Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth but I couldn’t help being conflicted on hearing that we seniors are about to get a tax-free $300-$500 pandemic pension top-up. No doubt those who’ve endured financial stress as a result of COVID-19 will welcome the modest windfall. The fortunate ones who feel they don’t need the cash are free to give it away.

What really struck me about the gift to seniors was the estimated cost – $2.5 billion. Although a relatively modest addition to the more than $150 billion in pandemic-related program spending already announced, the pension top-up amounts to more money than the Trudeau government invested in improving long- term care for seniors in the four-plus years it has been in power.

Admittedly, it compares apples (income assistance) to oranges (services) but the $2.5 billion rolled out this week is about twice the amount the feds gave provincial governments for long-term care as part of the 2016 health accord.[i] And that modest amount was limited to home care, meaning that long-term care homes had to compete for resources from a health transfer capped at less than the increase in health costs .

I’ve posted many times, most recently here, about the double dealing and penny pinching that has characterized the Liberal record on health transfers in general and long-term care in particular.

Despite pleas dating back five years from doctors, nurses and big business for an immediate $1.6 billion needs-based federal investment in long-term care, the Liberals offered only peanuts and platitudes – until the pandemic hit and they had to send the military into nursing homes in Quebec and Ontario. Goodness knows what policy agenda the pre-pandemic Liberals were following on long-term care, but the devastating impact of the virus on seniors has exposed the bankruptcy of it.

Rampant Grifting?

While seniors were receiving gifts, others were being accused of grift. The alleged victim of the swindle is the CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit), the program the government has rushed in to get money ($2000 per month taxable for up to four months) into the hands of workers who lost jobs as a result of the pandemic and lockdown.

Economist David MacDonald has estimated that because of the way the program is designed as many as 1.4 million jobless Canadians received no benefit from EI or CERB in April. But news hounds, joined by the Conservatives, seem less concerned with that problem than about the possibility of fraud. Apparently some people who shouldn’t are getting cheques, and someone in the bureaucracy is leaking this to the media.

The CBC was first off the mark. The English network had the harrowing tale of a senior with two sons with disabilities managing to get money through the program. This was after Radio-Canada reported on two inmates in Quebec jails who also scammed the system, although their jailers intercepted the cheques.

Postmedia – which by the way is reportedly seeking at least $20 million in wage subsidies from the feds – was next up. That spawn of Conrad Black provides copy to our very own Chronicle-Herald where appeared on Wednesday a story headlined “Ignore cheating in CERB, EI claims, memo says.” The result of another leak, Postmedia’s story revealed that government employees have been told to process suspect CERB claims and “red flag” them for investigation later.

In their defence, Trudeau and his ministers have said their priority was to get CERB payments out as quickly as possible. “We knew there would be a need to clean up after the fact, to go after fraudulent cases, and we will do that.” Trudeau’s explanation didn’t satisfy the Conservatives, whose jobs critic spent part of Tuesday’s virtual session of Parliament trying unsuccessfully to get Trudeau to admit ordering civil servants to ignore potential cases of fraud.

Part of a pattern

One way of looking at the flap over alleged grifting is that it’s the media and opposition combining to keep government honest, in the tradition of democratic accountability. But in the case of the Conservatives, it continues a pattern begun last month when Parliament was debating another pandemic relief initiative, the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).

That program is designed to assist post-secondary students whose chances of finding a summer job have been seriously hampered by the pandemic. It’s even less generous than the CERB – $1,250 a month for most students, $2,000 for those with disabilities or dependents. The Conservatives, with support from the Bloc, were concerned that the program would encourage students to take the summer off rather than work in places like farms or food processing plants. As Andrew Scheer would have it, students need “incentivizing” to get off the couch. The Liberals gave in to the argument, and added a requirement that unlike the CERB, to get the benefit students need to attest that they are actively looking for work.

As discussed last week, the cost of the program for students is a relatively modest (for these times) $5 billion. The CERB is more costly, estimated at about $36 billion. But the big-ticket items are the wage subsidy ($76 billion) and potentially LEEFF, a program announced this week to provide financing to large companies who can’t get loans from the bank. The only concerns the Conservatives have expressed so far about those costlier programs is that the government hasn’t been quick enough to offer them. Dare we hope that as more information becomes available  they will be as diligent in their oversight of the billions in help for corporations and businesses as they have been about the near poverty-level payouts for students and the unemployed?




[i] Federal documents show transfers of $300 million, $900 million and $1.1 billion 2017-8 to 2019-20 for home care and mental health. The total of $2.3 billion for the targeted transfer was split 55-45 between home care and mental health, meaning about $1.27 billion for long-term care.