On Wednesday, Parliament rolled out the red carpet for our scandal-plagued Queen’s representative to outline the government’s vision for Canada in a Covid World. It certainly had a lot of big promises, but was very short on details.
The bigger question, at least for this newsletter, is whether it moves us toward the type of world we’ve been discussing for several months. From that perspective, I think we can fairly say it’s far too timid. Let me explain why.
The government made a lot of bold claims in the speech about: expanding the social safety net with a revamped EI system and national childcare; improving the health system with long-term care standards and universal pharmacare; positioning Canada to create jobs by meeting its climate targets with investments in transit, building retrofits, electric vehicles and more.
This all sounds great, but we’ve seen time and time again how this government’s neoliberal ideology — its aversion to public solutions in favour of private interests — gets in the way of its bold claims. For example, it made a big deal about infrastructure investments back in 2015, but as Linda McQuaig has described, the infrastructure bank got co-opted by private finance.
The Liberals also came to power claiming to act on climate change, but their signature market-based initiative — the carbon price — has been a mess and it’s not even on track to meet the 2030 emissions targets set by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Meanwhile, the Liberals bought an oil pipeline and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an oil conference in Houston, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”
The government’s own actions don’t inspire confidence, and that naturally influences how we should see this throne speech. Let’s dig into a few examples.
The promise of national standards on long-term care appears welcome in light of the devastation experienced in seniors’ homes when the pandemic hit and private providers, in particular, failed to keep people safe. Passage columnist Nora Loreto tracked long-term care deaths and found a truly horrific system.
What’s needed is not just standards, but a public system that’s properly funded to provide the care that seniors need. The government claims this is provincial jurisdiction, so its hands are tied. But that hasn’t stopped previous federal governments from linking transfer payments to, for example, complying with the Canada Health Act. That should now be expanded to cover additional services.
Indeed, if that were the case then the government’s promises of universal pharmacare and national childcare must also be called into question — as they’re also provincial jurisdiction. There’s long been concern that the Liberals’ pharmacare plan won’t be truly universal, and would instead fill in the gaps of employer-provided coverage instead of giving everyone a public drug plan.
CBC’s Pete Evens also explained how childcare is, like pharmacare, another frequent Liberal promise that never gets implemented. It was made in 1993, 2004 and 2011 — yet it’s still nowhere to be found, even as childcare consumes the incomes of families across the country, except in Quebec.
In the throne speech, the government made reference to the Quebec model, which provides public childcare that costs families, on average, less than $200 a month, compared to $900 to 1,000 in much of the rest of the country, and more than $1,700 in Toronto. The Liberals should seek to extend that program nationally, but given their history, it’s hard to believe they won’t instead just provide new subsidies to private providers.
Finally, on the topic of health, the government touted its pandemic response, including domestic manufacturing of PPE and investing in the development of vaccines, but an important point should be made here. Before the pandemic, Big Pharma had little interest in investing in vaccine development because it simply delivered less profit than other types of drugs. That left us vulnerable when this pandemic hit.
In The Sport and Prey of Capital, McQuaig explained that Canada had a non-profit pharmaceutical company called Connaught Labs that was part of the University of Toronto and made important breakthroughs with insulin, vaccines for diphtheria and polio, a blood anticoagulant, and many more. But it was privatized in 1985. A real strategy to respond to this pandemic and prepare us for future ones would necessitate the creation of a new public pharmaceutical company.
Moving on from health, the government also took the chance to tout its agenda to put people back to work. It included rural broadband, but its approach of subsidizing private companies to build it isn’t working. We need a national public telecom network. Similarly, the National Housing Strategy is turning out to be a joke, and we should instead be embarking on a mass public housing program.
Of course, a big part of this is also the government’s climate plan. Much touted ahead of the Throne Speech, what was said seemed rather weak. There was talk of transit, retrofits, renewables and electric vehicles, but that won’t be nearly enough to respond to the climate crisis, as we discussed last week.
We already got a preview that the plan includes $500 million for Ford to build electric vehicles in Canada, but electric automobility will not solve climate change. And while the talk of more public parks is nice and welcome — we like public luxuries — the promise of two billions trees is a recycled one from last year that was seemingly forgotten until the Throne Speech.
The Conservatives will keep hammering the government about the deficit, but one positive thing from the Throne Speech was the line that, “People should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder.” The government seems ready to take advantage of low interest rates, but it remains to be seen if it will do so for the right purposes.
This may seem like a cynical assessment of the Throne Speech, but it’s firmly rooted in a desire for action, not simply nice language. The Trudeau government has proven itself to be very good at the latter, but desperately lacking in the former. But the kind of world we want will require action — and much more than the government is proposing.
Perspectives from around the world
Pouyan Tabasinejad, vice president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, argues we can’t let the government blame individuals for the spread of COVID-19.
Emily Macrae, a Toronto-based writer and organizer, explains how the pandemic highlights the lack of access to basic hygiene for people using wheelchairs and experiencing homelessness.
Pam Palmater, a professor and the chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, explains how the rule of law is failing Mi’kmaw peoples in Nova Scotia as they face attacks from non-Indigenous commercial fishermen.
Val Avery, president of Health Sciences Association of BC, and Barb Nederpel, president of the Hospital Employees’ Union, explain that the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against a doctor seeking to overturn the core tenet that healthcare access should be based on need, not ability to pay, by letting patients who could pay skip the line for health services.
Alexis Zanghi, a Minneapolis-based writer, explains the importance of working-class movements demanding secure housing.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Gizmodo reporter Shoshana Wodinsky about digital ad markets and how Facebook and Google maintain their dominance of digital advertising.
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