Trudeau dangles national childcare system in throne speech with few hints of fiscal restraint

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a national childcare and early education system as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter gender equality gains by forcing Canadian women out of the workforce.

But just how such an unprecedented national system could work is unclear and there were few concrete signs in the throne speech presented Wednesday of how the Liberals plan to rein in the massive federal deficit incurred with pandemic emergency spending.

The throne speech outlines sweeping plans to tackle things like climate targets, systemic racism, and the deep blow the pandemic has delivered to Canadians in vulnerable jobs and communities across the country.

It comes as cases spike in many regions including Ontario and Quebec, and as frustrations grow with long wait times for testing and with a lack of reliable at-home or rapid test options.

There were few specifics, though, on plans to address those daily realities, though the speech laid out promises that the federal government will help provinces ramp up testing capability and move as quickly as possible to get new testing methods approved and available.

Coronavirus cases are spiking across the country and just Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned Canadians the country stands at a “crossroads.”

That message was echoed in the speech prepared by the government and read out in a nearly empty Senate on Wednesday afternoon by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

The speech drew frequent parallels to both the tenor of Liberal campaign promises last fall as well as to the wartime-era tone invoked by Trudeau in the early days of the pandemic.

“This is our generation’s crossroads,” the speech said.

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“Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind? Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed? This is the time to remember who we are as Canadians.”

The speech outlined what the government described as four “foundations” for the approach moving forward.

The foundations are the need to fight the pandemic, the need to support people and businesses through the crisis, the need to “build back better” and the need to “stand up for who we are as Canadians.”

Each foundation include a range of promised action points but one of the biggest pledges made early on deals with the need to concretely tackle the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on women – and in particular, mothers.

“Women – and in particular low-income women – have been hit hardest by COVID-19. This crisis has been described as a She-cession,” the speech said.

“We must not let the legacy of the pandemic be one of rolling back the clock on women’s participation in the workforce, nor one of backtracking on the social and political gains women and allies have fought so hard to secure.”

The government is pledging to create a national action plan for getting women back into the workforce, to be guided by a task force of diverse experts.

It also acknowledged the work done 50 years ago by a royal commission that highlighted the need for national childcare to ensure women can participate equally in the workforce.

“Recognizing the urgency of this challenge, the Government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system,” the speech says, citing the existing model in place in Quebec.

“There is broad consensus from all parts of society, including business and labour leaders, that the time is now.”

Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month amid the WE Charity scandal and in the weeks since, touted the need for an “ambitious” new vision for the way forward.

But that has come amid a projection that the federal deficit will hit $343 billion this fiscal year and as credit ratings agencies like Fitch Ratings warn that they view the lack of a plan to rein in spending as a major red flag.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux also warned that level of deficit will be “unsustainable” if not rolled back within one to two years.

The government has offered few hints though about crafting a strategy to lower the deficit, with Trudeau repeatedly citing low interest rates in defence of spending.

The throne speech offers little in the way of a plan for reducing spending.

“This is not the time for austerity,” the speech said. 

“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 throne speech also includes promises to extend the wage subsidy until the summer of 2021, expand access to rural internet and virtual healthcare, new disability income supports, and pass legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People by the end of the year.

There are also pledges to “tax extreme wealth inequality.”

The examples provided include finishing work to limit stock option deductions.

The government also reiterated a pledge to tackle corporate tax avoidance by web giants and vowed to force web giants to share revenue with content and media creators, and require them to invest more in domestic cultural content.

Recent work by Australia towards making web giants share revenue they make from circulating news content on their platforms prompted Facebook to threaten to ban Australian users from sharing news at all. That threat comes as the company continues to face criticism that it is not doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation on its platforms.

More to come.

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