Full response to the federal Economic Snapshot

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2020-07-08 16:16 [p.2574]

Madam Chair, I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the territory of the Algonquin nation and once again express deep appreciation for their patience and generosity. Meegwetch.

Today, we look at the first ever economic snapshot tabled in the history of Canada by a minister of finance. We used to see full budgets and then have economic statements. However, I am not going to find fault with the fact that we have a snapshot at the moment because it is hard to know what else we could have. More economic information is always helpful. More transparency is always helpful, and it is clear that the Minister of Finance has made himself available to all parties in this place on a very frequent basis as we chart uncharted waters.

Nothing has been perfect. Everything would have been better if delivered faster, but no one has ever gone through anything like this; no other government, no other generation has. I supposed we could look at Black Death, but we did not have access to Zoom meetings then and we did not have the ability to chart our course at all. Therefore, I would say that on balance we have been doing as well as, or in many cases better than, any government or any country around the world. That is saying something, but it is clearly a dismal economic forecast.
We now have over a trillion dollars in debt and we have a deficit this year of $343 billion. It is not going to be easy to get out of this crisis, but it is very clear that our economic health is intrinsically tied to our personal health.

As is stated in the report, “the recovery path is uncertain and fundamentally linked to the equally uncertain health outcomes.” It is now clear that we are living in a pandemic.

These are not normal times. This is not normal spending. Nothing about this is normal, but it is not disastrous. We have a path out of the economic disaster that is completely dependent on our path out of the health nightmare in which we find ourselves.

It has never been clearer that the economy is taking a back seat to nature. Nature is the boss now.

We are living in a time that reminds humanity, if we needed reminding, that we are not in charge. We can have the best economic plans, we can have the best fiscal plans, we can have, as we had before this pandemic, the best debt-to-GDP ratio in the G7. We had full employment; we now have significant unemployment.

None of this was foreseeable. A microscopic virus, a parasite, has attacked humanity. It leaves the animals alone, for once. It is focused on humanity. We spread it through our travel, we spread it through our communities. We have learned all these new phrases, and we have had to flatten the curve.

The spending, for the most part, that we find described in this document was spending agreed to by unanimous consent, which speaks so well of us as parliamentarians. We rolled out extraordinary measure. We know know their names, including the CERB, which we are used to now, our COVID emergency relief benefit, to millions of Canadians.

We rolled out help to businesses in the CEBA. We rolled out help in the wage subsidy. These things have prevented our economy from being worse off than it now is, holding the drop in GDP to probably about three percentage points less of a drop than it would have been. That is what the economic snapshot tells us. Our economy is doing better and our health is doing better, because our health and the economy are completely linked.

I want to make the other point, of course, that our economy is also not in charge of the climate emergency. We as human beings can no more rewrite the genetic code of the COVID-19 virus than we can rewrite atmospheric chemistry. We cannot rewrite the rules of physics that mean that the climate emergency is a larger threat to our long-term survival than COVID-19.

We can revisit and potentially rewrite some of our economic rules, because we made those up. Humanity invented those and we can revisit them. We could certainly, for instance, consider that now might be a good time for this. When we talk about unprecedented threats and unprecedented economic downturn, frequent reference has been made, including by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to the fact that the comparisons of where we are now are not against where we were in 2008-09, but more reasonably the end of the Second World War and during the Second World War. Our spending matches more of what we saw then, and our recovery will also match more of what we saw then.

I mentioned in the House a few months ago, and I will mention it again, that Canada should step up in a lead role globally, or at least be a catalyst, and ask whether it is time to have something akin to the Bretton Woods Conference again. Do we not need to rethink the role of the World Bank? The Bretton Woods institutions were created then to help chart the global economy to recovery post-war. The International Monetary Fund used to set fixed currency rates. Since the Bretton Woods Conference, the IMF has been relieved of fixing currency rates. We rewrote those rules. Maybe we need to rewrite some other rules.

