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Federal Officials Express Doubts on Post-COVID Recovery Package as Cabinet Seeks Free Consulting Advice

Federal government department officials may be throwing cold water on the idea of a green recovery package—or any economic recovery package at all—the Globe and Mail reported last Friday, in a story that focused mainly on the Trudeau government turning to one of the world’s biggest management consulting firms for free advice on its post-pandemic strategy.

A team of Canadian representatives from the Boston Consulting Group, a U.S.-based company with more than 90 offices in 50 countries, spent several hours early last week with “roughly eight” federal cabinet ministers, “as part of a broader advisory role the U.S.-based consultancy is serving on an unpaid basis,” the Globe said. Unidentified federal officials “alternately described the meeting held on Monday as a brainstorming session and as an opportunity for BCG to share information on pandemic-related policies that other countries are pursuing.”

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BCG’s agenda for the meeting styled it as “an early step in charting the course for future-forward recovery,” the Globe said. The firm’s website includes several segments on the climate crisis, including one that digs into climate risk and another that describes the issue as “one of today’s most urgent challenges. No matter the industry or region, now is the time to prioritize and proactively invest in transformational action that will limit global warming and set organizations on a path to success in a decarbonized world.”

After last week’s meeting, “the federal officials stressed that the government is not yet anywhere near figuring out specific economic stimulus measures, amid continuing uncertainty about the pandemic’s trajectory and which corners of the economy will be most adversely affected in the long run,” the Globe and Mail wrote. “It is nevertheless the latest indication that the government is gathering ideas in advance of the next phase of the economic response to the pandemic, which is likely to involve a shift from short-term relief measures to policies aimed at shaping the economy on the other side of the crisis.”

The Globe said the BCG session included the three ministers previously identified with a potential green recovery plan for the post-pandemic economy—Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna, and Environment and Climate Minister Jonathan Wilkinson—along with “several other ministers who have economic responsibilities, but were not previously known to be as actively participating in talks around recovery policy options.” That list included Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly, and Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan.

“While we are focused on the emergency response for Canadians at the moment, we are also working on what the next stages toward recovery will look like,” said a spokesperson for Bains.

The Globe pointed to mixed accounts of the BCG meeting and its implications. “A senior official in one of the ministers’ offices described the initial and more informal work of Mr. Wilkinson, Ms. McKenna, and Mr. Guilbeault now turning into a more structured effort by a larger cabinet group,” the paper wrote. But “a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office played down any sense that recovery planning is accelerating, as well as any suggestion of a new structure to steer it. The PMO official said ministers are welcome to gather stimulus ideas that may eventually be put to use, but that they have not been given the task of doing so.”

That disconnect “may indicate the government’s struggle to manage expectations, both among stakeholders and within government, for the timing and ambitions of coming stimulus measures,” with Wilkinson signalling last month that it will still be some time before those measures are finalized.

Despite the massive momentum for a green recovery, the Globe reported there is now “uncertainty—expressed within government by [Department of] Finance officials, among others—about how much recovery spending will be warranted at all, given the unknown extent to which simply removing COVID-related restrictions will in itself cause an economic rebound.” The paper added that, “across the government, officials make clear that they are still in the early stages of wrapping their heads around what sorts of measures would be most effective, coming out of a very unusual economic disruption that does not primarily affect sectors, such as construction, that typically benefit the most from traditional infrastructure-related stimulus.”

But even if federal officials are having second thoughts, a solid majority of Canadians expressed support for climate action in a new Abacus Data poll released last week by Clean Energy Canada. The research found 58% in favour of efforts to fight the climate crisis, with 43% opposed.

“When it comes to about a dozen different specific policy ideas for infrastructure, all of the items tested found more than 80% support or acceptance—opposition in no case exceeds 18%,” Clean Energy Canada writes. The poll showed 95% support for improved broadband, transit, and clean energy infrastructure, 94% in favour of promoting Canadian minerals and metals for use in clean technologies and Canadian forest products as low-carbon building and packaging solutions, 91% agreeing to “more space for walking and cycling without fear of vehicles,” and similarly strong support for electric buses, electric vehicle incentives, and funding for EV charging infrastructure.

The Abacus results match up with an earlier Ipsos poll that found much stronger public support for specific green investments than for a general response to climate change.