Refresh of Liberal Government’s Agenda Comes Amid Surge in COVID-19 Cases

September 23, 2020 Updated: September 23, 2020

OTTAWA—How the Liberal government intends to ride the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will become clear today as it lays out a three-pronged approach in a hotly-anticipated speech from the throne certain to set the tone for the coming months in Parliament.

In what’s expected to be an address lasting as long as an hour, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will detail the government’s plans in three areas: dealing with the current surge in cases, continuing and changing support for Canadians and businesses still not back on their feet, and what will come once the economy is better able to stand on its own.

With national case counts rising, public federal health officials have said that if further public health and personal action isn’t taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the lockdowns which paralyzed the country for much of the first half of 2020 may be back on the table.

Those lockdowns saw federal spending soar to historic levels in an effort to offset the pandemic’s crushing blow to Canadians’ lives and livelihoods.

Billions of dollars were pushed out the door to help cover salaries, rents, the purchase of life-saving equipment and other targeted supports.

It all came just months after the Liberals had won a minority government and forced them to rip up much of the policy playbook they’d put before Canadians during the election.

That was the justification Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used in August when he requested that Parliament be prorogued to allow for a reset of priorities.

Just ahead of that decision, his government had announced a new aid package creating new benefits, including paid sick leave, and expanded employment insurance as part of the phase out of an emergency benefit put into place in the early days of the pandemic. The measures require legislation that will be put before Parliament in the coming days.

But the throne speech is expected to signal more tweaks are coming to EI, and make substantial commitments in other areas, including child care. For post-pandemic growth, the Liberals will detail plans that connect economic recovery to projects that equally combat climate change.

Trudeau will reinforce those plans in a nationally-televised address scheduled for tonight, as he also urges Canadians to be resolute in their efforts to combat the pandemic.

Though in the early days of the crisis he’d addressed Canadians daily from outside his home, a pivot to an evening televised speech was made to underscore the threat Canadians currently face of a coming wave.

The waning days of summer have seen a surge in cases no longer linked to vulnerable populations like those in long-term care homes as they were in the spring.

Instead, it is younger Canadians beginning to congregate in ever larger numbers, something that chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned Tuesday must come to a quick stop.

Those cases have reached into the halls of power as well; after political staffers succumbed to infection, the leaders of both the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois, and their spouses, were infected and they are now in isolation.

Their parties will be given time to respond to Trudeau’s televised address, but Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and the BQ’s Yves-Francois Blanchet will both be absent from Parliament Hill today for the throne speech.

Both are hoping to deliver their official replies on Sept. 29, when they’re both out of quarantine.

That arrangement is one of few details known so far about how the House of Commons may actually function in the days ahead, with negotiations ongoing around issues such as how a hybrid Parliament—some MPs attending in person, and some remotely—can allow votes to be cast in a transparent and accountable way.

Given the Liberals only have a minority government, those votes could mean the difference between their survival and an election; the vote on the speech from the throne itself is a confidence motion.

With the ongoing escalation of cases, a snap election is unlikely, though whatever the Liberals do put forward is sure to be a large part of a campaign platform when that election arrives.

Each of the opposition parties have already laid down some markers ahead of the speech that will determine their support.

The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has already said he wants to see the promised legislation on EI changes, but is concerned too many people will still fall through the gaps, while Blanchet is looking for more money on health care for the provinces.

O’Toole _ who has been Conservative leader for just a month _ has signalled he wants to see concrete action to address the concerns of the West, and expanded support for businesses.

Candice Bergen, the Conservative deputy leader, said today the party will be looking for measures to help Canadians who have been left behind, such as single mothers, fishers and oil workers.

Conservatives lack confidence in the government’s ability to manage finances and bring spending under control, she told a news conference.

“We believe that support is needed, but there has to be fiscal restraint.”

Conservatives do not necessarily believe it’s in the best interest of Canadians to have an election right away, Bergen said.

“But if the speech from the throne is a bad speech from the throne, if it’s bad for Canadians, if it’s bad for those individuals that we are thinking about, we will not be supporting it.”

The Green party’s Elizabeth May wants a strong commitment to action on climate change to help avoid catastrophe.

“There’s a point in our very near future where nothing humanity does will be able to make a difference. What we can do now makes the difference,” she said today.

“We need to act on COVID-19 with resolve. We also need to act on the climate crisis with resolve.”

The pandemic will also make itself felt in a marked downscaling of the pageantry that normally accompanies a throne speech.

Among other things, no special guests or spectators will be allowed into the Senate chamber, and the number of MPs attending is also being sharply curtailed.

By Stephanie Levitz