Just a month ago, experts were predicting that the American economy would be slow to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment remains at record highs, but, as the country begins to reopen, federal policies that have bolstered small businesses and bailed out big ones seem to have helped avoid another Great Depression. John Cassidy joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss how good news about the economy complicates Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump.
Pandemic or no pandemic, political parties receive taxpayer subsidies worth tens of millions of dollars every year — a sum that will rise in 2020 when the four national parties receive the emergency wage subsidy to make up for a shortfall in donations.
The COVID-19 outbreak has had a significant impact on parties’ ability to raise money — which explains why the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens have all applied for the federal government’s wage subsidy program. The program pays out up to 75 per cent of an employee’s pre-pandemic salary.
The parties collectively employ 200 people, so that subsidy will cost the treasury about $670,000 per month.
There’s no doubt that parties are hard up for cash, as are many businesses and organizations in Canada. An analysis of fundraising in March and how it compared to previous years suggests the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP might have missed out on as much as $2 million in contributions in that month alone.
Those parties applying for or already receiving the wage subsidy were denounced today by Yves-François Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc has not applied for the subsidy.
“Programs that were created to avoid the bankruptcy of businesses and individuals serve today to finance the two richest parties in Canada,” he said.
“It’s deeply unacceptable. The Liberals don’t need it. The Conservatives don’t need it.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked repeatedly on Monday about the Liberals receiving the subsidy. He said only that the subsidy is an important program meant to shield businesses and non-profits from being forced to lay off employees.
The decision also is causing some consternation among Conservative leadership candidates.
Ontario MP Erin O’Toole was the first to voice his opposition to his party’s decision to take the subsidy, pledging that if he is elected leader he will pay that money back over time.
“Canadians have sacrificed enough,” O’Toole said in an email to supporters. (He also pointed out that if an election were called, he would prioritize defeating the Liberals over paying back the subsidy.)
Toronto candidate Leslyn Lewis released a statement expressing her “disappointment” with the party’s decision.
Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay also said that he opposed the party taking the subsidy, arguing that “our party ended direct taxpayer subsidization of political parties.”
Parties receive millions in subsidies already
From 2004 to 2015, political parties received a direct subsidy for every vote they received in the most recent election. That subsidy was phased out by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper.
But indirect subsidization of political parties continues. The most significant is the tax credit donors receive for their contributions — 75 per cent of the first $400, 50 per cent for the next tranche up to $750, and 33.5 per cent for the remainder, up to $1,625.
According to the Department of Finance, this credit has cost $145 million since 2016, or roughly $29 million every year.
But that isn’t even the only source of public funding for parties. They also receive lucrative reimbursements for their election expenses. These reimbursements are worth 50 per cent of eligible expenses for national parties that receive at least two per cent of the vote, and 60 per cent for individual candidates who obtain at least 10 per cent of the vote in their constituency.
The reimbursement to parties for the 2015 federal election (the last for which data is available) totalled $60.7 million, while another $42.7 million was paid out to individual candidates.
This election expense reimbursement adds another level of subsidy to the contribution tax credit.
A $400 donation will net the contributor $300 in tax credits. If the party then spends that money during an election campaign, it will receive another $200 in reimbursements — that $400 donation has been turned into a $500 subsidy. And if the party spends their reimbursement on another election, it can receive another $100 … and so on and so on.
In the end, the wage subsidy will be far less costly than the other subsidies from which parties already benefit.
Certainly, political parties serve an important function in democracy — and they are employers, like any other organization. Like many non-profits, they can do a lot of good work.
Nevertheless, the propriety of parties receiving subsidies from programs that they themselves have designed or supported in Parliament can be debated.
But the wage subsidy is just one of many ways in which parties have awarded themselves sources of taxpayer funding. Whether those sources are direct or indirect, the money all comes from the same place.
Liberals' ability to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny plays into system of 'image politics,' critics say – National Post
OTTAWA — The Liberal government has avoided months of parliamentary scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead using televised daily briefings with the prime minister to further its system of “image politics,” an expert in democratic process says.
The Liberals and New Democratic Party agreed earlier this week to suspend parliamentary proceedings until September 21, equipping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a “tremendous amount of power over the summer,” said Kathy Brock, professor at Queen’s University.
The decision comes after Trudeau has for months appeared in the House of Commons on a limited basis, instead using his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage to announce major new spending measures and take questions from the media.
He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model
“This government is very focused on messaging and image politics and that meant that it wanted to respond to the needs of Canadians when the pandemic came up,” said Brock, who has served in various advisory roles to all three major political parties over the last 30 years.
“But when they started to face criticism for not acting as quickly as possible, the prime minister turned to the easiest tool, which is having briefings with the media outside Rideau Cottage,” she said.
The approach has been met with criticism by opposition parties and parliamentary experts, who say politicians have not had adequate time to press the Trudeau government on some of its largest spending measures, which now top an estimated $150 billion. They also say the government overreached in an earlier attempt to equip itself with the authority to tax, spend and loan money with almost no parliamentary oversight for nearly two years, well beyond the expected timeframe of the pandemic.
Other observers point out that Parliament would typically rise for the summer months regardless, and that “hybrid” forms of Question Period, which include virtual questions and answer sessions, have continued for the past few months.
“The cut-off in June is not an aberration,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University. However, she questioned “why there’s such a desire” to close off access to other forms of scrutiny, like private members bills or written questions to Parliament.
Turnbull, like others, has been surprised by the Liberals’ ability to secure the support of opposition parties to restrict in-person sittings of Commons.
“Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government,” she said, “It’s incredible what this government has done. We usually see more push and pull between the opposition and the government.”
The NDP has faced criticism for making an agreement with the Liberal party to suspend Parliament because it allows for the government to sidestep proper scrutiny.
NDP House leader Peter Julian pushed back against those claims in an interview Thursday, saying the deal secured four sitting days in the House of Commons during the summer — a provision that other parties were not pushing for.
“There’s been a lot of exaggeration,” Julian said.
Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government
The NDP opposed a Conservative proposal that would have had regular in-person sittings in the Commons well into June, in which a select group of roughly 50 people would attend in order to maintain social distancing measures. The proposal would have allowed Parliament to exert its full powers before summer break, but Julian argued it would have needlessly excluded the majority of MPs in Canada.
“I think it’s a very Ottawa-centric interpretation,” he said.
A spokesperson for Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez reiterated that all parties agreed to the March 13 motion to suspend Parliament until April 20. The agreement with the NDP allows for the continuation of a special COVID-19 committee that meets several times a week, but is not afforded the regular powers of the House.
“We believe it is a responsible plan that ensures accountability and transparency, and respects public health advice,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.
Candice Bergen, Conservative House leader, said there has been a push for months by the Liberal government to avoid regular parliamentary sittings. MPs in recent weeks had been sitting in-person on a limited basis once a week.
“I was clear with Pablo that we felt Parliament needed to resume,” Bergen said. “But that was clearly not what the government wanted and they found a dance partner in the NDP.”
She said Trudeau has instead opted to convey the Liberals approach to COVID-19 through the televised briefings at his official residence, where media ask daily questions.
“He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model,” Bergen said, adding that media “is not a substitute for the official Opposition.”
Brock, at Queen’s University, said the Rideau Cottage meetings give Trudeau more time to craft his own message on a daily basis, unimpeded, while taking only a select number of questions from journalists.
“It certainly operates in the Liberals’ favour, because they’re receiving media attention and it seems very positive because they’re responding to a crisis,” she said. “But it means that they aren’t getting tough questions to the same extent on other, lesser known files.”
A Guide to the Economics and Politics of the Coronavirus Recovery – The New Yorker
Keep Politics Out of Reopening Houses of Worship – The New York Times
More from our inbox:
To the Editor:
Re “Firing Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Wants Churches Open” (front page, May 23):
Last Friday was not the first time we have witnessed a politician attempting to ingratiate himself with faith communities. Through the years, leaders from both major political parties have sought the support of houses of worship in their electoral campaigns.
Certainly those of us who devote our lives to religious leadership would like to consider our work “essential.” And we eagerly await the day when we can welcome our congregants back to their spiritual homes. While we can pray to God anywhere at any time alone or with others, and while the internet has provided a viable and meaningful vehicle for gathering our members in this time of physical distancing, nothing could ever replace the power of in-person congregational worship.
But religious communities must not become political pawns for a president seeking to placate his evangelical base. In Judaism, the saving of life supersedes all other religious responsibilities. The decision whether or not to reopen houses of worship belongs in the hands of local authorities alone, guided by health concerns, not political ones.
Joshua M. Davidson
The writer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.
To the Editor:
The cynicism of President Trump’s call to governors to open the churches is staggering. I am a Catholic who attends Mass every day. I have always loved the ritual of the Mass, and I rejoice and celebrate as I gather with friends old and new who enrich my life. I will return joyfully to my church when our governor deems it safe to do so, not when it is politically expedient for our president.
John T. Dillon
West Caldwell, N.J.
To the Editor:
President Trump asks all governors to immediately open up churches and allow in-person worship — without testing. Yet everyone who meets with Mr. Trump must first be tested.
So, what’s good for the gander ain’t good for the goose. If he truly believes that in-person worship is safe, let’s see him go to these churches (or restaurants or theaters) without testing — and let’s see him mingle with the folks not wearing masks.
Marc R. Stanley
Which Is the Better Bridge: The Brooklyn or the George Washington?
To the Editor:
Re “The Star of the City Sells Itself,” by Michael Kimmelman (Critic’s Notebook, Arts pages, May 7):
OK, the Brooklyn Bridge is wholly in New York City and joins two of its boroughs. And it was something of an engineering achievement. Book after book has been written about it; it appears in a wealth of movies.
But the great bridge in the New York area is the George Washington.
When I sought to read a book on the George, I discovered that there were none. Participating in a symposium at Columbia University on American icons, and listening to others drone on about the Brooklyn, I asked “What about the George?” There was complete silence. Then one participant said, to almost universal laughter, “But look where it goes,” the suggestion being that since the George crosses to New Jersey, it couldn’t possibly be important.
The George is also the gateway to Interstate 80, on which one may travel in a straight line to San Francisco. New Yorkers think of themselves as sophisticated compared with New Jerseyans, but they can often be decidedly parochial.
Michael Aaron Rockland
The writer is the author of “The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel” and a professor of American studies at Rutgers.
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