THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 1, Season 10
Sunday, September 27, 2020
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guests: Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland,
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Governor General of Canada Julie Payette,
Premier of Manitoba Brian Pallister
Locations: Ottawa, Ontario
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Throne speech fallout.
Conservative MP Candice Bergen: “We’ve looked at this Speech from the Throne and Conservatives cannot support it.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: “There’s a lot here that we’re pleased to see, but we need to know exactly when we can take it to the bank.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: “We don’t want to see more words. Canadians need action. They’re worried, they’re afraid, they’re struggling.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Provincial pushback.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “There are more policies that would invade provincial jurisdiction than I could count.”
Premier of Manitoba Brian Pallister: “Now’s the time to invest in people, but invest with a focus.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And the second wave of COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “In our four biggest provinces, the second wave isn’t just starting, it’s already underway.”
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole: “The situation facing my family shows that we must remain extremely vigilant in our battle against the spread of COVID-19.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Hello. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
No fall election. That is the big news from late last week as the Liberals and NDP come to a deal: the NDP, supporting the throne speech. All of this as Canadians are facing down a second wave of COVID-19. What does it all mean for Canadians health and the economy?
Joining me now is Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. Thank you for making time for us.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: Great to be with you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve had an incredibly busy week, not only with the throne speech but also with the rise in COVID rates. I think a question on a lot of Canadians’ minds is whether we are prepared for a second wave, because we’ve known this was likely coming for some time and yet it feels like governments at all levels are still really on their back foot and reacting. Why do you think that is?
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: Well first of all, Mercedes, I want to say thank you for starting with that question, because I think that is the most urgent issue right now. I think as the prime minister said earlier this week, and as Dr. Tam said, and as public health officers across the country have been saying, we really are at a crossroads with COVID, right now.
I think we are in a second wave, but I really want to say to Canadians let’s not give in to despair. Let’s realize that the future is totally in our own hands. It is in the hands, literally in the hands, but, you know, also in the mouths, masks, of every single Canadian. And if we take the right action right now, every single one of us, we can crush the virus. It doesn’t need to get out of control.
So the first thing I want to say is please let’s all do that. And the way to do it is, yes, wash our hands. Yes, wear masks, but also let’s cut back on unnecessary social interactions. So really, this is a week, I think, about really sort of sounding the clarion and saying to each other, to ourselves, let’s not let this happen again and let’s each one of us take responsibility.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that it’s time for the federal government to take over on testing? I know it’s a provincial responsibility, but during this pandemic your government has gotten involved numerous times at the provincial level. It’s one of the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus, and it seems like really provinces and cities are struggling there. So, is it time for you to set out a national testing strategy?
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: You know, I have to say, Mercedes, I have a huge amount of sympathy for the vast challenge that provinces and cities and municipalities across the country and public health agencies across the country are grappling with right now. We have been working very closely with them since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and actually I think one of Canada’s success stories so far has been close cooperation of all levels of government.
When it comes to testing, one of the things that was really important for us in Safe Restart Agreement (SRA) that we concluded this summer was to provide additional financial support to provinces for testing because we all know how important that is. And I just really want to say to the provinces, to municipalities, to public health agencies across the country, we are here to support you in any way that you need that support.
One of the things announced in the throne speech was the creation of a new sort of rapid testing surge team at the federal level, which is going to be able to go in and provide extra testing and tracing support in parts of the country that need it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that, especially as the finance minister, we are headed for a recession given there is a second wave and there could be lockdowns?
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: Mercedes, we are already in a really significant economic downturn. At the beginning of this year, we were in the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. We’ve actually had a stronger than expected rebound, which is really good news. But even now, after significant recovery, the Canadian economy is further behind than we were at the depths of the 2008 recession. So we have suffered a real blow and it’s not surprising, because the way to fight COVID has been to shut our economy down. So yes, this is significant. But I have real confidence that we can get through it.
Our economy was very strong going into this crisis and there is absolutely no reason we are not going to come roaring back. I’m very encouraged by the stronger than expected recovery we’ve seen so far. And the final thing I’ll say is the very best economic policy is a strong health care response. If we can crush the curve now, if we can stop the second wave in its tracks, that’s the best economic policy we can have.
