Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I have attached a number of political decisions that I believe must be explored during this period. I have refrained from entering into the logistics of our health response but I believe it is clear we must ensure we are: increasing the number of beds available; expanding the scope of our testing capabilities; hiring more health staff; and, establishing community supports and capabilities.
Yet as said by Winston Churchill, never waste a good crisis, so here are five of my usual political stances with the COVID spin attached:
Small Business Supports - In the NWT small business must be prioritized. The fact is we will see many of our small businesses close and never reopen in this crisis. This will be devastating not only to our economy but our very sense of community. Our small businesses are at the heart of how we operate. We already suffer some of the greatest inequality in the developed world. The potential collapse of our economy will disproportionately affect our most vulnerable. Small businesses need grants not loans. They need a pause on WSCC collections for the year, they need to be allowed to invoice GNWT work that has been stalled due to COVID and they need the GNWT supplies and tenders for the upcoming year out the door now. As long as we have ordered them to close, we as government must ensure they have cash flowing to keep the lights on.
A Guaranteed Livable Income - we are facing a housing crisis, food crisis, and poverty crisis. Fortunately we have the means to eliminate poverty for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. I have long advocated for a Universal Basic Income and with expansions to employment insurance, income assistance and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit we are getting so close. Yet there are still people falling through the cracks or for the which the program creates a disincentive to work. It is time to bite the bullet and streamline all these competing programs into a universal basic income that does not punish people for working. or require long bureaucratic application processes.
Free and Guaranteed Childcare for All Essential Workers - we are heading into a childcare disaster if this is not addressed. I have had many constituents report they will stop heading into their essential jobs soon, unless childcare is both secure and affordable. Mark my words, in 3 months from now, if other parts of the world have broken their curve, and we still haven't hit ours, with no end in site, people will be restless and angry such that public safety will be the greater risk. We must do everything we can to dispel discontentment amongst our citizens. Communications is one way to do this, as I wrote about in a previous post. Straight unconditional cash goes a long way to buying compliance with months of self distancing as well, but child care is just as important. People cannot be expected to stay at home with their children and work full time for months on end. We need to create small child care spaces to ensure all essential workers have someone looking after their children while they are looking after us.
Managed Alcohol Programs - the problems with alcohol are not new, they are the same as always, yet in times of stress old problems burst to the front. Fortunately new and old solutions also come to the forefront. We must establish managed alcohol programs across the territory. With communities limiting alcohol sales we will see increased bootlegging and strain on our healthcare system from withdrawals. Managed alcohol programs where people get free alcohol and aim to slowly limit consumption addresses our other public health crisis, alcoholism. It is within a community's right to make decisions to limit alcohol, whether I agree with it or not, but it is also our responsibility as government to limit harm in response to that. This is precisely what a managed alcohol program is proven to do.
Raise the Minimum Wage - we were planning to do this earlier in the year, as it is reviewed on a regular basis, I am simply stating we speed the process up. No one should be forced to work for $13.86 an hour on the front lines of a pandemic. $16 an hour is not too much to ask, call it hazard pay. Further expansions to guaranteed sick benefits for the large employers in the territory should also be pursued. If a person gets COVID-19 working to provide us services during a pandemic, and can't afford to take sick leave without pay, we are are taking an unnecessary risk.
How are we going to pay for all this? Honestly, I don’t know. Unfortunately the only way we have a fighting chance in responding to COVID-19 is through large government spending, and sadly we are in need of the largest economic stimulus package in territorial history at a time when we can least afford it. Additionally the only way we as a territory can be proactive without a proper tax base is through debt. Therefore I am saddened to say we must make raising our debt ceiling a priority for the federal government now. We must spend no less than 100 million in our response to COVID immediately (our standard annual operating budget for the GNWT is approximately 2 billion). If we don’t think we can get that money, we should get it anyway, and the feds will have to deal with it later. I am never happy to take on more debt but waiting to conduct economic stimulus will only exacerbate the problem. Us as politicians will have to have a very tough look at the books once we are through this, but now is not the time to be frugal.
All this being said, I believe we as a legislature must review all changes made during this period after the crisis resumes, even the ones I like, as decisions make without the proper public engagement that a crisis demands, need to be brought to public and legislature for approval as soon as feasible.