We’re living in hard times that are full of so much uncertainty for so many. Covid-19 has turned the lives of millions of Canadians on its head and that’s forced government and society to step up to help. When you think of the scale of the work that has been done so far, it’s been an impressive act by so many. But when you consider the scale of what will still need to be done, we’re just at the beginning of this moment.
Along with the scale of the responses from society and government, we’re seeing a lot of ideas, theories and assumptions made around public policy and approaches to government being put to the test. In this moment, we’re seeing a lot of policy ideas that were once thought impossible or ideologically incompatible for some now become the main tools in the policy toolbox for government response. While this has been had hard time, it’s also been a time when the debate and discussion about what’s possible in government policy is lively and being put to the test in real time. It’s been something that I’ve been following closely and it’s a discussion that’s been refreshing given the general timidity to discuss these things in normal times. It was with that in mind that last night I read a piece from former National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada Jamie Carroll that goes right into this vein, one that really speaks to this moment:
For starters, put the title of the piece aside. Carroll’s piece is really more about the possibilities in this moment, not the problems with one program or another. Or put another way, the “problem” with the implementation of the CERB has been how it’s taken so many tropes, usually put out there by conservatives of some stripes, about the inabilities and general uselessness of government. Before all of this, it was common language for those on the right to talk down government, civil servants and talk about them in ways that would paint them as incompetent, overly bureaucratic, or generally less efficient than anyone in the private sector.
It was into that environment we saw government step in and not just survive, but thrive. We’ve seen the role out of the CERB be a general success, drawing comparisons to the English evacuation of Dunkirk at the start of the Second World War. And that comparison was apt, as it was an “all hands-on deck” response that used everything at their disposal to get the job done. As Carroll points out, this response has blown away the view that government couldn’t do these things. In fact, they’ve proved how possible it is, which opens up new possibilities in this moment, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
Carroll also goes into the phenomenon of the focus of the government response to Covid-19. When governments reacted to the Great Recession of 2008/09, we saw large bailouts of certain industries, purchases of shares in the auto sector and in the US quantitative easing. While those measures were needed, nothing was done for the everyday person at the bottom, especially in the US where people were losing their homes and jobs. This time the response has been flipped more on its head, with the majority of the help so far going to everyday people, with the CERB, wage subsidies and other supports.
The response this time has shown just how different this situation is, but is also a sign of how the line over what are acceptable policy responses has been moved. A great example of that is quantitative easing, which the Bank of Canada never went so far as to use in 2008/09 but when this crisis hit, it was one of the first tools out of the toolbox to respond to Covid-19. So a tool that was seen as too far back then has become one of the first ones to be used this time. Carroll riffs on that, suggesting approaches that should now be on the table to do. It was that piece that sparked my mind to write this, and left me with the following suggestions of what governments should do going forward:
- “Trickle up” possibilities: Carroll suggests that instead of doing big payments to major sectors and buying stock, government could give Canadians direct payments to allow them to buy products from these companies or industries. It’s another way to get the same effect, to help prop up these struggling sectors, and given the moment it fits. He suggests cars as an example, but I would take that a step further. You could give $15,000 to every homeowner in the country to put in solar power systems in their homes, or geothermal heating/cooling systems, or other measures to help make their homes more energy efficient. Basically it means taking the concept of the EcoEnergy program from before, but giving straight cash for it rather than partial cash or tax credits. You could expand this concept to giving money to replace inefficient home appliances, allowing both home owners & renters to lower their energy bill. Heck, that would even help Elizabeth May ditch that old cathode-ray tube TV set we saw that she still has. There is a lot of demand all over in different sectors and it could do a lot to spur economic activity in communities all over the country while helping the government reach it’s environmental targets.
- Expand Wage Subsidies Going Forward: Carroll makes a good suggestion around the government providing financing for start-ups and to bypass the banks, who are less likely back these new ideas and industries because of the risks. I would take that idea a step further and offer those same kinds of companies’ wage subsidies for people who they hire and keep employed. We’ve already seen government take that leap in this moment, so it makes the idea of doing it going forward even more possible (if on a smaller scale). That can help ease these sectors going forward and help them get going
- Settle Ongoing Lawsuits to Empower Indigenous Governments: For as long as I’ve been working in politics, politicians have been speaking about sleep giant that is the economic possibilities of Indigenous communities. The biggest barrier to helping close that gap & helping wake that giant has been (besides the lack of political will) a problem of money. It’s big bucks and that’s scared governments off. In this moment, that’s less of an issue. But with some creative ideas, this could be a moment to help make Indigenous governments a big part of the solution for Indigenous communities and Canada as a whole. For years government has been in court fighting a lawsuit with First Nations in Ontario regarding treaty payments. For those who don’t know, the amount paid to First Nations peoples for the treaties that they signed doesn’t change with inflation and in the case of this suit, hasn’t changed since 1874. It’s always the same amount, usually payable in the form of a small value bill, like a $5 bill. In the meantime, the provinces have gotten lots of money from resource royalties over the decades while paying First Nations precious little and Ontario in this case is appealing. So why not use this case as a chance to help the recovery and settle this issue in Ontario and elsewhere? Canada could offer the money necessary to settle the Ontario lawsuit, with the money going to First Nations governments to allow them to invest in their communities. That could mean more housing & infrastructure construction, buying equity stakes in clean energy projects, anything in that vein. Canada could then take the same approach with all other treaties in the country where this is a problem (which is most of them). They can proactively offer to settle, because this court case is sure to set the precedent that others will follow. Basically bite the bullet and take the money that would have been spent to pay lawyers to fight the cases to come and put it towards the economic recovery of the country. Not only would it be a win-win for the economic side, it would go a long way to help the government “walk the walk” on reconciliation.
- Permanently Expand Canada Summer Jobs: This is an idea I floated a while back, which the federal government started towards by extending the timelines and conditions for the program in the short term. My suggestion would be to simply make it permanent, make it a year-round program and help it become a conduit to get more youth into the workplace. It could incentivize many others who normally wouldn’t or couldn’t use this program access it, while creating some amazing work experiences for youth. It would be a true win-win.
I could go on with ideas, but I think the point of this moment is that the window on this debate has surely moved. Lots of those ideas that I listed above would be totally unthinkable for many not that long ago but today are more than possible. In some cases, they are already being done and it’s just a matter of taking it the next step further. People’s expectations of what government can and should do in this moment are different this time, and it’s bringing about different policy choices. In this moment government has proved what it can do and what’s possible. Now it’s time to see how far those possibilities can be pushed and how we can ensure that this recovery leaves no one behind.