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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 23, 2020
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Justin Trudeau’s pandemic recovery plan is to build back better. It’s a slogan the prime minister lifted from Joe Biden , the U.S. presidential candidate. He included it in the throne speech and used it twice in his post-speech political broadcast. He could as easily have tried a variation on the catchphrase of that other U.S. candidate: Make Trudeau Great Again.
Everything about Wednesday’s day-long Liberal revivalist strategy resonated of Plan B. We know it’s not what Trudeau had in mind when he prorogued Parliament. That move (which explicitly violated a Liberal election pledge ) had two goals in mind: get the WE debacle out of the headlines, and offer time for a skidding party to halt the slide and organize a relaunch.
We even know their launch plan: take Stéphane Dion’s ill-fated 2008 Green Shift project , bulk it up it up with pledges of unlimited borrowing and sell it as the strategy for the future. An entire economy build around environmental fervour. Trudeau would make a far better pitchman than Dion ever was, and everyone already agreed on the principle, right? Chrystia Freeland, the brave new finance minister, said as much: “I think all Canadians understand that the restart of our economy needs to be green,” she asserted, though without indicating what gave her that idea.
Sunny ways didn’t happen
Then something happened, as it so often does with this government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals aren’t built as an efficient management machine constructed to deal with events as they occur. It’s an idealism factory: it projects a castle in the clouds and then sets off in search of the staircase. It’s seldom found. Sunny ways didn’t happen. Indigenous reconciliation failed to launch. The world neglected to reconfigure after learning that Canada was back. Being nice to China didn’t achieve a thing.
In this instance, the future once again refused to unfold as the Prime Minister’s Office wished it would. The pandemic didn’t fade; instead it started a comeback. Canadians showed no signs of rallying to the prime minister’s glorious vision of a country built on green aspirations. Not everyone was convinced Ottawa could borrow forever, at astronomical new levels, and never feel the pain.
Finance has always been a Trudeau weak spot. Pierre Trudeau set off a deficit binge that ended in a debt crisis. His son is intent on reviving the binge. “Low interest rates mean we can afford it,” he insisted. “And in fact, doing less would end up costing far more.” Ordinary Canadians, he added, should be careful to keep their finances in order — don’t try this at home, kids! — but it’s OK for the government to bet the farm. “I don’t want you or your parent or your friend to take on debt that your government can better shoulder.”
The spending plan was a big part of the intended festivities for Wednesday, but that’s when events intervened. Freeland, we’re told, was consulting widely , and the message doesn’t appear to have been hopeful. Freeland’s predecessor, Bill Morneau, had to be fired because he wouldn’t go along. Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge observed that when politicians say “the government has your back” — a phrase Trudeau used again Wednesday — “that’s absolute bull—t. It means future generations have the back of the people being hurt now.” The C.D. Howe Institute reported that ambitious new spending couldn’t happen without tax increases. We don’t know what Freeland heard from former prime minister Paul Martin, who dealt with the last debt crisis, but apparently it didn’t include “Go for it, Chrystia!”
With so little enthusiasm or obvious political gain, Plan A had to be dumped. Since the room had already been booked for the throne speech, they cobbled together Plan B : try to reboot the popularity Trudeau enjoyed during the early months of the pandemic. People like it when the government sends them money, and Trudeau spent weeks handing out billions by the fistful. If it worked then, maybe it would work now, and the prime minister gave it the old college try. Extended support for workers and businesses, money for childcare, elder care, pharmacare. Money for electric cars, zero-emissions products, an “Action Plan for Women in the Economy” to be “guided by a task force of experts whose diverse voices will power a whole-of-government approach.” And so much more. If a lot of it sounded familiar, it should: the Liberals have been pledging daycare rescues since 1993 . If electric car subsidies worked, we’d already all own Teslas.
Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, stated the obvious: “These aren’t new problems. A lot of them existed before the pandemic. And Justin Trudeau has been in power before with a majority government and hasn’t made these things better.” But the Liberals don’t have much else to offer at this point beyond a reboot of their leader. The question is how many glorious rebirths does Trudeau have in him, and how many will Canada have when he’s done with it?
• Twitter: KellyMcParland
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020