OTTAWA — Nearly two million Canadians could be without jobs this year under forecasts released by the federal government in its long-awaited “fiscal snapshot.”
The document details how the Trudeau Liberals see the COVID-19 pandemic dragging down the domestic economy and sending the deficit to a historic $343.2 billion.
The economic and fiscal report from the government today lays out the Liberals’ belief that there will be a slow return to a new normal, with unemployment high and economic growth low through to at least the end of 2021.
Even though the government believes the worst of the economic harm from the pandemic is behind the country, the document says a recovery can’t begin in earnest until an effective vaccine or treatment becomes widely available.
Things could, however, get worse under two alternative scenarios the Finance Department lays out.
Should prolonged shutdowns stay in place, or restrictions not be fully rolled back, a return to normal activity for households and businesses will be uneven and slower than hoped for, leading to a more pronounced drop in economic output than is already expected.
And should the country be hit with a second wave of the novel coronavirus during the annual flu season, the ensuing lockdowns would cause what the Finance Department describes as a”deeper and longer-lasting negative impact on the economy.”
The Liberals have repeatedly promised to use the federal treasury as a financial shield between Canadians and irreparable harm, and the cost of that promise is now at $231.9 billion in direct spending, leading to a deficit comparable only to those seen in the Second World War.
As we measure the cost of helping Canadians, we shouldn’t forget that the cost of doing nothing would have been far more.Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
The federal debt is set to pass $1 trillion, by the Finance Department’s estimates.
Whatever the costs, they’re worth it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a news conference Wednesday morning, before the snapshot was released.
“As we measure the cost of helping Canadians, we shouldn’t forget that the cost of doing nothing would have been far more,” Trudeau said, insisting that this is not the time for belt-tightening or austerity.
How the CERB fits in
The document tries to make that case, saying that the $80-billion Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which had paid out $53.5 billion in benefits as of late June, has covered Canadians’ estimated $44.6 billion in lost labour income through the first half of the year.
The $2,000-a-month benefit is estimated to have covered the monthly housing, food, phone and internet costs for the bottom and middle thirds of households, according to Finance Department calculations.
Historically low interest rates mean all the hundreds of billions in borrowing comes with “manageable” costs, Trudeau said, and the alternative would be for individuals and households to load up with debt themselves to cope with months of no or little work.
Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada, said the steep cost to the federal treasury, which has covered about $9 out of $10 in emergency governmental aid, underscored how vital it is to get the economy moving again.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, noted the deficit and the debt-to-GDP ratio of 49.1 per cent “will undermine Canada’s fiscal capacity for decades.” In a statement, he called for a move away from “a subsidy-based crisis response” to efforts that get Canadians back to work.
The snapshot noted a $37.3-billion boost to the federal wage-subsidy program, bringing its budget to $82.3 billion, to account for its extension until the fall. Morneau said details will come soon for businesses interested in the payroll help.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the update a missed chance to help businesses know if they qualify for the subsidy.
“Certainty is a cheap stimulus measure that can help many businesses,” president Dan Kelly said in a release.
The Liberals expect more workers to move onto the wage subsidy and off the CERB as that program winds down.
Those who fall through the COVID-19 financial safety net are expected to be caught by a revived employment insurance system, which has been largely dormant since the CERB replaced it in late March.
Changes to EI system coming
Government officials admit there will still need to be policy changes to the EI system to help some self-employed workers qualify, and capture EI-eligible workers who, due to the pandemic, haven’t been able to work the necessary qualifying hours.
“It’s not easy. We’re in challenging times,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters. “We’re going to make sure we support people to get through these challenging times because we know that’s the right thing to do.”
For this calendar year, the government expects the unemployment rate to hit 9.8 per cent, dropping to 7.8 per cent next year based on forecasts by 13 private-sector economists.
Although that’s an improvement from the record-high unemployment rate of 13.7 per cent in May for a labour force of just over 19 million, it is still much worse than than the record low of 5.5 per cent pre-pandemic.
The Liberals will likely have to lay out a training program for workers in the fall even if the economy improves, said Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
“Not all workers are going to go back to their jobs,” he said in an interview. ``Some of those jobs may not be there for workers at the end of the day.″
Critiques from opposition parties
Speaking in the House of Commons, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the Liberals failed to provide a plan to stimulate economic and job growth.
“Coming out of the pandemic, every single country on the plant will be desperately competing for the same opportunities and the same investments. So where is the prime minister’s plan to set us apart?”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh noted the lack of a plan to help with child care, without which parents — and disproportionately women — won’t be able to return to their jobs.
“Moving forward, we need to put forward real solutions that address the problems that people are faced with,” he said. “We know the Liberal government won’t do it unless we fight and push them to do so.”
And the Bloc Quebecois said the Liberals should have targeted aid at sectors that can expect to suffer the longest, such as aerospace and culture, while targeting multinational corporations and internet giants for taxes to offset some of the spending.
Finance officials write the pandemic may yet “cast a long-term shadow over economic developments” through higher household debt and persistent unemployment. The document said the government will announce new measures as needed to support the recovery.
Sheila Block, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the uncertainty about the course ahead suggested the need to maintain or even increase spending: “Now is not the time for rash spending cuts and a turn to austerity.”
By the numbers
Estimated federal deficit for 2020-21: $343.2 billion
Direct federal aid to individuals and businesses as a result of COVID-19: $212 billion
Number of Canadians who were laid off or had their hours cut as a result of COVID-19 between February and April: 5.5 million
Number of Canadians who applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit: 8.16 million
Amount government paid out in Canada Emergency Response Benefit as of June 28: $53.53 billion
Number of students who applied for Canada Emergency Student Benefit: 601,356
Amount government paid out in Canada Emergency Student Benefit as of July 2: $1.42 billion
Number of Canadians whose jobs were supported by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy: 3 million
Number of small businesses that received interest-free loans: 688,000
Number of small businesses that received help from the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program: 29,000
Expected unemployment rate by the end of 2020: 9.8 per cent
Expected unemployment rate in 2021: 7.8 per cent
Number of times the government uses the word ``unprecedented″ in its fiscal snapshot documents: 29
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2020.