Mercedes Stephenson: In the throne speech, you proposed a lot of expensive programs. There’s still ongoing emergency response programs for the pandemic. Your government has justified this by saying that interest rates are low now and you have to spend as long as you’re basically in this reactive position with the pandemic. But eventually those interest rates will go up and Canada and Canadians will have to pay for that. Are you concerned about the country’s economic future and where is the ceiling for how much you’re willing to spend, because yes we are in an emergency now, but this situation could go on for years a pandemic.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: Well, there were a lot of questions in there, Mercedes, so let me try to take them point by point. And let me say, you know, first of all, of course I’m concerned. I think that now more than ever in this extraordinary time, we are having to do things that, I think six or seven months ago none of us could have imagined would be possible.
Like consider, we actually shut down a huge part of our country’s economy in the spring. We actually told people not to leave their homes. That’s a very big deal and I think would have been unthinkable for any of us at the beginning of the year. So this is an extraordinary time. We are having to spend extraordinary amounts of money to fight this pandemic and yes, that does mean as finance minister, I am very concerned. And I believe there is a tremendous onus on us, the federal government, to be very careful, to be very thoughtful, and to be very prudent about these extraordinary expenditures. I also think that it’s important to appreciate that not all spending is created equal.
And I would put in an entirely separate category, the really significant but one-off time limited spending that we are doing right now to fight the pandemic. Spending to buy vaccines, spending on the testing you and I have been talking about. Spending to support Canadians and Canadian businesses as we do the things we need to do to fight COVID. It’s a lot of money to be sure, but this is one-off. This is spending that will come to an end when the coronavirus is defeated. And I actually have a lot of confidence that that is going to happen and that it is not years away. And when it comes to that spending to fight the virus, my message to Canadians is we will do whatever it takes.
And the reason for that is we can’t afford not to. The cost of inaction today is much, much higher than the cost of action. But, it is also the case, Mercedes, that there is another kind of spending. And that is spending for new permanent programs that would last past the fight against coronavirus. And I think we have to take quite a different attitude when it comes to evaluating that kind of spending. When it comes to that kind of spending, I think we have to take our cautious, careful, thoughtful, Canadian time honoured approach. And that’s what we’re going to do.
Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and also our finance minister, thank you so much for joining us today.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland: Really good to talk to you, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and I will meet near the Senate building, socially distanced of course, to talk about the throne speech and COVID-19.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Joining me now is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Mr. Singh, you are really sort of the man of the weekend here. You have managed to get a deal with the government. There will be no fall election. Can you tell us the details of this deal? We knew already that you’d seen an increase to the supplement for those who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, but in particular, you’ve managed to also lockdown sick leave for Canadians. Who exactly does that apply to?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: So, first off, I’m really proud of the work that our team has done. Together we’ve been able to pushback against the cuts that the Liberals were bringing in, where they were going to cut the help from $2 thousand to $16 hundred, a $4 hundred cut to families that cannot go back to work. So we were able to restore and keep that at $2 thousand. That was a massive gain for people.
The second piece was we wanted to make sure there was paid sick leave in a pandemic with a second wave. We wanted to make sure that no worker would ever have to make that impossible choice between going into work sick or staying at home and not knowing if they could pay the bills. So we were able to obtain commitments today that will be in a proposed legislation on Monday that will ensure that Canadians can rely on the first of its kind in the history of our country, a federal paid sick leave.
This is a massive step forward to our ultimate goal: the permanent paid sick leave for all Canadians. And what we were able to do, really, the scale of the difference was the Liberal proposal would have helped thousands of Canadians. We expanded it to include millions of Canadians. And so that’s the effect that millions will be better off.
Mercedes Stephenson: From a political angle, are you at all concerned that most people are going to give the Liberal government credit for this? They’re not going to say, oh, the NDP went to bat for me. They’re going to see Liberal names on those cheques.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well, I just want Canadians to know that throughout this pandemic we’ve been fighting for them and will continue to do that. The only reason why we’re able to make the response to COVID-19 a better response, a more compassionate response, one that didn’t exclude as many people is because New Democrats were there to fight for them and help people remember that we will always be there for them. That’s our goal. We’re focused on people and this, what we’ve achieved is the first of its kind. It’s very historic, the first ever bold step forward to—the first ever history in our country to allow people to have paid sick leave.
