Parliament returns with the theatre of building back better

Sep 30, 2020

CALGARY—It’s Fall 2020 and we still have a government. That’s nice. It’s the best one can hope for in the midst of a global pandemic, economic disintegration, and a society that is held together, not by a common purpose, but the tenuous glue of predictable racial fragmentation. A lot of people are telling on themselves and frankly many of our politicians would rather see human suffering than a loss of lifestyle. In Canada, property over people has been the rallying cry of the “law and order” crowd, unless the law calls for justice for those without power.

COVID-19 has laid bare the mendacity of a value on which Canada prides itself: fairness.

It was within this context that the Speech from the Throne was presented by a Governor General who, ironically (or unironically, depending on your point of view), has been accused of abusing her staff, allegations she denies, and who—given her place in the political pecking order—cannot effectively be fired. The PM would have to go to Mother England to ask permission to do so, another ironic (or unironic) example of Canadian “sovereignty.” Class is not only economic, and power is what Canadian traditions and processes are designed to protect. It’s too bad our realization of this fact required a global pandemic. Canada is also a country of ignorance born of fragility.

The promise is to build back better. Too bad the country can’t build back before excising the immediate threat, which is the constraint to any rebound. And the Liberals know that. Before many of the pronouncements in the Throne Speech become realized, COVID-19 infections would need to cease, which won’t happen without a vaccine. By the time it rolls out, the government will look like it’s managed to keep its hand on the tiller and steady the ship. Let’s be honest: no one wants to change a government in the middle of a war or a pandemic. Even I would be angry to go to the polls in the middle of the second wave (shoutout to John Horgan).

Those nice words are devoid of details for a reason: firstly, the Speech from the Throne is not supposed to provide details, but give an overall direction for this government. More details are revealed by ministers’ mandate letters, from which policy proposals and the budget are developed. The fact that there is no budget for the foreseeable future is concerning, given current fiscal balances and projected deficits. The budget is a political document that also provides a level of accountability, to be produced with a complementary economic and fiscal update in the fall. Since the re-election of the Trudeau government last year, we haven’t had either.

Secondly, why give details when marketing will suffice? Political pundits may hand-wring, but the average Canadian cares more about their immediate needs—their jobs, their rent/mortgage, their kids—in relation to this virus, than they care about debt and deficits. They care about climate change and food security. They know that Canada is more unfair, the browner your skin and the more Indigenous your identity. They know that the police have trigger fingers. They know that the real welfare queens are the wealthy who suck the teat of the state by hoovering up our tax dollars and giving nothing to workers. Deficit hawks be damned, the centre is tracking leftward and Trudeau knows that, even if the Conservatives are ignoring it at their peril.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is feeling the effects of this shift as demonstrated by his dismal polling results. His newly minted United Conservative Party has suffered an ignominious decline to the point of equality with Alberta’s NDP opposition. Ouch. Even Ontario Premier Doug Ford knows that cutting provincial funds to public services during a pandemic is bad for politics, but what has been shown globally is the more right the government, the worse they are at operations and responding to people’s pain through policy. Those who peddle misery by ignoring human rights and, well, humanity may be punished politically the longer this pandemic ravages the populace. Perhaps that reality check will cause Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to take this pandemic seriously and provide PPE at his events, which have thus far been connected to 15 infected people.

What will be interesting to witness is how the parties react and position themselves with respect to Trudeau’s line in the sand: “This is not the time for austerity.” And succeeding polls keep proving him right.

Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.