The human mind is, for the most part, a wonderful and miraculous thing. But when it comes to storing and processing memories, it leaves something to be desired. “Remembering is an act of storytelling, after all,” Robert Nash, a psychologist with the U.K.’s Aston University, wrote in a piece for The Conversation in 2018. “And our memories are only ever as reliable as the most recent story we told ourselves.”
That’s worth bearing in mind as we digest a new report from the auditor general of Canada about federal spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. It details $4.6 billion in payments to people who weren’t eligible for the programs they tapped, along with a further $27.4 billion that went to businesses or individuals that auditor general Karen Hogan says deserve further scrutiny. “I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” she said in a news release.
These are important concerns, and they deserve serious attention and investigation. The lack of real-time payroll data, in particular, is a glaring weakness in the system that prevented the federal government from collecting better data and distributing more accurately tailored benefits.
But this sort of focus on the granular details risks missing the bigger picture, and the bigger story. After all, the report also speaks to how successful the federal government’s COVID-19 support programs were, given the speed at which they were deployed and the uncertain environment in which they were created and refined. As it notes: “Within weeks, many programs were up and running. Historically, programs of this size would have taken months, if not years, to roll out.”
That speed necessarily raised the risk of giving money to people or businesses that didn’t need it, and the $32 billion the report identifies as potential overpayments to individuals and businesses are obviously a problem. But they pale in comparison to the rampant fraud that took place in the United States, where an estimated 10 per cent of the $800-billion Paycheck Protection Program was literally stolen — along with as much as $400 billion from the $900 billion COVID unemployment relief program and another $78 billion in so-called “Economic Injury Disaster Loans.”
As Carleton University professor Jennifer Robson pointed out, the $4.6 billion in overpayments to individuals amounts to a four per cent overall rate — not great, but not that much different from the one per cent overpayment rate the Employment Insurance program reported in 2019. “I’m having a hard time seeing this as scandalous when the rules to get CERB/recovery benefits were so pared down, by necessity for speed/ease (which the AG acknowledges), and with consent of Parliament,” Robson tweeted.
She wasn’t the only one refusing to clutch her pearls on the subject. As Laval economist Stephen Gordon said in his own tweet, “If someone from the future had visited me in April 2020 and told me that two years later, the most pressing economic concern in Canada would be an overheating economy and inflation, I would have been ecstatic. That was the *good news* scenario in April 2020.”
We would do well to think back to how monumentally uncertain that moment in time felt for everyone. It will surely be tempting for some to point to the government’s shock-and-awe approach to COVID-19 and conclude it somehow failed to anticipate or prevent waste and fraud, or that it’s single-handedly responsible for the inflation we’re dealing with today. But the alternative scenario they were trying to avoid — a massive economic depression and deflationary spiral — would have been far, far worse than anything we’re facing now.
We also shouldn’t let today’s Conservatives put the words of their 2020 counterparts in the memory hole. It was the Conservative Party of Canada, after all, that led the push to increase the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy from the initial level of 10 per cent to 75 per cent that surely contributed to the $15.5 billion in potential overpayments to businesses identified by the auditor general.
We should continue to chase down egregious overpayments but also remember: the generous support averted a far bigger mess, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #opinion #pandemic #CERB #cdnpoli
As then-leader Andrew Scheer told the House of Commons in a March 2020 emergency debate, “There will be many Canadians who have never looked to government before for assistance who will now be looking to government. We must make sure that we find a way to provide that support to them, and help to keep people in their apartments and homes and able to put food on the table.”
By and large, the government did that — with, it should be said, the full support of their parliamentary colleagues in both the House of Commons and the Senate. As Conservative Senate leader Don Plett said in his own speech to the Red Chamber, “Few of us could have imagined being where we are today, but here we are. We are in this together, and together — with God’s help — we will get through it.”
That sense of togetherness has long since passed, of course. But as Conservative politicians and pundits pick through the AG’s report for ammunition, we ought to at least hold them accountable to the facts of the matter. The federal government’s spending did not, as they’ve repeatedly claimed, cause the inflationary fever that’s overtaken economies across the world. And while their COVID-19 support programs were vulnerable to waste and fraud at the margins, they did a good job of getting the money out the door quickly to the people who needed it.
We should continue to clean up any messes that arose from that sense of urgency. But we should also remember that we averted a far bigger mess in the process — and that it was the government that made that happen. That’s the overarching story of the pandemic, as much as some people will keep trying to pretend otherwise.