This is a massive step and we’re going to keep on fighting, though. It’s not good enough to just have this during a pandemic. We want to always have paid sick leave for all Canadians workers. So, I hope Canadians can know they can count on us, that we’ll fight for them.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve raised a lot of questions about the ethics of this government. You and your caucus have been extremely critical on everything from the WE scandal to SNC-Lavalin. You’re now the party that is responsible for keeping them in power. Are you comfortable with that?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well I know that the goal right now should be about getting help to people. And because that’s our focus, this is the best way to deliver the help that Canadians need to continue to find ways to force this government to do what’s right. I am still concerned about the fact that they seek to use every opportunity they can to help out their friends and get caught up in scandals where it’s hurting people. You know, this WE scandal really hurt students. At the end of the day, it hurt Canadians. So I am worried about that. But, I believe that what I can do with the position I have, is to keep on fighting for people and use the leverage we have to deliver the programs that we need. And that’s what we’ve been able to do in this case.
Mercedes Stephenson: Have you ceded that power, though, by coming to a deal so quickly?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Well, what we’ve done is historic, the first of its kind. Never in Canada’s history has there been a federal paid sick leave program and we’ve been able to achieve that.
That’s a pretty significant achievement, the first of its kind in the history of our country and we’re proud of that. And more importantly, we’re very proud that Canadian workers will have this program in place. They will have paid sick leave in place. Workers who are afraid of going to work, not knowing what’s going to happen if they get sick can now count on the fact that there will be some help for them. And that, to me, is a massive win for people and something I’m really proud of.
Mercedes Stephenson: Mr. Singh, have you costed out how much all of this will mean? How much is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets to pay for these programs because they are quite substantial?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: I am worried about that. The cost, of course, is something that is something that should worry us all. But I look at this as an investment. We need to invest in workers. We think about what would a family getting by on $2,000 a month do, if they had to all of a sudden try to be forced to get by on $1,600, $400 less. How would they be able to afford their groceries and their bills? It would be cruel to do that. And to think of a second wave where workers can’t stay at home because they’re afraid to take off work because they don’t know how they’ll make their bills. That to me is also an irresponsible to deal with a pandemic.
So, putting in place paid sick leave and putting in place the same amount of support to families, is an investment in people in a second wave of a pandemic. But I think that it shouldn’t be these workers and people that pay for this. It should be those who have profited during the pandemic that pay their fair share. And we know that there’s lots of Canadians that they’re ultra-wealthy that have made—have record profits, in fact, during this time And we can make sure that they are the ones that pay for the recovery. If they profited off the pandemic, they should certainly pay for the recovery and that’s what we should put our efforts.
Mercedes Stephenson: And nice in theory perhaps, while it seems like the CRA often has a hard time taxing those who are the most wealthy, not the regular Canadians.
One last quick question for you, Mr. Singh: There are those who are cynics out there who say this had nothing to do with what Canadians needed. It had to do with the fact that the NDP does not have the money or the support to go into an election. What do you say to them?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Not at all. I’ve always said and have been really clear that if it came to it, we are ready to fight an election. But it’s never been my goal.
Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there. Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Singh.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: Thanks so much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister gives his take on the speech from the throne.
Governor General of Canada Julie Payette: “The search this fall further enforces what we already know, that we must do even more. The federal government will be there to help the provinces increase their testing capacity. Canadians should not be waiting in line for hours to get a test.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. That was some of the throne speech delivered by Governor General Julie Payette. Premiers across the country have been pushing back against the new priorities laid out by the Liberal government last week.
Joining me now to talk more about this is Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. Premier Pallister, thank you for joining us. I know that you’re preparing, as many premiers across the country are, for rising numbers of COVID-19. And in your briefings, you’ve really been sharing a lot of how you feel personally about this. So, I’m wondering if you can share with us. How do you feel as Brian Pallister as well as a political leader in this country as we head into this next wave of the pandemic?
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: Well, you know, we are all of us, in Canada and around the world, dealing with an unprecedented situation and that puts stress on the lives of so many people. And it’s wonderful, I think, the way that most Canadians have really pulled together—are supporting each other. We are in this together. It sounds like a slogan because it is, but it’s meaningful to me because I’ve seen across the country, I’ve heard of and seen reports of people doing so much more than they have to just to help, not just themselves but others around their neighbourhoods.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know speaking of hopes; yours were dashed in the throne speech. You didn’t get the health transfers that you were hoping from the federal government. Your thoughts on what the Liberal government’s priorities are, and do you agree with Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta, when he says this is a full frontal attack on federalism?
