OTTAWA—The notion that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste but can be used to do big, bold things is attributed to Machiavelli or alternatively to Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
Right now, it’s on the mind of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Inside Trudeau’s Liberal government an age-old debate is alive: how not to waste the opportunity presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — and there is a growing sense that key players believe now is the time to take a more aggressive approach to being progressive.
Trudeau is on vacation this week and next, staying close to home in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, after testifying and attempting to close off the WE controversy that battered his government’s previously positive reviews for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
It may be too soon to say whether the political hit from the defunct student volunteer program will last. Political controversies have a way of seeming to die down only to flare again in the public’s mind as new revelations emerge.
Sources tell the Star that thousands of documents related to the WE affair that the Liberal government transferred to a parliamentary committee are to be publicly released on Monday if not sooner.
Beyond the headlines, however, Trudeau and his inner circle are weighing how to roll out bigger, bolder changes aimed at bolstering Canada’s competitive position post-pandemic, and move past short-term solutions to the crisis.
The thinking goes like this: the pandemic exposed major social and economic inequities when it comes to child care, long-term care for seniors, women’s ability to remain in the workforce when schools are shut, the lack of social safety net backstops for precarious workers, and the disproportionate economic and health impacts of the virus on Black people and other minority communities. And so now is the time, with the cost of long-term borrowing so cheap due to historically low interest rates, to address those inequities for the longer term, sources said.
One said there is an “opportunity for us to think big to think about child care, to think about how we can accelerate the transition to clean energy and how we can fight climate change, how we can help vulnerable people, how we can root out discrimination and level the playing field for working people and on all the progressive ideas that we’ve talked about and made progress on but in a different context. So can we actually present a big vision? I think we can.”
The Star is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
One insider with knowledge of the prime minister’s thinking said Trudeau is not looking at provoking a fall election with the economy still in a crucial “restart” phase, but he is looking toward the “recovery” phase. That source suggested the more likely option is a budget in the new year that would lay out the bolder plan.
Opposition parties could choose to vote non-confidence in such a plan and trigger a vote. But sources said Trudeau is not aiming to trigger one with a plan that would not win support. They pointed to how in a minority position the government has been able to advance most of its big-ticket pandemic programs.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre doesn’t buy it. He says the government, spooked by the fallout of WE, aims to run a campaign on “this fairy tale that you can just continue to pour free money out of airplanes.” He said the Liberal government would be wrong to pursue even more borrowing and spending, because the “monstrous deficits” being racked up are going to continue to weigh down growth and slow down the economy, not stimulate it.
“That will be a recipe for a longer recession, perhaps even a depression,” Poilievre said in an interview. “We think it’s time for “free-market stimulus,” he said. The government should “fast-track” environmental approvals for about a dozen energy projects worth a total of about $20 billion and “unleash the productive forces of the private sector.”
One Liberal insider said the Liberals will not be pinned down by Conservative calls “for austerity.” Another said after the last election, which opened a worrying East-West divide in the country, the government adopted an “incrementally progressive” approach. That source said “this is a once in a century opportunity” to do more.
Trudeau has already declared he intends to devise “a better 21st century EI system.”
Just before he left on vacation, he promised details before the end of August on how Ottawa will ease the transition for workers off the CERB program emergency benefit payments — due to end by October — and onto employment insurance. EI doesn’t cover gig or contract workers, so Ottawa will create a “transitional, parallel benefit that is similar to employment insurance,” Trudeau said.
A longer-term solution, however, will take a massive EI system reform — something Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has already turned her mind to.
There are obvious complications to any grand ambitious plan, and it’s not just the need to win some Opposition support if you’re still in a minority situation.
Federal interventions in child care, seniors care, or the environment could set up a potential federal-provincial clash. Premiers may have been willing to put up with aggressive federal moves in areas of their jurisdiction during the emergency and restart phase of the pandemic, but it’s hard to see that lasting.
Then there is another key question.
If Trudeau plans to reject calls to rein in spending, what is the future for his Finance Minister Bill Morneau? Is he the right person in the job at this time?
By many insider accounts, Morneau has long been the minister at the cabinet table who said no to myriad requests by his more spendthrift colleagues.
In fact, several in the Liberal government say he deserves credit for ensuring the government had the fiscal room to manoeuvre in the past five months — despite Conservative objections to the contrary.
Trudeau is said to retain confidence in Morneau and “stands by” his finance minister, in the words of one.
But sources said Trudeau is definitely considering whether he has the right people in the right jobs for the months ahead, sources said.
And so far, while most expect a cabinet shuffle of some kind before the next election, right now no one knows where Trudeau has landed on those decisions.
Find the Star's federal election coverage here.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc