Refresh of Liberal government's agenda comes amid new looming COVID-19 crisis

OTTAWA — How the Liberal government intends to ride the coming second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will become clear today as it lays out a three-pronged approach in a hotly-anticipated speech from the throne certain to set the tone for the coming months in Parliament.

In what's expected to be an address lasting as long as an hour, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will detail the government's plans in three areas: dealing with the urgent crisis of the current surge in cases, continuing and changing support for Canadians and businesses still not back on their feet, and what will come once the economy is better able to stand on its own.

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With national case counts rising, public federal health officials have made it clear that if further public health and personal action isn't taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the lockdowns which paralyzed the country for much of the first half of 2020 may be the only option. Those lockdowns saw federal spending soar to historic levels in an effort to offset the pandemic's crushing blow to Canadians' lives and livelihoods.

Billions of dollars were pushed out the door to help cover salaries, rents, the purchase of life-saving equipment and other targeted supports. It all came just months after the Liberals had won a minority government and forced them to rip up much of the policy playbook they'd put before Canadians during the election. That was the justification Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used in August when he requested that Parliament be prorogued to allow for a reset of priorities. Just ahead of that decision, his government had announced a massive new aid package creating new benefits, including paid sick leave, and expanded employment insurance as part of the phase out of an emergency benefit put into place in the early days of the pandemic. The measures require legislation that will be put before Parliament in the coming days. But the throne speech is expected to signal more tweaks are coming to EI, and make substantial commitments in other areas, including child are. For post-pandemic growth, the Liberals will detail plans that connect economic recovery to projects that equally combat climate change. Trudeau will reinforce those plans in a nationally-televised address scheduled for tonight, as he also urges Canadians to be resolute in their efforts to combat the pandemic. Though in the early days of the crisis he'd addressed Canadians daily from outside his home, a pivot to an evening televised speech was made to underscore the threat Canadians currently face of a coming wave. The waning days of summer have seen a surge in cases no longer linked to vulnerable populations like those in long-term care homes as they were in the spring. Instead, it is younger Canadians beginning to congregate in ever larger numbers, something that chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned Tuesday must come to a quick stop. "The challenge we face now is to stay the course no matter how weary we may feel," Tam said. Those cases have reached into the halls of power as well; after political staffers succumbed to infection, the leaders of both the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois, and their spouses, were infected and they are now in isolation.

Their parties will be given time to respond to Trudeau's televised address, but Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and the BQ"s Yves-Francois Blanchet will both be absent from Parliament Hill today for the throne speech.

Both are hoping to deliver their official replies on Sept. 29, when they're both out of quarantine. That arrangement is one of few details known so far about how the House of Commons may actually function in the days ahead, with negotiations ongoing around issues such as how a hybrid Parliament — some MPs attending in person, and some remotely — can allow votes to be cast in a transparent and accountable way. Given the Liberals only have a minority government, those votes could mean the difference between their survival and an election; the vote on the speech from the throne itself is a confidence motion. With the ongoing escalation of cases, a snap election is unlikely, though whatever the Liberals do put forward is sure to be a large part of a campaign platform when that election arrives. Each of the opposition parties have already laid down some markers ahead of the speech that will determine their support.

The NDP's Jagmeet Singh has already said he wants to see the promised legislation on EI changes, but is concerned too many people will still fall through the gaps, while Blanchet is looking for more money on health care for the provinces.

O'Toole — who has been Conservative Leader for just a month — has signalled he wants to see concrete action to address the concerns of the West, and for expanded support for businesses.

The pandemic will also make itself felt in a marked downscaling of the pageantry that normally accompanies a throne speech.

Among other things, no special guests or spectators will be allowed into the Senate chamber, and the number of MPs as well is being sharply curtailed. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.

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