"We have been pushing for the government to accept that there is no turning back to the ways things were. This Build Back Better Throne Speech is a signal that they've heard that message. We'll be spending our time before the federal budget to pressure the Liberals to stand by their words and put its money where its mouth is." – Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (25 Sept. 2020) — Liberals came on strong in yesterday's Speech from the Throne mentioning several big issues, primaraily ones that have been important to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Liberals hit on every hot topic in this Speech from the Throne," said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). "Long-term care, child care, EI, good jobs. These are priorities that we've been pushing for, not just over the last 7 months, but for decades."
"So while it's great to hear how committed they are to these issues, we need to see the details that will lead to concrete action. We can't forget that we've heard much of this before," Brown said.
"We are disappointed that the speech did not include clearer commitments to expanding and supporting social programs and good jobs. Our union remains hopeful that a federal budget will outline exactly how the government intends to reach their goals," said Bert Blundon, NUPGE Secretary-Treasurer. "Until we see those numbers, we're not holding our breath."
Arguably the government had pretty much committed to a national child care secretariat, and we are cautiously optimistic when the government uses language like “accessible, affordable, inclusive, and high quality child care” and building a Canada-wide system for early learning and child care — something we have spent decades lobbying for. We will await the details to see if there is a concrete action plan attached to these words, or if it is another empty promise.
Women's economic recovery
The government acknowledged the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, using the term “she-cession,” and committed to a “national action plan for women in the economy” to get women back into the workforce and ensure a “feminist intersectional response to the pandemic.” It will be guided by a task force of experts who will advise the government. While the National Union believes that another task force is unnecessary, we will continue to push for the supports that will truly help women get back into the workforce: pay equity, national childcare, affordable housing, good jobs, and an end to violence against women.
At the core of NUPGE's campaign to bring long-term care under the Canada Health Act is the idea of having a fully public system, with national standards of care like Medicare. The inclusion in this speech is an acknowledgement to the public that the government has accepted the problems that exist in our long-term care system.
Another nod was to the thousands of frontline personal support workers who have been caring for our most vulnerable people throughout this pandemic. Establishing a federal wage top up for these positions may go some way to improve the situation for many people.
The effects of the pandemic rang loud through every aspect of the Throne Speech and the government assured people living in Canada that personal protective equipment would be available to those who need it. The speech reiterated the government's commitment to a national, universal Pharmacare program and said will accelerate steps to achieve this system but otherwise the speech provided little substance to add to this previous commitment. At a time when people are already struggling, the government needs to move more quickly to open access to affordable medication for everyone.
One key missing piece from the Throne Speech was any mention of sick leave. "Paid sick leave is a huge factor in containing further spread of the virus," said Blundon. "What this pandemic clearly illustrated is that paid sick leave is not a luxury, it's a necessity,"
CERB and EI
Years of cuts to Employment Insurance (EI) have meant that it no longer provides a safety net for many workers, particularly those in precarious jobs. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the federal government had to create a completely new program or hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Canadians would have been left with no income. While the throne speech acknowledges that EI needs to be dramatically improved, there are no specific commitments. If the federal government fails to act, when the temporary changes to the EI program expire in a year, many workers will be left with no support.
"NUPGE shares the concerns raised about the transition from CERB to EI, knowing that it does not go far enough to ensure the well-being of unemployed people living in Canada," says Brown. "The effects of the pandemic are not simply vanishing, this has been devastating, we're in a recession and it's not an easy path forward. People need ongoing assistance to continue to weather this storm."
Yet, the inclusion of self-employed and workers in the gig economy in the EI system is welcome news. However, the word “youth” was only mentioned once in the speech, and that was to say the government would “significantly [scale] up the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, to provide more paid work experiences next year for young Canadians.” This is alarming given the rates of young people working in low paying, gig economy jobs that they’re significantly over qualified for. Young workers must be included in the government’s pledge for a stronger workforce, because connecting young workers to good paying, quality jobs is crucial for maintaining the Canadian economy and society. In the current climate of low paying gig economy jobs with no healthcare benefits, high cost of housing, high cost of childcare, etc., few young workers can pull themselves out of this oppressive cycle. They’re delaying moving out, marrying, and having children.
Even after the Throne Speech, it's still not clear if the federal government will take meaningful action to improve tax fairness. While the speech mentioned identifying ways to tax extreme wealth inequality, until we see what’s planned we can’t be sure if the federal government is genuinely committed to making the tax system fairer. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have talked a good line on tax fairness in the past, particularly on tackling tax havens. And both failed to provide the legislative and regulatory changes and the resources needed to actually make the tax system fairer.
There was a mention of cutting corporate taxes for companies that are considered to be making zero-emission products. Unless a great deal of care is taken this could be a repeat of the research and development credit which has led to a situation where Canada spends far more than most OECD countries on research and development while having far poorer results.
Without tax fairness, the fine words in the throne speech become meaningless. Income inequality will continue to increase as long as large corporations and the wealthy can take advantage of tax cuts, tax loopholes, and tax havens. At the same time, the loss of revenue when large corporations and the wealthy are allowed to avoid paying their share is a big part of the reason why many public services are underfunded and why we are still waiting for programs like Pharmacare.
There was a long list of climate action commitments (some recycled commitments). The promise to create 1 million jobs featured prominently in the speech, and it seemed to be at least somewhat connected to climate, with green building retrofits and manufacturing zero-emissions vehicles/parts seeming to be some specific areas of job creation. The government mentioned investment in transit and active transit options, emphasizing the importance of public transit. Yet, it also committed to create a new fund to attract investment in Canadian manufacturing of zero-emissions vehicles and batteries, noting that the corporate tax rate would be cut in half for those companies. Support was also stated for manufacturing, natural resources, and energy sectors as they work to “transform” to meet a net-zero future.
NUPGE applauds the recognition of the issue of systemic racism in the throne speech. Systematic racism is systematic and it's not restricted to justice system. It impacts BIPOC in all stages of life from the quality of education they receive, to whether they can afford to go to post-secondary school, to the types of jobs they’re qualified to work, to where they can afford to live. We must ensure that going forward, the government looks at all programs and policies with an equity lens, to ensure that anti-racism efforts aren’t relegated to a single sector.
The same can be said for people in the LGBTQI2S communities, people with disabilities, migrants, and immigrants. The barriers to full participation in society are higher for these groups — particularly women who belong to one or more of these groups — and the government must keep that in mind. A band-aid solution cannot be applied to a problem like housing, because people who have the greatest need for affordable housing come from all different backgrounds and have vastly different needs.
When looking at these overarching inequalities – affordable housing, access to childcare, the gig economy – the government must look at the root causes of these problems and take them into consideration before creating the solution. This means active participation from the groups these policies will affect most.
Actions speak louder than words
The government reinforced the fact that now is not the time for austerity. It's a position that is echoed by labour movement, economists, and even some conservatives.
"We have been pushing for the government to accept that there is no turning back to the ways things were. This Build Back Better Throne Speech is a signal that they've heard that message," said Brown. "We have no doubt that conservative politicians and groups will be out in force trying to water down many of the measures intended to help people now and in the future. We'll be spending our time before the federal budget to pressure the Liberals to stand by their words and put its money where its mouth is."
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE