OTTAWA – With most of the country’s MPs deep into riding work or away on summer holiday, it’s the chatter among civil servants that echoes the loudest these days in the parliamentary precinct. But instead of gabbing about the weather like usual, the small talk is all about who is getting paid and who is not.
The government’s new pay system, Phoenix, has not been working properly, and this week officials acknowledged that more than 80,000 government employees — about a quarter of the work force — had had serious problems with their pay.
In scenes more often associated with emerging markets on the brink of debt default, government officials apologized, pointed to emergency funding and promised to make employees whole — all while admitting to breaches of private information.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country reeled with the thought of Donald Trump as U.S. president; received brand new cheques from the federal government to spend on their children; and seemed to pay little heed to the handful of politicians left behind in Ottawa to discuss what else they can do for desperate refugees in the Middle East.
Here’s how politics touched us this week:
TRUMP: It’s a rule of thumb that even a rookie politician knows by rote: don’t get involved in other countries’ politics. But Donald Trump provokes such strong reactions that it was not too shocking to hear Canada’s defence minister issue some words of caution. Trump suggested this week he might not defend a NATO partner invaded by Russia. Canada’s Harjit Sajjan responded that such comments were “not helpful.”
Trump has also said he would renegotiate or just ditch NAFTA if he were elected president. Together, NATO and NAFTA are mainstays of Canada’s foreign policy — powerful multilateral arrangements that allow small but capable Canada to leverage its military and international trade capacities.
Is there a plan B for Canada if Trump is elected and makes good on rhetoric to throw into disarray the very international organizations that open Canadian doors to prosperity and security? Or are government strategists just keeping their fingers crossed?
CHILDREN: Most families across the country started receiving their new Liberal child benefit cheques this week, replacing a bundle of Conservative family-friendly measures.
The Liberals say that a year from now, almost 300,000 children will no longer be living in poverty as a result of the new payment. But they also acknowledge that half of aboriginal children — arguably the poorest in the country — risk missing out on the benefit, at least for the time being, because their parents don’t file tax returns.
The $23-billion-a year benefit was central to the Liberals’ election campaign — pointed to as a source of stimulus for a sluggish economy, as well as the key to redistributing the country’s income from the rich to the middle- and lower-classes.
Will families spend their new money and fuel the economy? Economists expect a good chunk of that money to circulate and generate growth. But at the same time, independent projections for growth this year are tepid. The Conference Board of Canada just downgraded its forecast for 2016, to 1.4 per cent from 1.6 per cent — a growth rate that, if it persists, would not be enough to sustain Canadians’ standard of living over the long run.
REFUGEES: Even as Trump and the Brexit movement thrive on anti-immigrant sentiment, in Canada politicians are wrangling over which party can do the most to help endangered families overseas. This week, MPs on the immigration committee held an emergency summer session to decide how Canada could come to the aid of Yazidis, a religious minority facing genocide in Iraq at the hands of ISIL.
The matter was not resolved, yet. The Liberal majority on the committee is playing for time to figure out how to best work with international rules — prompting the opposition parties to cry foul and issue their own recommendations for immediate action.
There’s a reason each of the parties is clamouring to be the most helpful. Government polling released this week shows that Canadians remain very much in favour of helping with the Syrian crisis, and that their support has increased over time. Even as 25,000 Syrian refugees flooded into the country, and even when polling questions about immigration and refugee intake are linked to terrorism, Canadians were still open-minded about the program.