We are looking at a threat to life globally in a post- pandemic famine, a threat to hundreds of millions of people around the world. I know it is conventional wisdom for Canadians to say that we cannot ask people, when they are suffering in Canada, to think about the poorest of the poor, but we have to. We will emerge from this economic crisis and the COVID-19 crisis better off than almost any other country on earth. If hundreds of millions of people are dying from lack of food all around the world, that will not fail to reach our shores somehow, but we also have a role to play. We need to talk about forgiving all developing country debt from all around the world so the countries that are the poorest of the poor have a fighting chance, with additional help for food security to avoid the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, which are now predicted by United Nations relief and food agencies.

We also need to rethink the fairness within Canada. This document makes it very clear that Finance Canada understands the need for child care as I have never seen any Finance Canada document understand the need for child care. It is clear that people who are looking at our economic health and recovery understand that parents cannot go back to work if schools are closed, or if schools are not safe, or if day cares are not open, or if they do not have a day care space.

It happens that there are a number of women MPs in the House at the moment, and men who understand it too. Mothers are the ones who are more likely to be staying home. This is a demographic threat, an economic threat the likes of which we have not seen since the 1960s, the idea that if things are bad and there is no child care, women will stay home. We know this is an economic blow we cannot risk, and we know this is a step back in women’s rights that we will not accept. We need child care for every child, and we need to be really creative about how we get there.

This document points to what is called a “safe restart agreement”, which is $14 billion not yet allocated, not yet spent by the federal government to assist provinces. However, $14 billion will not cover the seven items on this list, such as child care, sick leave, health care capacity and specifically looking at long-term care homes.

I was recently talking to Sharleen Stewart, who is the head of a union that represents 60,000 workers, including long-term care workers across Canada. She told me that most of those workers are not yet back at work, because they do not think the long-term care homes are a safe place for them to work.

As long as long-term care homes are in the hands of for-profit enterprises, we cannot be sure that our seniors are going to be well cared for, nor that the workers who go in to take care of them, the front-line workers, are safe. That is not to mention what kind of food people are served when long-term care homes decide to cut corners every which way to make a profit.

We need to take a look at this federally. We need to figure out how to apply the Canada Health Act to create national standards for long-term care homes. There is not even enough money in this $14 billion for what the municipalities need by themselves, and they are one item out of seven on the list. We need to do more. We need to be prepared to spend more.

With that, I am going to now focus on a point made earlier by my colleague from New Westminster—Burnaby. Although money for people with disabilities is mentioned in here as though it is spent, we still have not done a single thing for them. The document we have in front of us was written as though the events on June 10 in this place had gone differently.

On June 10 in this place, the government agreed to split something out of its bill, a bill that was not acceptable because it involved clawbacks and criminal penalties related to the CERB, which was the main thing I found objectionable. It split out the one-time, tax-free payment for Canadians with a valid disability tax credit. To do that, we needed to make a legislative change in this place so that information could be shared from the CRA to allow the one-time benefit to go to people receiving the disability tax credit. Bear in mind that this is not the full range of people living with disabilities in Canada who need help, but at least it was a step.

I wanted to take that step, and when we asked for unanimous consent we did not get it. Shame on those who said no. We had that one step to take. The Liberal House leader put it before us for unanimous consent, and it should have gone through. We have to figure out how to get help to people with disabilities, and we have to do it quickly. There are a number of areas that remain unmet. There are needs that are unmet, and that is in the context of the immediate crisis. When we get past the immediacy of the crisis and build toward restarting our economy, we really need to think big.

I do not know how many members noticed the column by Brian Mulroney that appeared as a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail, on the back page of one day’s paper a few weeks ago. I was pleased to see him call for a guaranteed liveable income. My colleagues in the benches of the New Democratic Party all agree with this, as Greens do. We are firm in our desire to see the CERB transfer over time, and quickly, to a guaranteed liveable income. In the other place, the leader of the independent Senate group asked the parliamentary budget office to look at this, and it found that doing so would be cheaper than the CERB. That is even without taking into account the savings that would accrue to our public health care system and our corrections system. We need to move to a guaranteed liveable income as part of the next transformative step.

