Liberals unveil sweeping plan for current and future challenges in throne speech

Senate
The temporary Senate of Canada Building.

The minority Liberal government has unveiled what it calls an "ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality" that pledges to create over one million jobs and massively expand or introduce benefit programs and support for nearly every sector of society.

The Conservatives immediately responded by saying they would not support the plan and the Bloc Quebecois said it proposes too many intrusions into provincial jurisdiction, likely leaving the fate of the minority Liberal government in the hands of Jagmeet Singh and the New Democrats.

While Wednesday's throne speech signals that the Liberals intend to follow through on promised efforts to combat climate change, economic inequality and systemic racism, they're also acknowledging that not much can be done if the COVID-19 pandemic is not brought under control.

"We must address these challenges of today. But we also cannot forget about the tests of the future," said the text of the speech, read in the Senate by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sitting a few metres away, wearing a mask, one of just a handful of people inside the chamber due to restrictions linked to COVID-19.

Public health officials have increasingly sounded the alarm in recent days that if stricter controls aren't in place or enforced, a full-blown second wave of the pandemic risks taking over the country, which could, if stronger lockdowns are needed, end up drowning the economy. Case counts in some areas are now at highs not seen since the early days of the pandemic.

The Liberals promised Wednesday they'll do what they can to help, including creating a federal "testing assistance response team" to meet surge demand, and targeted support to businesses forced to close due to local public health orders.

With millions of Canadians' lives and livelihoods still teetering after the pandemic's first wave, the Liberals promised to move ahead with a shift from emergency benefits to a more robust employment insurance system to incorporate COVID-19 supports. They've also reversed course on a planned end to the federal wage subsidy program, now saying they'll extend it into next year.

The immediate goals of the government to restart the economy and support Canadians are matched by the need of the minority Liberals to stay in power.

The eventual vote on the throne speech is a confidence motion and they need at least one of the three main opposition parties in the Commons to back their plan.

Trudeau is scheduled to address Canadians in a nationally televised speech later Wednesday, a move designed to underscore the ongoing severity of the pandemic, but one his political rivals have argued is a political stunt and lends credence to the idea of the throne speech as the Liberals' platform for the next election.

Payette's words were still hanging in air Wednesday as the Conservatives immediately ruled out supporting the speech.

Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen said the speech takes an "Ottawa-knows-best" approach rather than listening to what the people actually want.

Ahead of the speech, the NDP had been agitating for the government to step in more and address the gaps in the existing emergency benefits program and EI system, but didn't get their wished-for extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

They may, however, take some comfort in a pledge in the speech to move forward with elements of a national pharmacare plan, which is also one of their policy planks.

That pitch is part of a broad suite of ideas the Liberals are laying out for the post-pandemic period, through what they're calling a "resiliency agenda."

Other parts of that package: national standards for long-term care homes, robust investments in national child care, a new Canadian disability benefit regime and "full and fair compensation" for farmers for recent trade agreements. There are also promises for tougher gun laws, action to address systemic racism in the justice system and elsewhere and a refreshed list of promises to Indigenous Peoples.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, currently in isolation due to COVID-19, said the federal government's ambition strays too far onto provincial turf.

"(The Liberal government has) not listened to the urgent and legitimate demands of Quebec and the provinces, " he said in French on social media.

The cornerstone of the plan for the future, the Liberals say, will be action to tackle climate change, which will include legislation to get to Canada's goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and investments to attract the development of net-zero technology.

The federal Conservatives, who had said before the speech they'd like to see some measure of fiscal restraint included after months of unchecked spending, also saw those demands unmet.

"This is not the time for austerity," the speech says.

"Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder."

The Liberals do hint, however, that the taps won't run forever, promising they will be guided by "values of sustainability and prudence." They say they will provide a fiscal update in the fall.

They are also promising some new sources of revenue, including looking for ways to tax "extreme wealth inequality," and addressing digital giants perceived not to be paying their fair share of taxes.

The promises come with no firm price tags, nor many specific timelines.

"Taken together, this is an ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality," it says.

"The course of events will determine what needs to be done when. But throughout, protecting and supporting Canadians will stay the top priority."