Don Martin: Trust now, but verify later, the claims for emergency government funding
OTTAWA -- Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s finest moment came when he publicly name-shamed an upscale grocery store charging $30 for Lysol wipes normally retailing for a fifth of that amount.
That was a catalyst to impose hefty fines on pandemic price-gougers, a campaign which instantly boosted his popularity and cost the abruptly-apologetic grocer every last shred of positive branding.
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Which brings us, in a related vein, to a federal government being forced to trust business interests to take only the sips it needs from a federal firehouse spraying billions of deficit dollars in every direction.
In these dire times, when funding validation is being sacrificed for rollout speed, government is forced to trust companies to not take advantage of emergency consumerism or rescue response packages.
When the lumbering bureaucratic behemoth morphed into a four-minute-miler to rush these rescue packages out the door, it was forced to forfeit the usual pile of pre-approval paperwork for red-tape-free, cash-on-demand.
Never has so much money been dedicated so quickly to combating an economic meltdown which so desperately needs it - while opening up so many gaping loopholes for a money grab.
As one neighbor wryly noted, it’s like putting out a bowl of Halloween goodies while you’re out walking the block with your kids and expecting trick or treaters to only take one candy bar.
What will be needed when, not if, this is over is a shift from trust to verification.
There’s simply too much pain in this pandemic to let anyone gain financially who doesn’t actually need the help.
So when Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he trusts employers to cough up their share of pay not covered under his 75 per cent wage subsidy program, questions must be asked if employees note they didn’t get their full paycheque or even report for work.
If executives take eager advantage of interest free loans and pocket huge subsidies despite having a deep pile of cash in the vault, they should be forced to pay it back in the pandemic afterworld.
And if a company is stabilized by public funds and the board of directors hand executives a hefty performance bonus for merely surviving, assistance should be clawed back.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly cautioned business against gaming a multi-pronged COVID-19 response built almost entirely on faith, but stops short of vowing retroactive auditing to ensure these megabillions were legitimately claimed.
But that needs to be done when this pandemic has passed and the final bills are tallied up.
Lest we forget, this will be $200 billion-plus deficit-driven escalation of federal debt. And that heftiest bill in our history will be passed to future generations of taxpayers for payment.
But beyond making future efforts to catch any unscrupulous enterprises grabbing easy money just because they can, Trudeau should also warn he’ll steal a page from Doug Ford’s playbook.
If companies big or small are found to have broken trust with the government, plundering the public purse against the letter or the spirit of these financial rescue efforts, they should be named and shamed in public by the federal government.
That would make them pay a hefty price in lost consumer and customer loyalty – and it would probably give the prime minister’s popularity a post-pandemic boost.