OTTAWA — What was supposed to be a show of unity in unprecedented times became a partisan mess in the House of Commons Tuesday after plans to expeditiously pass the government’s COVID-19 emergency spending bill went awry.
Though Liberals had reason to believe the measures in their $82-billion plan would sail through the Commons with the backing of opposition MPs — just 32 members were called back to Ottawa for an emergency sitting — they instead found themselves accused of making a “power grab” in the thick of a pandemic.
The House eventually passed the emergency legislation early Wednesday. After a day of tense negotiations, MPs began debating the bill in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and a vote took place shortly after. It’s now off to the Senate.
Starting the week of March 30, the finance minister will give a bi-weekly report on all actions undertaken to the pandemic, and will be discussed on April 20.
A draft copy of the Liberals’ proposed COVID-19 financial relief legislation was leaked to The Globe and Mail and to Global News Monday. It included a “temporary” provision to give the federal cabinet sweeping powers to tax and spend without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.
Watch: Scheer says Tories will support aid to Canadians, not Liberal ‘power grab.’ Story continues below video.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said opposition members had arrived in Ottawa “in good faith” — and in smaller numbers “to respect public health concerns.”
“We are here to pass the measures that the government announced last week,” Scheer told reporters in a sparsely populated West Block.
Neither unlimited spending power, nor the long-term removal of parliamentary oversight was part of the suite of COVID-19 financial measures proposed last week, he said. Referencing parliamentary camaraderie shown during the World Wars and other public health crises, Scheer said the opposition is ready to co-operate and be flexible.
“I think this is a period of time where all parties are willing to put aside their partisan differences and focus on helping Canadians and putting them first,” Scheer said. “I don’t think Canadians want to see partisan, partisan disagreements.
“This should be an opportunity for parliamentarians of all parties to come together,” he said.
Instead of inspiring speeches and acts of co-operation in the Commons, however, MPs retreated to back-room negotiations. The emergency sitting was suspended twice and had its hours extended to accommodate on-going negotiations over the bill.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez rose in the chamber shortly after noon to request the sitting be suspended because it was clear there would be no agreement. Parties negotiated all afternoon. MPs were called back into the chamber after 6 p.m., when Rodriguez requested an extension of hours, and another suspension, to continue talks.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the afternoon discussions produced some “important changes” to the proposed bill. The first version included “some extremely unique powers for a very long period of time,” on which there was no agreement, he said.
“I lost patience when I saw the danger of us not going forward.”
Blanchet also urged parties to put politics aside and pass the bill to release money to finance the government’s proposed relief package. “I lost patience when I saw the danger of us not going forward,” he told reporters.
The Bloc leader suggested the Liberals dropped the proposal.
Conservative MP Scott Reid was another unexpected wrinkle in the government’s carefully laid plans. He threatened to deny unanimous consent to fast-track the bill in one day, saying that was insufficient time to review it.
In a 2,600-word blog post, the Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston MP explained that he showed up in defiance of a deal made by all parties to limit the number of MPs in the House. He acknowledged the COVID-19 crisis as one that has created panic in Canada and around the world, but said concerns over public health shouldn’t trump democracy.
“Panic is never, ever, an excuse to override our ancient political conventions,” Reid wrote. “These conventions are the oldest and best protections that exist for our political liberties.”
The veteran Conservative said he was spurred to show up to the emergency session after a number of bills were adopted “sight unseen” by unanimous consent on March 13, when all parties agreed to suspend Parliament to focus on the burgeoning coronavirus public health crisis.
Reid claims he was told to ‘stay away’ from House
A quorum of 20 MPs is required to pass legislation in the House. Party leaders came to an agreement to have a minimum number of MPs return to pass any emergency legislation so as to protect members’ health and those of their community. MPs came to Ottawa to sit in the chamber in proportion to the number of seats their parties hold in the House.
Conservatives agreed to have 11 MPs represented in the chamber. But it’s within an MP’s right to exercise their parliamentary privilege and take their seat in the Commons whenever they want. Reid’s presence bumped Tory numbers up to 12.
“We MPs were given a series of nonsensical arguments about why we must not, in the present crisis, attend to our duties,” Reid wrote in his blog about a discretionary warning from the Tory whip to avoid commercial travel to Ottawa.
The Ottawa Valley MP said he sent a response to his party’s whip, noting that he would take his seat in the House during the emergency session. Reid did not mention Conservative whip Mark Strahl by name.
“The response was to tell me to stay away anyway — in the interest of honouring the deal with the Liberals, to keep as many MPs as possible out of the House,” Reid explained.
“I decided that I would have to come to Commons, take my seat, and deny unanimous consent, if the bill — any bill, including one that turns out on inspection to be innocuous — were introduced in such a way as to deprive MPs like myself the ability to read the bill prior to giving our consent,” he wrote.
Strahl’s office declined to comment on the claims made in Reid’s blog post.
“Mr. Strahl will not violate the confidences of private conversations and communications with any caucus member,” Stahl’s spokesperson, Sarah Honey, told HuffPost Canada in an email.
Scheer says MPs in Ottawa to pass relief measures
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sidestepped questions earlier in the day asking if he had inserted politics into a crisis. He said speed is key in getting financial measures approved by Parliament and directly to Canadians.
“We have a Parliament that works,” Trudeau said. “We have an opposition that is doing its job of making sure that we’re taking the right steps, the right way, and that’s why we’ve been working on drafting the right legislation up until the last minute.”
Last week, the government announced an $82-billion financial aid package to help buffer the financial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic felt by businesses and Canadians.
Among its proposed measures include $55 billion in tax deferrals and $27 billion in direct spending for Canadians, including boosting the Canada Child Benefit and topping up the Goods and Services Tax credit for low and modest income earners.
Nearly one million Canadians applied for employment insurance (EI) last week. The increase is due to COVID-19-pandemic related layoffs. In January, for comparison, nearly 436,000 Canadians received EI payments.
The relief bill tabled Wednesday morning includes a provision that, if passed, a doctor’s note won’t be needed to apply for EI sickness benefits related to COVID-19 — a measure the NDP pushed to have in the emergency legislation.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for the government to provide $2,000 cheques to support Canadians was seemingly heard during negotiations.
The bill proposes the creation of a new taxable Canada Emergency Response Benefit that would provide $2,000 monthly for up to four months to workers who lose income as a result of the pandemic; a freeze to Canada Student Loan payments for six months; and a three-month extension of temporary wage subsidy for small businesses to keep staff employed.
25 deaths linked to COVID-19 in Canada
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are reverberating around the world.
In Canada, country-wide public health precautions to stay at home and avoid social gatherings and public venues, such as restaurants and bars, have badly damaged the economy.
Provinces and territories have enacted states of emergency, some shutting down all non-essential businesses.
COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Symptoms include fever, coughing, possible loss of smell, and mild to life-threatening pneumonia in both lungs. It is spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person.
Nearly half of confirmed COVID-19 cases resulted from community spread in Canada, according to Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam. There were more than 2,276 confirmed cases of the disease as of midday Tuesday. Twenty-five deaths have been linked to the disease.
To curb the rate of infection, and to minimize the stress of a pandemic on the country’s health care system, officials have strongly recommended Canadians stay home.
The prime minister repeated this message Tuesday to discourage selfish actions that may put health care workers at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Because here’s the hard truth: if our doctors and nurses have COVID-19, they can’t help you. They won’t be able to treat you or your loved ones if you get sick.”
With files from Althia Raj, Ryan Maloney and The Canadian Press
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