The member for New Westminster—Burnaby talked about what happened in the House in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and the government of the Right Hon. Lester B. Pearson put in place the fundamentals of our social safety net. We have not taken a significant transformative step since.

We need to bring in pharmacare. We need to bring in a guaranteed liveable income. These are the steps we need when we reimagine our future, post- pandemic. We can build back to build back better. We can make sure we do not bounce back but bounce forward. There are many ways that these phrases are circulating these days in this very active and robust discussion. That discussion is not on the fringes when it is Brian Mulroney, our former prime minister, a Progressive Conservative, who is talking about what we need to do. We need to think big and be bold. I really loved his takeaway line: “Incrementalism builds increments.”

We are not in a place right now, dear friends, to build increments. We need to rebuild our economy, we need to restart our economy and we need to do it in a way that leaves no one behind, including the poorest of the poor, wherever they are around the world.

We need to step up and take a role that says “the climate agenda cannot wait”. The climate emergency does not wait. The climate negotiations for 2020 are postponed until 2021, but if we decide that climate action can also be postponed to 2021, we will certainly play a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our children’s future.

We need to ensure that as we go forward, and yes we will need to continue spending, we invest in renewable energy and in energy efficiency for all our buildings and retrofits. We need to also look at things according to global studies on what stimulates the economy best, gets people back to work and makes a big difference, including things as simple as tree planting, and a lot of it.

As I look at this economic and fiscal snapshot, I find it encouraging. Very few people could look at a fiscal snapshot that says a $343 billion deficit and find it encouraging, but we are facing it. In looking at the economic indicators and our own strength as a nation in being able to handle this, we can.

We are very fortunate that we went into this with the economic health and strength that we had. We have a lot of companies that are still struggling. We have to help avoid bankruptcies, we have to help small business, we have to ensure our municipalities receive the help they need and to do that, the federal government must continue to spend. To do otherwise, to be frightened by people who say “look at the red ink”, is to risk a deep depression.

We are going to have to continue to go down this road and the best way to do that is to look at modern monetary theory and ask ourselves why we would want to borrow from commercial banks when, as long as we are dealing with sovereign wealth and sovereign debt, we can borrow from ourselves, keep those funds within Canada and not be at the mercy of commercial banks or New York bond raiders. It is time to ask what we do as a sovereign nation. How do we embrace our future and do it without being like bean-counter, narrow-minded, lack-of-vision kinds of folks out there? We do it by being as positive about this as we can be. Let us be innovative.

When we look at the problem, for instance, for schools opening, we know that schools cannot open because there is not enough space to have physical distancing for the children. The schools are small compared to what is going to be needed. We have to stop thinking about jurisdictional barriers and be really creative. Where is there a lot of empty space for school children? I think of the convention centres that are going to stay empty. Can we not think past our own jurisdictional, constitutional boundaries for once and say that this is an emergency? If we want kids back at school, and we want teachers back to teach them, which is what teachers want, where do we have assets that can be mobilized quickly?

It is now early July. Schools are supposed to open in September. Nobody really has a plan that I can see. Yes, we need child care; yes, we need our schools opening; and, yes, we need to work together federally, provincially, municipally, with indigenous governments, Métis, Inuit and first nations. Every set of smart, innovative, creative Canadians need to come to the table and when we come to the table, let us come not ready to bash each other down but to help bring each other up, because as Canadians, we know we are blessed.

We are not out of the woods yet, we know that, but we are smart enough to know to listen to the science. We have to listen to the science on COVID-19. We have to listen to the science on the climate emergency. We have to look to those who are the most innovative, the most creative throughout our economy.

I am thankful for the opportunity to share some thoughts about this snapshot, which I hope I have delivered back to everyone. We no longer have Kodak, full colour spectrum Kodachrome.