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Liberal cuts made this crisis worse

By: 
Michelle Robidoux

April 9, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has enjoyed a bump in the polls. Two-thirds of Canadians say he has done a good job handling the crisis (with the exception of Québec, where his approval rating is on par with Americans’ support for Trump’s handling of the crisis at 49%).

Trudeau may bask in the glow of this jump in support, but it was decisions by past Liberal governments that created conditions – from underfunding healthcare and employment insurance to slashing corporate taxes – that mean today many will suffer or die.

Shamefully, the Trudeau government’s decisions in response to the COVID-19 crisis continue us on a path of even greater and deadlier crises in the future.

Healthcare: In a joint statement on the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of health coalitions write that “our ability to endure crises and care for each other has been eroded through decades of austerity bud- gets, privatization and inadequate planning. Even during “normal times,” the health care system is at capacity.”

As a recent CBC report stated, “Some of Ontario’s biggest hospitals were filled beyond 100 per cent occupancy nearly every day in the first half of [2019].

Five hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as the main hospitals in Hamilton, Sudbury, Peterborough and Niagara Falls all spent more than 160 days over their funded capacity during the 181-day period from January through June 2019.” 


This situation did not come out of nowhere. It can be traced back to the restructuring of federal healthcare funding to the provinces implemented in 1996 by Liberal PM Jean Chrétien. Dubbed the Canada Health and Social Transfer, this “reform” of the federal funding formula meant a dramatic decline in funding to the provinces.

Until the late 1970s, federal funding made up about 37% of provincial spending on health
care. From 1981 to the mid-1990s, funding was further squeezed to about 16%, under Conservative PM Brian Mulroney and then Chrétien. Replacing Established Program Funding with the Canada Health and Social Transfer in 1996 as part of the Chrétien government’s deficit cutting strategy meant another dramatic drop in federal funding, from 16% to about 11%.

In Ontario, the Mike Harris Tories closed or amalgamated hospitals, cut staff and privatized parts of the health system, from labs to food services. In Quebec under Lucien Bouchard, there were massive layoffs of healthcare workers and hospital closures. Right across the country, provincial austerity budgets slashed services. 


While federal funding had crept back up to about 23% by 2016 (under Liberal Paul Martin’s 10-year Canada Health Accord), enormous damage had been done to the health system right across the country.

Canada currently has 1.95 acute care beds per 1000 people, fewer than any OECD country but Mexico. This is down from 5 per 1000 in 1976. By comparison, Italy has 2.62 acute care beds per 1000. In Ontario, the number of acute care beds in Ontario has stayed the same for the last 20 years – while the population has grown by 3 million. This is the downstream consequence of the Liberals’ policies.

Employment Insurance: While the Trudeau Liberals scramble to improvise an income support policy for the millions who are now or will soon be unemployed, the EI cuts enacted by a previous Liberal government in the 1990s set the stage for the disaster that we see today.

Whereas in 1971, 95% of workers were covered by Unemployment Insurance, the renamed Employment insurance (EI) under Jean Chrétien cut eligibility to only 50% of the workforce. By 2018, only 33% of unemployed women and 38% of unemployed men qualified for EI.

While the Trudeau government has agreed to put an extra $5 million into employment insurance-linked sick leave and has waived the usual one-week waiting period, what is needed is not a stop gap, but the rebuilding of a system that covers every worker.

Corporate bailouts: According to a recent Globe and Mail report, Trudeau is preparing to bail out the oil industry to the tune of several billion dollars. This is on top of the heavy subsidies the industry already receives, and the federal government purchasing Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain pipeline in 2019 at the cost of $4.5 billion. They are pumping billions of public dollars into a dying industry, instead of into justice for Indigenous communities, green jobs, rebuilding vital social programs, and creating a sustainable future for the 99%.

Divide-and-conquer: Trudeau has tried to walk a line between seemingly welcoming refugees while actually maintaining policies that completely undermine refugee rights. Only 24 hours after announcing a 14-day quarantine for refugee claimants crossing into Canada at ‘irregular’ border points between the U.S. and Canada, Trudeau declared that Canada would now turn refugee claimants back to the U.S.

This is a policy the Liberals have repeatedly tried to implement. Thanks to strong opposition by refugee rights organizations, they were unable to do so. Now, under the cover of COVID-19 emergency policies, they have pushed it through – at a time when it is more difficult to mount a collective response.

The bottom line: Despite Trudeau’s pronouncements, we’re not in this together. Like the Conservatives, Trudeau’s Liberals are a party of the 1% – governing for the few, not the many. We can’t afford to be fooled by sparkly eyes and long lashes. If this time has shown us anything, it is that the money and resources are there to start to undo the damage caused by successive neoliberal governments. And the recent upsurge in workers’ actions
– from sick-ins, to walkouts and strikes – shows how it can be done.

 

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