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Speech to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill, No. 2

Honourable senators, when I spoke to the first COVID economic response bill, Bill C-13, less than two weeks ago, I lamented the fact that 25 Canadians had died from the novel coronavirus. That number has risen to nearly 700 and it continues to rise.

In the meantime, the number of businesses which have suspended operations or closed down altogether has risen many fold, with over 1 million Canadians thrown out of work. A staggering 5.6 million claims have already been received under the COVID-19 economic relief benefit, which was part of the bill we approved on March 25.

If anyone was in any doubt about the need for a deeper and broader economic response package to the current health crisis, the events of the last two weeks alone should put those doubts to rest.

That is why we are here today — to consider a set of expanded COVID-19 responses by way of Bill C-14.

I want to start by acknowledging our colleagues in the other place who have worked very hard to come to an agreement on this bill in a relatively short period of time. I support this bill and look forward to voting it into law later today.

I also look forward to the establishment of a COVID-19 oversight mechanism whereby two Senate standing committees will be able to monitor the progress of Team Canada’s response to the current crisis and to offer constructive feedback on the actions taken. Likewise, I welcome the creation of a COVID-19 special committee at a later date that will be able to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, lessons learned from this crisis and how Canada can be better prepared for future pandemics and other health system emergencies.

The other place has established its own oversight mechanism, so it is important that our committees not duplicate the efforts of the House of Commons. The last thing we should be inflicting now on our public officials who are on the front lines of the crisis is armchair criticism or duplication of other oversight efforts. That is why the Senate, as a less partisan institution than the House of Commons, must rise to the role that it is especially well suited for.

I am not referring so much to the cliché of “sober second thought,” since we surely will not be dealing with much legislation during this crisis period, but to the inherent qualities of an upper chamber that allow it to be more detached from politics, less tied to the here and now and, therefore, more forward-looking. Even though it is hard for anyone to see a horizon beyond the health and economic turmoil that we are currently living through, it is precisely the Senate that should be looking for that horizon and thinking beyond the horizon of COVID-19.

Colleagues, there are so many dimensions as to what “looking over the horizon” might mean, and this is not the time to go into all of those issues, but I will flag just a few for us to think about:

First, we should reflect on the distributional effects of the COVID-19 health crisis as well as the distributional effects of the economic response measures that have been put in place to counter the health crisis. It is a sad truth that when economies face major financial crises, the measures that are put in place to solve those crises — however laudable — often end up benefiting those who were better off before the crisis than those who were less well off.

To the extent that income and wealth inequality was already creating stress in Canadian society, we must make sure that it does not create even more stress because of the choices made in our response to the crisis.

Second, we should be thinking about what the COVID-19 crisis is telling us about the Canadian social compact and Canadians’ understanding of what constitutes a national social safety net. There has been an extraordinary discussion in this country over the past few weeks in the public domain — and today during Committee of the Whole — about making sure that no one falls through the cracks. That is an extraordinary discussion that this country is having, and it surely reflects a thinking among the Canadian public of how the Canadian social compact has evolved and what we conceive to be an appropriate Canadian social safety net.

There are many questions raised by this evolving — I don’t want to say consensus, but this evolving mood about the determination to not let Canadians be left behind. There are questions around the role of government and its importance for society. There are questions around the tolerance of debt and deficits. There are questions around the expectations of citizens, and there are many important questions and important new ideas about notions of welfare and notions of income support.

Third, there is the vital question already raised by some colleagues in this chamber around when to restart the economy and how to do so. Prime Minister Trudeau has been quoted saying that our economy will come back roaring:

. . . I know that if we pull together, our economy will come roaring back after this crisis.

I certainly hope that is true, but colleagues, we cannot assume that it will be the case.

As I said in my previous speech on Bill C-13, the best way to ensure that the economy is protected is to make sure that the health crisis is dealt with as fully as possible so that rates of infection fall to manageable levels and/or there are therapeutics in place to deal with the disease.

