Third Reading of Bill C-14, A second Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19 – Sen. Harder

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Hon. Peter Harder: Thank you, Senator Munson, for giving me the time to fill the few minutes left.

Honourable senators, we are living through a great disruption. It’s changing how we work, play and live. It affects each farm, village, town and city across Canada and around the world. When and how it ends is still dimly understood.

These extraordinary times require extraordinary efforts by individuals, communities, provinces, the Government of Canada and increasingly international organizations. Today we will be approving one such extraordinary measure to, in effect, significantly subsidize the wages of a large number of Canadians working in business, the not-for-profit and charitable sectors.

This has never been done before in Canada and reflects the unique nature of the challenge before us. The public policy behind this initiative is clear. It is desirable to keep liquidity in our economy, to ensure households can be sustained and to ensure the workforce remains attached to their employment so that we are better able to preserve in the short term the rebound as circumstances allow.

When this initiative was first announced some 10 days ago, I received phone calls from a number of business people who expressed total support and saying they no longer needed to lay off their workforce. They would get by and get ready for the future.

I have heard from not-for-profits and charitable organizations that with this support can begin to plan for the short-term and the longer-term reinvention of their mission.

With this measure alone, we are adding significantly to our collective deficit in the short term to mitigate the costs of the economic downturn and better equip us collectively for a return to more normal economic times. The Government of Canada cannot be the paymaster forever, but it can and must for now. This bill deserves our support.

The great disruption of the past month or so has revealed much about ourselves. I would like to highlight briefly some of what I have observed.

First, Canadian federalism is working. Provincial governments have stepped up and in some cases surprised their citizens by the way in which they have engaged either with the cities in their jurisdictions or with the Government of Canada. A Senate dedicated to the interests of regionalism should take a pause and say collectively: that’s really good. And you only have to look perhaps a few miles south and see that federalism can be under stress in times like this.

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While all governments matter, I am increasingly worried personally about the mechanisms of international coordination — G7, G20, the UNHCR, the UN organizations — because it is not their deficiency that I lament, it’s their member states not giving them the tools with which to do the job that needs to be done. I worry, colleagues, about Africa, but that’s another subject.

Second, science and expertise matters: front-line emergency officers, first responders, researchers. The private sector management in this period of crisis is amazing to behold. If you get inside some of the organizations that are retooling and reorganizing themselves for the short term, they have benefited, if you can call it that, from the experience of 2008-09. For example, Ontario lost 50,000 manufacturing businesses in those years. It means that those who have continued to have a certain resilience that is being tested in this period for sure, but they have some experience of getting through it.

Institutions matter, and institutions matter because trust matters. We will not be able to sustain social distancing and the various requirements of behaviour if we didn’t believe that institutions and their advice are coherent, meaningful and well-motivated. That means we probably need to reflect on the fact that our institutions need a greater redundancy in capacity for dealing with situations like now, and that simple efficiency in our institutions isn’t in the long-term interest.

Agility in responding to changing circumstances by changing course ought to be respected and not ridiculed, even in the Senate. When new gaps emerge, we must be able to respond quickly and be encouraged to do that. Parliamentary oversight is absolutely important, but second-guessing from the sidelines isn’t really helpful.

Lastly, we need to begin to think our way back to normal, or the new normal, and I would argue in this time of transition, we need to have a higher tolerance for risk in the public sector.

I’ve been somewhat critical of the so-called accountability reforms of 10 years ago. I made the allusion once that if the public service was a hockey team, it would be a team of goalies because it was better not to be scored on than to score. We won’t get through this if we don’t have a full-fledged hockey team, with forwards and risk takers, people who are prepared to see a goal being scored because the game needs to be won. And that requires public institutions like the Senate, the House of Commons, the Auditor General, and others who are charged with ensuring proper oversight, are also aware that we need a culture of risk taking and innovation in the public service. I applaud the public servants who have taken us thus far in developing the advice and starting to implement it, but the implementation of what we are passing today will, colleagues, mean mistakes will be made. People will game the system and we’ll have, I’m sure, sober advice to tell us how this and thus should not have taken place.

Risk taking is an essential component of getting through this period.

So what we are doing is absolutely necessary but not sustainable. It requires patience, understanding and the courage of all of us to see Canada through.

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