If taking over network air time for a prime ministerial address should only be done when there is a significant national crisis, Justin Trudeau had a good reason to do so Wednesday evening.
COVID-19 has made a vicious return to Canada, and the prime minister was correct to say "the second wave isn't just starting, it's already underway."
Trudeau told Canadians that "back on March 13, when we went into lockdown, there were 47 new cases of COVID-19. Yesterday alone, we had well over 1,000." He continued with these ominous, but irrefutable words: "We're on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring."
That the prime minister's speech itself was not much more than a pep talk does not take away from its legitimacy or appropriateness.
When Franklin Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," or Winston Churchill promised Britons "blood, toil, tears and sweat," those were also pep talks, but necessary ones.
However, the fact that Trudeau addressed Canadians only a few hours after the Governor General delivered the government's plans for the new parliamentary session -- in the throne speech – makes the prime minister's supper-hour cameo appearance a bit more suspect.
Good intentions and brave words
Even Liberal operatives had to admit that the prime minister's goal was not only to ring the alarm bells on the second wave. Trudeau also wanted his government's message, on this crucial day, to be associated with his voice and his face -- and not those of Governor General Julie Payette.
All other considerations aside, Payette is damaged goods right now. She has been accused of serial acts of harassment and is currently under investigation.
In addition, Trudeau might have felt compelled to address Canadians directly because the throne speech itself was not the major revisioning exercise he promised when he prorogued Parliament in mid-August.
Based on the commitments in the speech, it is hard to believe that there was any need to cut the previous parliamentary session short -- except to put a stop to parliamentary committees that were looking into the WE affair.
The throne speech makes very few specific and tangible commitments.
Even on the subject that is now most urgent and top of mind, health, the speech talks only vaguely about new initiatives, with no details and no money attached.
Among the government's health-related plans is to set national standards for long-term care for the elderly. Quebec Premier François Legault was quick to label that one an intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet followed in lockstep behind him.
The Conservatives also complained about what they called the Liberals' "Ottawa knows best" approach, without really proposing much in the way of alternative policies of their own.
When a COVID-19 stricken Erin O'Toole spoke on Wednesday evening, he wandered aimlessly, hardly paying any attention to the substance of what the prime minister had talked about. At one point, O'Toole digressed into a diatribe about China, which seemed, mostly, borrowed from Donald Trump's bag of rhetorical tricks, and which was wildly off topic.
NDP has two clear demands
One of most significant, and specific, promises in the throne speech is to undertake a major overhaul of the employment insurance system. If that were to happen, it would be long overdue.
The COVID-19 pandemic made the weaknesses of an employment insurance system that leaves out far too many workers -- such as the self-employed, and gig economy and part-time workers -- blatantly clear. It was because employment insurance would not have been adequate to the task that the government had to create the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), to deal with the urgent new needs engendered by the pandemic.
During the summer, before there was talk of a second wave, the government announced plans to end the CERB. They would replace it with an expanded EI program and other transitional programs, including a 26-week Canada Recovery Benefit. But recipients of the latter would get $100 per week less than they did under the CERB.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh focused like a laser on that $100 differential, and on the earlier Liberal promise -- extracted by the NDP -- to work with the provinces to guarantee 10 days paid sick leave to all Canadians.
Singh did not want to get drawn into the hopeful generalities of the throne speech, noting that the Liberals are long on promises but short on tangible results. Just take child care and pharmacare as examples, he said. National programs for both have been in the Liberal playbook since the 1990s, yet we still have neither.
The other two parties said clearly that they will vote against the throne speech, meaning the Liberals will need the NDP's support if we are to avoid an election. Singh was unambiguous in stating that his party does not favour an election at this time. He told Canadians that New Democrats want to do what they have done throughout the pandemic. They want to push the Liberals into better and more responsive policies. They did just that, Singh said, on the wage subsidy, on support for small businesses that pay rent, and on tax measures and other financial supports for the disabled.
Now, the NDP leader said, he and his colleagues want to see the government act on paid leave, and on maintaining CERB-levels of support for out-of-work Canadians. And they want to see clear commitments about those priorities from the Trudeau government before pronouncing themselves on the throne speech.
Singh did promise that New Democrats would study the throne speech carefully. There are so few details in that document, that the Liberals should be able to put meat on the speech's bones in such a way as to satisfy NDP demands.
One thing is certain: New Democrats will not try to amend the throne speech, as they did, without success, last time. Their demand, this time, is for specific legislative plans that address their two very precise and targeted policy goals.
The next few days will tell the story, but it does not look like we will be heading to the polls this fall.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
Image: Video screenshot/PMO
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