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JIM VIBERT: Expect a hard winter followed by Liberal promises

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. - File

Canadians will have to hunker down for a particularly hard winter, but the spring that inevitably follows is full of promise – or more to the point, full of Liberal promises.

The seasonal metaphors that punctuated federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s fall economic update Monday, lent it a familiar Canadian ring, and the big promises she deferred to the post-pandemic recovery made it a quintessentially-Liberal political document.

Conservative and opposition leader Erin O’Toole, to no one’s surprise, panned the government’s effort, primarily, he said, because there’s no plan to get Canada back to “normal.”

But that is the plan – to get to the end of the pandemic intact, or mostly intact, and then supercharge the recovery so the Canadian economy comes out the other end “greener, more inclusive, more innovative, and more competitive … with a stronger, more resilient middle class,” Freeland said.

That’s nice work. She hit no fewer than five key Liberal themes in a single 21-word flurry, without a single specific that anyone can hold her to.

The times couldn’t be more uncertain and abnormal, but Canadian Parliamentarians gathered, either in person or connected to the House of Commons virtually, to hear the minority Liberal government’s prescription to help Canadians through the difficult winter ahead, and its hope for the nation once the curse of COVID recedes and, eventually, disappears.

The Conservatives took out the shotgun and tried to blow holes in just about every jot and tittle of the minister’s statement, but they took careful aim at the uncertainty around the arrival of vaccines.

“Without a plan for vaccines, there can be no plan for the economy,” O’Toole said, more than once.

The New Democrats got out a little far over their skis, at least initially, when they somehow detected austerity in government spending that will ring up the largest single-year deficit – likely to top $400 billion when all the bills are in – ever.

The party’s leader, Jagmeet Singh, later reeled the rhetoric back in and focused on the revenue side of the ledger, criticizing the government for not going after the wealthiest Canadians, those who are profiting from the pandemic, and particularly the digital giants that sell almost everything but pay virtually no taxes in Canada.

Wherever you line up on the merits or misses in the economic update, we should recognize that while COVID case counts climb to alarming levels across much of the country, Canadian parliamentary democracy continues to function quite admirably.

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland hit no fewer than five key Liberal themes in a single 21-word flurry, without a single specific that anyone can hold her to.

The federal government took its program to Parliament where it was, and will continue to be, scrutinized and the government will be held accountable. That is as it should be.

In case it’s unclear, that’s a lesson for Nova Scotia’s Liberal government, which met the legislature for all of 13 short days in 2020, none since the crisis hit, and is accountable when, where and how it decides to be. Nova Scotia’s democracy, unlike the nation’s, functioned not at all throughout the crisis.

The economic update itself was, in large measure, focused on the task at hand, namely getting to the other side of the COVID crisis.

There was money for health supplies, long term care and to better ventilate public buildings. Supports for business, like the emergency wage subsidy, were enhanced and extended and a federally backed credit program for the hardest hit sectors – tourism, hospitality, arts and culture, the airlines – was introduced.

Other measures – like retrofitting homes for energy efficiency and planting two billion trees – were intended to offer a glimpse into the Liberals' plans for upwards of $100 billion, post-pandemic, to reboot a decimated economy.

While those recovery plans are far from fully formed, we are assured they will be green, feminist and socially just.

The biggest single promise – a national early learning and childcare system – gets a whole new bureaucracy to work with provinces and territories to figure out how exactly such a program would work.

Without a hint of contrition, the Liberals noted that 2020 marks 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women called for a national childcare system. Liberals have governed for about 31 of those 50 years, all the while talking about national childcare.

This time, Freeland says, they’re serious. Time will tell.

Journalist and writer Jim Vibert has worked as a communications advisor to five Nova Scotia governments.

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