Cabinet weighing housing plan and EI reform as government prepares fall agenda

September 11, 2020
Sunday Scrum: Liberal government's pandemic spending plans

The federal cabinet will meet for several days next week to finalize a throne speech and a fall agenda that’s likely to include significant investments in housing and a long-term overhaul of the employment insurance system, senior government sources tell CBC News.

The government also will use its speech from the throne on Sept. 23 to signal its intention to make child care more widely available and to launch a green recovery plan.

But while there have been indications lately that the government would use the speech to launch an aggressive environmental agenda, sources say the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across the country means the immediate focus will remain on the public health crisis and the economic challenges it has created.

“We are still living in an emergency,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Toronto on Wednesday. “The last thing that anyone wants is to have to once again shut down our economies and suspend our lives to try and counter a massive second wave.”

That doesn’t mean the green agenda will be absent from the throne speech. Cabinet is expected to deal with several environmental proposals when it meets next week for a two-day retreat followed by a formal cabinet meeting, and there will be a green component to many of the economic stimulus measures that will be rolled out in the coming months.

Bad timing for a ‘green’ agenda?

But two senior Liberal sources expressed concern about being perceived by the public as focusing too heavily on a green agenda while parents are worried about sending their kids back to school and business owners are trying to hold on to what they have.

“There’s a sensitivity to being perceived to hijack the moment for a green recovery,” said one senior Liberal source.

So the government’s immediate priorities, say sources, will be measures to limit the resurgence of the coronavirus and to ensure Canadian workers and companies have the financial supports they need to survive the pandemic.

A key part of that will be continuing the income replacement programs and wage subsidies that have helped to support the gradual reopening of the economy — while also signalling the need for a long-term overhaul of the employment insurance system.

Changes are coming to EI

The dated EI computer system was able to pump out Canada Emergency Response Benefit cheques to millions of Canadians — but the EI program itself proved to be unable to support the gig economy workers and self-employed Canadians who lost all or part of their income during the pandemic.

“Forty per cent of people who went on the CERB would not qualify for EI. That’s something the federal government needs to fix,” said a senior federal official speaking on background.

Multiple sources say the federal government also will signal a plan to invest in low-income housing to deal with a homelessness problem that became much more conspicuous during the lockdowns.

“We know that there is a sore need for it,” said the senior official. “The homeless are much more visible because nobody else is on the street.”

A homeless camp under an overpass in Calgary on May 20, 2020. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Federal officials also say they expect the housing plan will create construction and renovation jobs as new houses are built and existing ones are retrofitted to be more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

The speech also will commit to spending on long-term care to address the failures that led to the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in Canada, and promise new money for child care to help parents — especially women — go back to work.

Sources say the speech will also attempt to brace people for the long haul by reminding them that this country is still a long way from returning to its pre-pandemic state.

“Where we are is in a place that isn’t going to get better much sooner,” said the senior government official. “The global context is not going to change between today and next spring and next fall.”

While bracing people for the immediate future, the throne speech also will — in broad strokes only — outline Trudeau’s longer-term plans for the economy. Trudeau has spoken repeatedly about his desire to “build back better” after the pandemic passes.

Sources say the specifics of that project will be fleshed out during the fall, with more details likely coming in a fiscal update in either November or December.

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