Ottawa overreaching with its LEEFF bailout benefits requirements

We overreach. We get out of our lanes.

It’s human. In crisis, it’s common.

In COVID-19 times, who hasn’t made a broad prediction outside of their expertise?

And with more time on our hands, with more of a mess on theirs, the pandemic is teaching us much about the innate traits of our institutions and their leaders.

Some of what we have seen has been shameless and shameful: a remorseless U.S. president and a furtive initial coverup from COVID-19 Ground Zero. And we could as Canada quite properly, smugly squawk, but don’t – and likely can’t, or at least shouldn’t.

Not if we know what we need and what is good for us. We need America and China. We don’t recover or flourish until they do. We have to hope against the evidence before us that it happens.

Our leadership could press itself into the vulnerable pain points of others, apply that smarminess that comes with relative success in tackling challenges, and try to make a teachable moment out of tough times.

Not now. Not soon.

Justin Trudeau has bitten his lip almost every day before the cameras about Donald Trump, just as he has for months about Xi Jinping. The day may come to remind them we catch a cold when they sneeze somewhere else than into their sleeves, that their handling of a crisis has splattered the virus our way.

Right now, though, it is way wiser than not to stay in the lane.

Which, it merits reminding, might also be a wise message about the domestic scene.

Last week’s announcement of the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF), a federal lender-of-last-resort program for larger, destitute firms, could have used some congruence in how government treats its own as it treats its two largest trading partners. As in discreetly, delicately.

But no: overreach arrived; the lane has been strayed from.

The federal government has been largely keeping its place in this crisis, allotting support every which way it can and asking only that Canadians don’t take advantage of the offerings at this susceptible moment.

Now, in their most desperate throes, large firms find themselves subjected to an excessive scrutiny of their plans and operations – how they will structure, invest, compensate, employ and even commit to a partisan policy on climate action. The government isn’t asking Canadians how they’ll spend their emergency relief, but this new program is asking business exactly that.

Bear in mind these are neither bailouts nor grants – where strings, even leashes are properly attached – but simply bridging loans. And as others have noted, the government got these businesses into this survival mode by shuttering the economy as the pandemic struck.

So, out of the vault has resurfaced a trait we have seen at times in government. It is not content with addressing one problem; it senses an opening to solve more at once.

To wit: qualifying businesses for this program would be required by Ottawa to provide a plan on how they support “environmental sustainability and national climate action goals” to get the credit to avert insolvency. This amounts to hostage taking in the form of policy creep.

To be clear, to keep critics at bay: climate change is upon us. But please, one problem at a time in these times. Complicating the task in this context is inappropriate. While businesses are finding their feet, you cannot expect them to walk on water.

There will be a day to return to the climate change agenda, and ferociously, just as there will be a day to return to the behaviour of the leadership of America and China. 

Meantime, bring on the shipments of masks and goods and trade. Trump may meet his match in November; we would get to tell him not to slam the door on the way out of our lives.

For the time being, and the foreseeable time ahead, we have to accept results that are good enough, not great, and set aside our quest of the long-term gain for the short-term pain of stalling what were recently our imperatives. For ourselves, not just for others. •

Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.