Chris Hall: Bill Morneau's keeping his pandemic focus firmly on the near-term

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he thinks Canada blunted the worst of the pandemic's economic effects. "But there were a few days when I wasn't so sure."

He knows Canadians want to be told when to expect a return to 'normal' — but he's got bigger problems

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau speaks during a press conference on economic support for Canadians impacted by COVID-19 on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Canada's finance minister says there was a point early in the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic when he realized this crisis was going to be different — and far more trying than most people were expecting.

At that point, said Bill Morneau, Italy had just imposed a national quarantine. The stock market had tumbled. It was clear Canada wouldn't be immune.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing today, Morneau recalled the famous metaphor of the frog placed in a pot of water — heat the water slowly enough and the frog stays put until it boils to death.

"This is one of those moments when you're like the proverbial frog in the pot and it's getting hotter and hotter and hotter, Luckily, I think we jumped out before it got to boiling," he said. "But there were a few days when I wasn't so sure."

In the past month, Morneau's department has rolled out emergency benefits for people who have lost their jobs due to the continuing economic shutdown, interest-free loans for small businesses and a 75 per cent wage subsidy program meant to encourage employers to keep people on the payroll.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau talks about aid for Canada's oil and gas sector and the moment he realized the severity of this crisis

Social policy at sprinting speed

The program design and delivery hasn't been perfect. Those wage subsidies have yet to be delivered, and the government's been forced to adjust eligibility for the other measures to ensure people who need help can get it.

"We tried to be aggressive in getting measures out to support people and recognize that perfect was going to be the enemy of the good. We're actually ahead of most people in the implementation of those measures ... in terms of getting money into people's pockets," Morneau said in an interview airing today.

"Now we're trying to make sure for those people who — not by design but because we moved fast — aren't properly supported, that we're coming out to support them, too."

It's been an intense challenge, he said — but that's not the point.

"We need to remember there are a whole host of families out there who are dealing with someone in the family who's died. There are people in [their] 80s who you and I know who are terrified," he said.

"So intense as it is for me, it's worse for a lot of people."

The numbers are staggering, especially when they offer only the most rudimentary snapshot of what Canadians are really going through.

A million jobs lost in March alone. More than 31,400 confirmed and presumptive cases as of Friday — and 1,250 deaths.

We were warned

Worse still, many of those dying are older Canadians who were living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Those deaths could have been prevented, said Margaret Gillis, president of the International Longevity Centre Canada, which advocates for the human rights of older people.

"It wasn't like we were without warning," she said in a separate interview on The House. "There have been issues with long-term care in our country for many years."

The good news is that the rate of infection appears to be slowing, at least in some parts of the country. That's led to calls for governments to begin easing some of the restrictions now in place that have slowed the economy to a standstill.

Funeral home workers remove a body from the Yvon-Brunet seniors residence in Montreal. Long-term care homes have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Morneau said he isn't even considering that yet.

The finance minister used the word "crisis" six times in the interview — underscoring his pre-occupation with the short-term challenges of assisting people who are struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Don't ask Morneau how long this might last

Which explains why Morneau is reluctant to say how long he thinks these programs will need to continue, and why he's unwilling to join the governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, in predicting when the economy will rebound.

Poloz told the Commons finance committee on Thursday that in a best-case scenario, it would take the economy roughly a year to regain what it lost. Even then, the recovery is expected to be uneven as resource-intensive sectors await a rebound in other parts of the world.

"We are obviously hopeful that the impacts of the crisis are temporary," Morneau said. "What I don't know, what no one can know, is exactly how long that will be."

Caution. Prudence. These are things every finance minister wants to be known for. Morneau's not disagreeing with Poloz. He's not agreeing with him either.

"Right now, what I'm doing is making sure we don't tell people things we can't know well enough to be sure," he said. "So I don't have enough information at this stage to inform people what exactly the economy will look like in six months or in 12 months."

For now, Morneau said, he'll continue to look at ways to support jobs and carry on refining those income support programs for those who can't work. He'll continue — as he did Friday for the energy and cultural industries — to offer assistance to sectors of the economy that have been disproportionately harmed by the downturn.

And Morneau and the government are giving every impression they're going to maintain that focus for many weeks — if not months — into the future.

Also on this week's show:

  • Human rights advocate Margaret Gillis talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reckoning over how seniors are treated in Canada.
  • We take a look at how a refugee camp in Bangladesh sheltering hundreds of thousands of Rohingya is bracing for the pandemic.
  • Canadian artists worried about their livelihoods wonder how quickly audiences will return when restrictions on public gatherings are relaxed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put his appreciation for artists into action this week when he announced changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit that could help thousands of people in the arts and culture sector. But despite these measures, some in the arts community remain worried about their livelihoods and wonder how quickly audiences will return once restrictions on public gatherings are relaxed.

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