IN THE NEWS: Hill Times - 'This is the time for getting things done,' says former Liberal staffer after retreats wrapped up

The confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and the NDP looks to be in good shape as Parliament returns for the fall, say strategists, even as both parties look to address growing frustrations with the rising cost of living, and prepare for the election of a new Conservative leader.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) was expected to announce on Sept. 8, the last day of the cabinet retreat in Vancouver, that the government was taking three steps to address affordability, according to a Canadian Press report. These included $650 a year to pay for dental care for children under the age of 12, a one-time $500 top up for renters, and a temporary doubling of the GST tax credit for low-income households.
The first two items are directly from the Liberal-NDP agreement, and the increase to the GST rebate is also something the NDP has called for. But Trudeau’s planned press conference was delayed, and when he did appear before the cameras several hours later it was to react to the death of Queen Elizabeth.

‘This is the time for getting things done,’ says former Liberal staffer after retreats wrapped up
By KEVIN PHILIPUPILLAI      SEPTEMBER 9, 2022
Former Grit staffer Christian von Donat says it's up to the NDP to decide if it's satisfied with the agreement with the Liberals, because the governing party would always be in the driver’s seat in terms of determining 'what is achievable.'

The confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and the NDP looks to be in good shape as Parliament returns for the fall, say strategists, even as both parties look to address growing frustrations with the rising cost of living, and prepare for the election of a new Conservative leader.

Sheamus Murphy, a former senior staffer to federal and Ontario Liberal governments, told The Hill Times that, a year into its mandate and free of the need for any pre-election positioning, the government will be looking to make progress on its key priorities.

“This is the time for getting things done,” said Murphy, now partner and federal practice lead at Counsel Public Affairs. “You look at those mandate letters and this is when the government really needs to be ticking items off that list.”

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Besides the cost of living, Murphy highlighted health-care reform, the housing shortage, and the government’s overhaul of the legislative framework for the online world as other key issues that the Liberals will be working on this fall.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) was expected to announce on Sept. 8, the last day of the cabinet retreat in Vancouver, that the government was taking three steps to address affordability, according to a Canadian Press report. These included $650 a year to pay for dental care for children under the age of 12, a one-time $500 top up for renters, and a temporary doubling of the GST tax credit for low-income households.

The first two items are directly from the Liberal-NDP agreement, and the increase to the GST rebate is also something the NDP has called for. But Trudeau’s planned press conference was delayed, and when he did appear before the cameras several hours later it was to react to the death of Queen Elizabeth.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.), in Halifax for his party’s first in-person caucus retreat since the pandemic began, had also been scheduled to deliver the NDP’s response to Trudeau’s announcement on Sept. 8, but that press conference was also cancelled.

Speaking to The Hill Times earlier in the day, NDP caucus chair Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) said her party pushed for dental care to be included in the agreement with the Liberals because it was something Tommy Douglas envisioned many years ago. “Universal health care means head-to-toe care, and that includes dental care.”

Kwan declined to discuss the NDP’s response to the government’s anticipated affordability measures, but said the NDP would “continue fighting for the government to address the affordability crisis.” She said Canada was seeing “corporate greed at its max,” and called on the government to double the GST rebate, increase the Canada Child Benefit, increase support for housing, and address the rising cost of food.

Former Liberal staffer Christian von Donat told The Hill Times that it was up to the NDP to decide if it was satisfied with the agreement with the Liberals, because the governing party would always be in the driver’s seat in terms of determining “what is achievable.”

Von Donat is the vice-president of government relations and strategy at Impact Public Affairs, and was previously chief of staff to Liberal MP Yvonne Jones (Labrador, N.L.). He predicted the NDP would show some flexibility in terms of how exactly the dental care plan and other elements of the deal are rolled out, because they are “not in a position to walk away from the deal” at the moment. But he added that if the NDP sticks with the deal now and then decides to walk away from it at a later date, when it makes more political sense to do so, it will have to explain why certain compromises that were once acceptable are no longer acceptable.

