clerk." He was referring to the pleas from city and state governments that the federal government use its powers to get production of such medical items as ventilators moving. 

In the U.S., free-enterprise fundamentalism still rules the roost, and it is going to make dealing with the current crisis, which can only be resolved by a significant public-sector effort, increasingly complex and difficult. 

There is a great deal more we could do better here in Canada, especially for vulnerable groups such as Indigenous communities, but at least we do not have political leaders spouting self-serving and simplistic rhetoric in a time of huge need, with the exception of the nearly irrelevant Maxime Bernier.

For Canadians, in fact, the biggest threat comes from our southern neighbour, which now has more than 10 per cent of the world's confirmed coronavirus cases. (And, by the way, medical authorities, such as Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches, say that both the U.S. figure of more than 38,000 confirmed cases, and the far lower Canadian one, are far below than the actual number of cases, given the extreme shortage of testing facilities in both countries.) 

More than half of the confirmed U.S. cases are in states very close to the Canadian border. U.S. legislative gridlock, hidebound ideology and inability to work in a collective way all suggest that the pandemic will continue to grow and spread rapidly in that country, perhaps approaching Italian proportions. 

The U.S.-Canada border is now closed to non-essential travel. 

There is, however, is a huge volume of essential travel that continues across the world's longest border; and, in any case, viruses have their way of ignoring national boundaries.

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

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