July 3, 2020

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Credit to feds for wage subsidy relief

Opinion

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If you’re going to criticize fairly, you also need to be able to compliment when appropriate.

Thus, today I offer kind words for the business wage subsidy program Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced over a series of days starting last week.

The scope of this emergency program keeps growing. I certainly never studied economics at a high enough level to comprehend how the government is going to pay for it all. However, it appears this unprecedented support will keep businesses across the country afloat during the most significant economic disruption we have lived through in recent times.

It is remarkably bold of the federal government to do this. It is a huge bet that the impact of COVID-19 will be contained, the economy will rebound, and companies will get back on their feet in a reasonable period of time.

It is crucially important. A Manitoba Chambers of Commerce survey done just before the program was announced found three out of 10 business leaders said the crisis could put them out of business.

It is literally a life-saver for a business such as the Winnipeg Free Press. Our advertising revenues have dwindled. Although we enjoy strong support from paying subscribers, those subscription revenues are not enough to sustain operations. Other newspapers have closed or significantly curtailed operations, laying off large numbers of employees. We were on the verge of this. We have been pulled back from the edge.

I had harsh words for the prime minister last week after he publicly said his government was about to announce new measures to support journalism during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then no new measures were forthcoming.

My opinion of his comments on that day has not changed. But I must acknowledge that help has arrived for us, and for many other businesses in this community.

There are still frustrations. On Tuesday we were still waiting for the government to lay out details of the 75 per cent wage subsidy program so that businesses can determine if they qualify. Details may come Wednesday, but that’s almost a week after the prime minister’s first announcement last Friday.

That is an eternity for companies facing the pressure of meeting regular payrolls and paying other expenses. For many business leaders, the future of their firms depends on how quickly they make decisions about laying off staff or shutting down operations. 

The question is, can any government respond quickly enough? The COVID-19 challenge for governments has been framed as "deaths versus the economy." No decision is easy in that context.

In Canada, most levels of government have done a pretty good job of responding to the health threat posed by COVID-19. You can argue there should be more testing, or that travel restrictions and physical distancing should have been imposed sooner. But in general, governments have heeded their public-health experts and taken actions in real time based on the information they have.

It has been much harder for governments to figure out what to do about the consequences of those actions for the economy. Initially, the emphasis was on support for the millions of newly unemployed people. But that did nothing to make sure businesses survive so people have jobs to come back to in the future.

At first, the Trudeau government announced small steps, such as offering 10 per cent wage subsidies to small businesses. By late last week, the Liberals realized they had to step up in a major way to keep the economy in business. They came up with a 75 per cent subsidy, which grew over the weekend to a program encompassing any firm that has lost 30 per cent of its revenues.

We are all hoping this is a very temporary program. The government cannot sustain this kind of subsidy for long. Those of us who are eligible are grateful we no longer face imminent doom.

So for the prime minister I have two words: thank you.

Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chairman of News Media Canada, which represents daily and community newspapers across Canada.

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

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