Cam Holmstrom, who was an NDP staffer under former leaders Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair, told The Hill Times he expected to see the NDP continue pushing the government to hold up its end of the bargain on dental care and other elements of the supply-and-confidence agreement.

Holmstrom, now the head of the government relations firm Niipaawi Strategies, said the NDP needs to continue speaking about inflation and the cost of living, “especially when you have the Conservatives coming in, giving a very populist spin on it.”

He said Singh had already begun to speak more about corporate price-gouging and emphasizing the large profit margins for grocery companies and some other large retailers and manufacturers during the pandemic. Holmstrom said these companies were “taking advantage of the moment to spike their profits and put money into their own pockets,” beyond any increase to their input costs, and called for an excess profits tax similar to those being considered in other G7 and G20 countries.

“My wife and I just did our grocery shop, and we’ve never spent so much on groceries in our lives,” he said. “It cannot be a new normal for society to have 17 per cent inflation on basic goods like soup.”

Affordability and cost of living high on the agendas at Liberal,  NDP retreats

The Liberals and the NDP each announced ahead of time that their respective post-Labour Day gatherings—a cabinet retreat for the Liberals in Vancouver and a caucus retreat for the NDP in Halifax—would focus on affordability and the economy.

Singh said in a Sept. 7 press release that his party has been calling on the government to double the GST tax credit, increase the Canada Child Benefit by $500, provide $500 in rent support through the Canada Housing Benefit, and provide assistance for children’s dental care.

Murphy said the government will look more towards targeted measures to help people on the margins who are most affected by the increased cost of living, instead of broad-based measures that, by putting cash into everyone’s pockets, will end up counteracting what the Bank of Canada is trying to do on inflation.

“Everyone wants to see new programs, but [the Liberals] have to roll out the initiatives they’ve already introduced.”

Murphy emphasized the continued rollout of the government’s childcare program, describing it as “a massive social program that affects one of the core expenses for young parents.”

Deeper into the fall, Murphy said there is a chance the Liberals will arrive at a health-care deal with the provinces. “And they’ll also be starting to set the stage a little bit more for pharmacare, which is in the latter half of the Liberal-NDP agreement. There’s work to be done to set the stage for that. I’m expecting to see some more developments on that front.”

Von Donat said he did not think the government’s existing programs and affordability measures would be enough to address the general population’s frustration at the rising cost of living. “In my opinion, the government has to look at other measures. I have heard too many stories from people who are not political, who are concerned about the current state of the economy,” said von Donat. “Canadians are facing the pinch.”

He said the promised dental care program and existing programs such as the Canada Child Benefit may be good programs in their own right, but that they do not catch the attention of a broader voter base the way a wider rebate might, or the temporary easing of the gas tax that some premiers have tried.

Von Donat clarified that he was not advocating for similar federal cuts to taxes for gasoline, but that instead he was pointing out that, for political reasons, a government needs to be seen to be making a difference on the cost of living question. “I don’t mean to be crass about it, but that’s something the government has to have in their calculations. They’re tied with a Conservative Party that doesn’t yet have a permanent leader,” he said.

Holmstrom disagreed with the idea that providing support for dental care for children under 12, which is the first phase of the rollout of dental care in the Liberal-NDP agreement, does not address cost of living concerns for many households.

“The people who I hear saying dental care is not a cost-of-living issue are people who already have dental coverage,” said Holmstrom. “There are a lot of people out there who do not have dental coverage who have to pay out of pocket. Or they’re making other choices. It’s an impediment for getting people back into the workforce, and it’s part of good health.”

“If you’re a young family and you’re talking about trying to keep your kids’ teeth clean, or having to pay for surgery, or having to pay for braces, trust me, that factors into your costs. Am I paying for gas or am I paying for groceries or am I paying for my rent or my mortgage?”

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