It is too early for the government and the opposition to talk about restarting the economy, and we heard that again from Minister Morneau. But it is not too early for an independent Senate, drawing on the best minds in the country, to think about that question. The key to answering that question is having good data and applying it to a variety of models that can help us come to a proper understanding of the costs and the risks associated with any relaxation of restrictions on economic activity.

Much of this data already exists, but there should be a centralized repository that can make this data available to researchers across the country and around the world so that they can do their modelling work. It is not too early for government to put resources to this kind of effort and to make it a high priority.

Fourth, even if the economy does come roaring back, it will be a different economy from what we know today. Sectors of the economy and, certainly, a number of individual businesses will be permanently damaged because of new business models, because of the acceleration of secular trends in the economy, because of political reflex due to social pressures and, very importantly, because of behavioural changes. It would not be appropriate to withhold support to industries in the current crisis that are affected by longer-term structural challenges that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. The human cost of economic dislocation is real, and it must be addressed in any relief package, even if the ultimate source of the dislocation came from sources beyond the current health crisis.

But it would be irresponsible for any government to not be mindful of what the proximate causes as opposed to fundamental or structural changes are that are driving certain industries and causing difficulties for industries that extend well beyond this health crisis. It is more important than ever, therefore, colleagues, that we think about the new economy and that we think about how Canada cannot just get through this crisis but must get through it in a way that positions the country for the future.

Fifth, we need to think about the international economic context, which is changing as fast as the domestic economic context that I just described. There are many in this country and in other countries who are voicing the call for parochialism, for insular economics, for isolationism and for protectionism. We need to reject those calls and continue to focus on how Canada can only thrive if it is part of a global economy.

Of course, things will not be the same as they were before. All businesses will have to look at concepts such as second sourcing or business redundancy and maybe even some degree of self-sufficiency when it comes to a number of strategic sectors. But this is not the time to be talking about putting up tariff barriers or other protectionist measures simply because of a political reflex to the health and economic challenges of the day.

Colleagues, there are many other issues that are just over the horizon and which the Senate should be thinking about. I don’t have time to go into all of them, but they include, for example, how a post-COVID-19 world will affect international relations, particularly great power relations, multilateral cooperation, refugee movements and techno-nationalism. These are all topics for another day.

But how will we do any of this work if we are not meeting? How will it be possible for the Senate to play a role during a time of social distancing and in a context where we meet so infrequently?

Let me, first of all, recognize and thank His Honour for his leadership in initiating some activity around the investigation of technical, logistical and administrative solutions for the Senate and its committees to meet remotely. I also want to thank the Senate administration for the work they have already done in exploring these options. I know CIBA has also done some work in this area.

We heard earlier notice of a motion requesting that the Senate administration continue to put energy into efforts to explore technical and logistical solutions to meeting remotely. This motion reflects a deep desire, or more likely a frustration on the part of many senators at their current inability to discharge fully their duties as parliamentarians.

I would say that it also reflects a desire on the part of many senators, if I may say so, to bring our beloved institution into the 21st century in terms of having the ability to meet remotely. Other parliaments are looking at this issue with great seriousness and great intensity. Other well-functioning organizations much larger than ours are already taking on these challenges and solving them. I recognize we have special needs in this Parliament because of our unique bilingual character and the Rules of the Senate — all of these have to be observed — but it is time for us to address these issues, and there is no better time than now, when we are forced into a situation where we do not have the ability to meet in person.

The House of Commons, as you all know, colleagues, is moving ahead on some of these questions. Only today we learned from the government house leader that, in addition to the two oversight committees that have been established, Health and Finance, the House is going to find a way for at least four other committees to meet remotely: Industry, Human Resources, Government Operations and Procedure.

Colleagues, we don’t know when we will back to our normal sitting pattern. It may well be a long time. That is why we should not squander the opportunity to work on solutions for remote meetings, so that when we do return, it will be to a Senate that has not only proved itself to be responsible and relevant during the current crisis, but also newly equipped to function more effectively, using the many connectivity tools that are already available to Canadians.