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: Well, here’s what I know. I know that wait times for health care have been growing steadily. I know that, for example, versus 20 years ago in virtually every category they’re double or triple what they were 20 years ago. I think every one of your viewers would know of someone themselves, a loved one—a friend, who is waiting right now for an appointment, for a diagnostic exam, for a test, for a surgery. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away by just thinking about short term solutions.
It needs a long term solution. It’s foundational in nature, and at the foundation of Canada, is a health care system that should be available when we need it. But what we have here is a situation where demand is rising, partly because baby boomers are getting older, and as those demands rise, the federal government’s percentage of support for health care drops.
When you add those two things together, the result is longer waits. And longer waits are not anything but painful to people. You know, a lump that’s got to be examined and tested, you wait every single day to find out what the result of that test is in pain and in fear. And families are feeling that. I’m getting e-mails from Canadians saying, you know; please continue to fight for more accessible health care. COVID’s made it evident, obviously, with the delays it’s put on the system that, you know, hundreds of thousands of people just because of COVID are waiting for surgeries and procedures right now.
But it was a problem long before that and the federal government needs to step up and resume their rightful role as real partners in health care and that’s what we’ll continue. Premiers across the country are unanimous in saying, you know please step up and address this issue. It was ignored in the throne speech sadly, but the battle may be over, Mercedes, but the war’s going to go on for health care. And we need to stand up for Canadian health care.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well Premier, and I think a lot of Canadians share your concern about health care, but the federal government has said that they’d already let you know. They were willing to talk to you about more money. It just wasn’t going to be in the throne speech. The NDP in your province have criticized you, saying you did not spend full budgets on health care, and at the same time as you’re asking for this $70 billion dollars with no-strings attached from the federal government, you’re also criticizing them on debt. So, what do you say to your critics on this?
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: Well I say this, if your house has an eroding foundation, are you going to invest a bunch of money in redecorating the second floor sitting room? And I would say you probably, if you’re a smart manager, you’re not going to do that. It’d be a big waste of money. And this is a foundational issue for Canada.
As far as NDP attacking me, that’s their job. They’re an opposition party. You know that. But the fact is Manitoba continues to invest more than virtually anyone else across the country in health care. The point is we can’t continue to do that. Every examination, every study has told the government this is not a long term way to deal with health care.
Provinces don’t have the fiscal capacity to continue to spend approaching half or more of their budgets on health care because they also have to do things like education and roads and many other departments and support for families. We need the federal government to step back up and be the partner it once was. It used to be a 50 per cent partner in health care support.
Then it was 25. Now we’re talking down to around 20 in many provinces. That’s not sustainable and we need to get back to a real partnership on health care. I know that this is s a problem that COVID has made worse, but it wasn’t a new problem a year ago, two, three, four, and five. And we’ve been asking this federal government as premiers united, that this be addressed for a long, long time and it was ignored. And it can’t be ignored any longer.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you have a sense that the federal government is going to step up to the plate? I mean, all the signals we’ve heard from them, especially from Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, is that they’re not going to stop spending until COVID is over and health is a priority for them.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: Well, all I can say to you is this: short-term solutions don’t work for long-term problems. And this is an emerging long-term problem. It’s worsened over years now and it’s going to get worse. More and more Canadians are experiencing this personally and we need to address it. And we can’t just put it off another year or two or five. It’s going to get worse. And as it gets worse, real people, friends of yours and mine are going to be impacted.
And we’re going to be the ones who didn’t stand up for health care? I don’t think so. Look, Tommy Douglas, bless his heart, handed us a wonderful, wonderful torch in our health-care system, but it needs to be carried and held high by people. Not because they get attention drawn to themselves for doing so, but rather because it’s the right thing to do. And a partnership on health care among all governments in this country is what got us the system that we count on now, but we can’t count on it getting anything but worse if we don’t get the federal government to resume its rightful role as a real partner in supporting health care in our country and cosmetic billboards don’t do it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Premier Brian Pallister, that’s all the time we have for today, but thank you for joining us, sir.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: Hey, my real pleasure, Mercedes. Thanks for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s all the time we have for today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block. We’ll see you next week.