'Real money on the table': One-on-one with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland
TORONTO -- In the federal government’s first budget since the start of the pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a plan for $101.4 billion in new spending aimed at getting Canadian businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic and stimulating the economy afterwards.
The funding announcement includes $30 billion towards a national child-care plan, $17.6 billion for green investments and $12 billion to extend COVID-19 business aid programs.
Noticeably absent from the budget, however, is a promised pharmacare plan and significant measures to cool the red-hot real estate market in the country.
Freeland spoke to CTV's Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme shortly after revealing the 2021 budget to discuss its highlights, its omissions, the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and how Canada will recover from a $354.2-billion deficit.
Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Lisa LaFlamme: The first federal budget in two years, 724 pages and billions in new spending. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland joins me now. First female finance minister and you finally got the national child-care program in writing. So it's a start, but seriously, what took so long?
Chrystia Freeland: Well, maybe you needed to have a woman finance minister, Lisa. What I want to say to Canadians, though, is the big difference with this commitment is we're putting real money on the table, $30 billion over five years, more than $9 billion permanently after that.
LaFlamme: But you also have to negotiate with the provinces to get this done and they're broke.
Freeland: Well, a lot of provinces are already spending significant amounts of money on early learning and child care and so we're going to be there to support them. The other great thing about early learning and child care is this is a program which actually delivers economic benefits and that's just not just a theory. At least that is what the experience of Quebec shows. Every dollar you invest in early learning and child care comes back to you.
LaFlamme: Quebec will bail on this because they already have it. So the other provinces, we're already hearing from Ontario that know one size fits all doesn't work. So I think that's where this comes down to, is how do you negotiate with the provinces to make this real?
Freeland: You know, I wouldn’t be so confident that Quebec will not be interested. Actually, quite the contrary. I think this is a program that is going to be really, really helpful for Quebec. Quebec’s system is expensive for Quebec and Quebec needs more high-quality, affordable spaces. With support from the federal government, that is what they will be able to build. So I actually think this announcement is really good news for Quebec and I look forward to our conversation with them, as I do with all of the provinces and for sure, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, this is about a series of bilateral negotiations. But what the federal government is going to be looking to build is a system which is high quality, which is accessible, which is affordable and you know what, it’s hard for me to see how anyone could debate any of that.
LaFlamme: Well, there is much debate already ensuing, as you can imagine, but the one thing they're all debating, the provinces -- they wanted something that was going to bolster health-care funding. They wanted a serious injection of cash, up to $28 billion a year, and they're not getting it. So Premier Legault is even talking about urging the opposition to topple the government if this budget didn't deliver on health care, especially during a pandemic.
Freeland: As you know very well, just a couple of weeks ago, we committed an additional $5 billion to support the provinces and territories in their health-care system in the fight against the third wave. We knew the third wave was coming and we knew they needed that additional support. And this comes on top of half a billion extra that we put forward right away in March last year when the pandemic struck and of course, nearly $20 billion in the state restart agreement of last summer. So the federal government has been there. We're going to continue to be there. We're going to do whatever it takes to finish the fight against COVID.
LaFlamme: Why no national standard for long-term care after what was really a total disaster and tragedy province after province that unfolded in the first wave of this pandemic?
Freeland: I agree with you, Lisa, that the tragedy in long-term care is one of the greatest horrors of COVID and that's the lesson we have to learn and that is a great failing that needs the country and that's why this budget puts forward $3 billion to support provinces and territories in their long-term care systems and to help them improve the standard of care. And that comes on top of $1 billion that we committed to in the fall economic statement that's moving through the Senate. And so that's going to be together $4 billion of additional money for long-term care.
LaFlamme: Well, as far as provinces go, I wonder if you’re worried that those children from the child-care program that could eventually benefit from it are going to be the same ones who will, when they grow up, still be paying for this deficit? I mean, how is that looking out for the future?
Freeland: Well, actually, we said when it comes to early learning and child care, the great thing about it is it is not only a feminist policy, it not only makes life a heck of a lot easier for families, but it is an excellent economic policy. This is a policy that once we build it -- and it's going to take a little bit of time -- is going to do more for Canada's economy and for our growth than any economic policy of any Canadian government since NAFTA. This will raise our GDP by 1.2 per cent. So early learning and child care, far from burdening our children, is actually going to increase, improve Canada's ability to grow. It increases the participation of women in the labour force. It creates really good jobs for the people who work in early learning and child care, and you know what, 20 years from now, when we have that generation of Canadians who have benefited from high-quality early learning and child care across the country, we're going to have a generation of even smarter super kids, and that that definitely yields economic benefit.
LaFlamme: Where are they going to live, though? I mean, you look at the young family and wonder, how are they ever going to afford a first home? There's almost nothing in the budget to cool down the red hot real estate market.
Freeland: Well, I agree with you that housing is a big issue. And I do want to say for young families, child care is another big issue when it comes to affordability. So that's one piece of the affordability puzzle for young families and we're putting forward a massive response there. When it comes to housing, absolutely. Canada is a growing country and to grow, we need to build. That includes housing and that's why this budget puts forward $2.2 billion to build more homes for Canadians. We're also introducing the first ever national tax on vacant property owned by non-resident, non Canadians. And that's because, Lisa, you know, a house in Canada should be a home for a Canadian family. It shouldn't be a vehicle for speculation for offshore money. So that tax is there to make sure that that's what our homes are for.
LaFlamme: You said it yourself today. Canadians are tired. They also have very long memories and your party campaigned on pharmacare in the last election and it's nowhere today. So why should they believe you this time on child care?
Freeland: Well, on child care, they should believe me because I am putting a lot of money on the table and they should believe me because I think Canadians should believe in themselves and I think we're at a tipping point as a country. I think we have reached a moment where there is a national consensus where early learning and child care has ceased to be seen as a partisan issue. It has ceased to be a women's issue or a purely feminist issue and we all understand that this is smart, essential economic policy that the country needs now. So I think this is something we're ready to do as a country. The federal government is ready to invest in it. Let's get it done.
LaFlamme: You know, we are definitely at a tipping point in this third wave, April 19th. It is way worse situation than we were a year ago when your government extended the tax filing deadline. So why haven't you extended it this year? I mean, you made Canadians wait two years for this budget.
Freeland: You know, Lisa, you started by talking about the third wave, and as someone who lives in Toronto, where things are really tough right now, let me just say to everyone I really know how tired and how frustrated and even how afraid we are right now, but I also know that we're going to pull through it, we're going to do it together, we do need to be following public health guidelines and it's important that there's light at the end of the tunnel and vaccines are coming.
LaFlamme: What does that have to do with extending the tax filing deadline?
Freeland: It was our first moment to talk about COVID, Lisa, and I do think it's important for Canadians to know that the federal government is there for them and that we're going to do whatever it takes to support Canadians and I think we've shown that. Eight out of 10 dollars spent right now to support Canadians through COVID are spent by the federal government.
LaFlamme: But that is what they are saying. Small businesses are saying they want the extension, that it's worse right now than it was last year. So I just want to better understand the reasoning for not extending it.
Freeland: So on small businesses in particular, I think there's a lot of good news for them in this budget, there is good news that we are extending the business support through to the end of September and that we're introducing a new hiring credit that will run from June to November to further support them. And we have put together what I think is the most ambitious program of any federal government to support small businesses, to turn the corner and to invest in technology and innovation. There's a lot for small business in this budget.
LaFlamme: OK, Minister Freeland, a big day and a lot of work ahead. So thank you so much for your time tonight.
Freeland: Great to talk to you.