Federal Liberals unveil sweeping plan for current and future challenges

OTTAWA — The minority Liberal government has unveiled what it calls an "ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality" that pledges to create over one million jobs and massively expand or introduce benefit programs and support for nearly every sector of society.

But while Wednesday’s throne speech signals that the Liberals intend to follow through on promised efforts to combat climate change, economic inequality and systemic racism, they’re also acknowledging that not much can be done if the COVID-19 pandemic is not brought under control.

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"We must address these challenges of today. But we also cannot forget about the tests of the future," said the text of the speech, read in the Senate by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

Direct measures to combat the possibility of a second wave drowning the country include help to boost testing capacity, including the creation of a federal "testing assistance response team" to meet surge demand, and targeted support to businesses forced to close due to local public health orders.

The Liberals are also pledging an expansion of the employment insurance system, including a new benefit to ensure those who don’t qualify for it can still be supported, extending the federal wage subsidy program through to next summer and more money for some of Canada’s hardest-hit sectors.

The immediate goals of the government to help get the economy back on its feet and support Canadians are matched by the need of the minority Liberals to stay in power. The eventual vote on the throne speech is a confidence motion and they need at least one of the three main opposition parties in the Commons to back their plan.

The NDP had been agitating for action to address the gaps in the existing benefits and EI system, and might also take some comfort in a pledge in the speech to move forward with elements of a national pharmacare plan.

That pitch is part of a broad suite of ideas the Liberals are laying out for the post-pandemic period, through what they’re calling a "resiliency agenda."

"This will include addressing the gaps in our social systems, investing in health care, and creating jobs," the speech said.

"It will also include fighting climate change, and maintaining a commitment to fiscal sustainability and economic growth as the foundation of a strong and vibrant society."

Other parts of that package: national standards for long-term care homes, a new Canadian disability benefit regime, "full and fair compensation" for farmers for recent trade agreements.

But the cornerstone, the Liberals say, will be action to tackle climate change, which will include legislation to get to Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and investments to attract the development of net-zero technology.

The federal Conservatives, who had said before the speech they’d like to see some measure of fiscal restraint included after months of unchecked spending, will see those demands unanswered.

"This is not the time for austerity," the speech says.

"Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder."

The promises come with no firm price tags, nor many specific timelines.

"Taken together, this is an ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality," it says.

"The course of events will determine what needs to be done when. But throughout, protecting and supporting Canadians will stay the top priority."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.

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