The Liberal government is ready to table a fall economic statement that attempts to balance the current needs of the COVID-19 response with plans for Canada’s post-pandemic economy and social-safety net.
On Monday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will present her first fiscal and economic update since replacing Bill Morneau after the latter’s resignation in August.
The statement will provide detailed fiscal projections for the years ahead, something the Liberals haven’t done since the pandemic began in the spring.
The Liberals will also present new measures to fight COVID-19, and lay the groundwork for longer-term and higher-cost priorities, such as national affordable child care, pharmacare, and fighting climate change — measures that interest labour, but concern business groups.
“I expect the government to be clear … that they remain committed to the priorities identified in the throne speech, and ensure that those things are going to be delivered on,” Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told iPolitics.
The throne speech included a long list of promises to green the economy and strengthen the country’s social safety net — efforts Yussuff says are vital, if Canada is to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
The fiscal update coincides with a second wave of COVID cases, which have prompted new public-health restrictions that have shuttered businesses and rattled the confidence of consumers entering the holiday season.
Levels of consumer confidence for November are now at their lowest since May, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s index.
Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said COVID will still be around for the foreseeable future, so Canada must have a plan to manage, rather than merely react to, the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, up until now, the focus of governments has been: ‘Shut down and write a cheque,’ ” he told iPolitics.
Beatty said governments need to craft a more coherent strategy that better uses data and science to bring down infection rates, and allows Canadians to safely resume their lives soon as possible, while also ensuring resources get to the most vulnerable communities and economic sectors.
He said it’s wrong to think of a vaccine as a “silver bullet,” because it might not entirely eliminate the threat of COVID, and its distribution will take considerable time. The fiscal update should focus on current concerns, he said.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there are “very good chances” most Canadians will be vaccinated by September 2021.
He added that the fiscal update will include more support for Canadians during the pandemic, as well as plans to rebuild a “strong, resilient economy for everyone.”
Kevin Page said he expects the Liberals to punt some of their longer-term priorities to the next budget, while still presenting a comprehensive document.
“I think it will be more than a typical update; something probably looking like a mini-budget,” said Page, a former parliamentary budget officer and head of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy.
The update should focus first on getting Canadians through the current crisis, said Elliot Hughes, a former policy adviser of Morneau’s.
“There’s going to be lots of time to sketch out those bigger things down the road,” he said. “What people want to know now is that the government’s got their backs.”
Hughes, now a senior advisor at Summa Strategies, cautioned that the government needs to keep its messaging “clean and straightforward,” but should be ready to answer questions about what to expect in the near future, as well in the recovery phase.
“It’s a tricky balance, but it’s one that you need to strike,” he said.
The statement will also update the deficit, which is expected to be Canada’s largest since the Second World War. It’s also expected to be without a fiscal anchor to manage debt levels, though Freeland has previously said there’s no “blank cheque” for spending.
A report released by RBC on Friday forecasts the annual deficit to approach $370 billion, higher than the $343 billion projected in July. The report says spending announcements will add at least $90 billion to the 2021-22 deficit, and extensions to the wage subsidy and recovery benefit could add even more.
Yussuff, who hopes the fall update will include money for infrastructure, child care and employment insurance, said now is not the time for fiscal restraint: Spending will both prevent an economic disaster and support women and people of colour, who’ve been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, he said.
“They’re going to need to be supported if we’re going to get to a full recovery.”
Beatty, who has supported Ottawa’s emergency spending thus far, said there should be a short-term child-care program to get mothers back into the workforce. But such spending must be targeted, and this is not the time for costly programs such as universal pharmacare, he said.
“Don’t get into programs that we can’t afford: permanent recurring programs that are simply going to build in a structural deficit.”
At what exact point Canada’s debt becomes a serious concern is being fiercely debated, Page said, but bond agencies might lower their credit ratings if Ottawa doesn’t re-introduce a fiscal anchor in the near future and the debt significantly increases.