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Kelly McParland: Another UN gabfest, another chance for the PM to add to Canada's debt

It hasn’t had a lot of attention — Canadian media can no longer afford full-time offices in out-of-the-way locations like New York — but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been working on a big United Nations initiative of the sort close to his heart.

In addition to addressing last week’s annual gathering of the General Assembly , which got a lot less attention this year because COVID-19 kept any of the usual crowd of presidents, prime ministers, dictators and other potentates from showing up in person, Trudeau is co-sponsor of an international effort to help developing countries handle the massive costs of the pandemic.

In the usual UN way, the name is a mouthful: the High-Level Meeting of Heads of State and Government on Financing and Development in the Era of COVID-19. Canada is co-convenor along with Jamaica. A round-robin virtual session was held last Tuesday, which Trudeau opened with his usual grab-bag of earnest encouragement and empty slogans, calling for “bold measures” to “build back better,” because “to eliminate this virus anywhere, we need to eliminate it everywhere.”

Trudeau opened with his usual grab-bag of earnest encouragement and empty slogans

What followed was five hours of elected leaders, diplomats, senior officials, UN representatives and generally bright people tuning in from across the globe to deliver speeches about the catastrophe COVID represents for low-income countries that were already struggling to get by, and how something’s got to be done. There was no sign of Donald Trump or any high-level White House people, but viewers were treated to Nicolás Maduro, who Ottawa refuses to recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate president, moaning about the sanctions, blockades and “coercive measures” imposed on the country and demanding better treatment for corrupt dictatorships like his.

The High-Level Meeting followed an earlier get-together of finance ministers, including Canada’s Chrystia Freeland, tasked with thinking up bright ideas for the latter gathering to consider. There was no shortage — a full 250 policy options , by Ottawa’s count. Most, unfortunately, seemed to involve a small group of still-relatively-solvent countries sending more money to those-teetering-on-the-edge.

There’s no question they need it. The ministers’ meeting made clear just how much deeper into desperation many struggling countries have fallen. Ghana figured it could lose US$1 billion through “illicit financial flows” (COVID has been a field day for global scammers), more than its entire health budget. As a whole, African countries figure they’ll need US$100 billion a year in assistance just to begin recovery. Countries that rely heavily on tourism are “on their knees” according to one International Monetary Fund official. One leader after another urged extension of an April deal enabling poor countries to temporarily quit paying the costs of their crippling debts. Senegal’s leader said an extension wouldn’t be enough for some countries, which will need nothing less than full cancellation.

In their official report, the finance ministers stressed the destructive effect of runaway borrowing. “Global debt has soared to unprecedented heights, reaching US$258 trillion or 331 per cent of the global GDP in the first quarter of 2020,” they attested. Public debt — the kind Ottawa has been racking up at historic levels since March — should hit 101 per cent this year, meaning the world now owes more than it can produce. Lenders, in effect, own the planet, should they ever decide to foreclose.

If you’re like me, you may find all of this a bit baffling. Canada takes the initiative of organizing a gabfest in which dozens of countries, sinking under the weight of past borrowings, beg for help, while international financial authorities expound on how destructive debt costs can be to such essential programs as health, education, housing and even food supplies. Yet at the same time the prime minister is proclaiming his heartfelt concern, he’s also busy pushing Canada’s own debt and deficit levels to new heights, extending multibillion-dollar income subsidies well into next year while seeking an extension of emergency powers enabling cabinet to approve additional spending without the bother of asking approval from Parliament.

Sure the borrowing levels are big, Liberals say, but it’s all OK because Canada can keep on making the payments as long as interest rates remain low and nothing unforeseen — like another pandemic or a global debt crash — comes along to upset Ottawa’s careful calculations.

So certain is the prime minister that Canada can stay on top of its bills that Ottawa is committing US$440 million to help ensure global access to vaccines. In addition, he said, Canada will kick in US$400 million to “trusted partners on the ground” in fighting the virus.

Trudeau apparently couldn’t stick around for the full five hours of the talkathon, so it was wrapped up by newly-appointed UN ambassador Bob Rae, who noted that “treasury departments in much of the developed world have in fact thrown away the rule book” in fighting the pandemic. I’m not sure if that was meant to be reassuring, but if so it didn’t work for me. The deeper in hock Ottawa plunges the country, with no apparent plan for the eventual need to finance the costs, and a prime minister still enthusiastically shovelling out the dough, the more I wonder how long until we join the dozens of countries crippled by debt and seeking help from more responsible people.

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