OTTAWA — The federal NDP is pushing the Liberal government to recall Parliament earlier to ensure legislation proposing employment insurance (EI) changes and new benefit programs can be debated and passed before the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) ends.
A letter sent by NDP House Leader Peter Julian to Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez Thursday said it’s “completely unacceptable” for Canadians to worry about the fate of the program on top of other pandemic stressors.
“It is almost certain that programs the government has promised to enact to provide much needed income supports to Canadians will not yet be in place when CERB ends,” the letter reads.
“CERB should be extended until such a time as the programs aimed at replacing it are actually in place and those who rely on CERB can be assured the necessary time to access them.”
Watch: Qualtrough outlines new benefits, EI changes to replace CERB. Story continues below video.
The popular program has paid out $71 billion in benefits to 8.7 million Canadians as of Aug. 23, according to the government statistics. It was introduced to buttress the financial impact of the pandemic.
Currently, Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency both administer the program.
In response to the NDP letter, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office said legislation isn’t necessary to make short-term changes to the EI system.
“As outlined in the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act (Bill C-13), Minister Qualtrough has the authority to make temporary changes to the EI program to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The EI changes will be implemented using this authority,” wrote spokesperson Marielle Hossack in an email.
“Our government intends to introduce new legislation to support the implementation of the three new benefits which are The Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) and The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB). This will be part of our plan to keep Canadians safe and restart the economy, which we look forward to presenting with the speech from the throne.”
Parliament was prorogued last month after the resignation of finance minister Bill Morneau following leaks about the former Bay Street executive’s reportedly strained relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over pandemic spending.
Trudeau appointed his deputy, Chrystia Freeland, to replace Morneau at finance and prorogued Parliament the same day. Two days later, the government announced a $37-billion plan to extend the CERB another four weeks, make modifications to the EI system, and introduce three new benefits programs.
The goal is to eventually move everyone who is still on the CERB over to the EI system once it is ready to intake the transfer of 3-4 million accounts.
New legislation is required to release funding for the income-support plan. The House of Commons is set to return Sept. 23 with a speech from the throne, followed by a confidence vote.
NDP MP calls PM’s decision to prorogue ‘thoughtless’
Trudeau has justified his decision to prorogue Parliament by stating the direction and goals outlined in the previous throne speech are no longer relevant in a post-pandemic world, and that the government needs to map out a new vision.
Julian isn’t buying that explanation.
If the desire was for a new throne speech, the prime minister could have given himself the same opportunity if he prorogued Parliament the Friday before its scheduled return, the New Westminster–Burnaby MP told HuffPost, which would have allowed committee work to continue.
“The prime minister’s act was thoughtless and irresponsible by proroguing parliament,” he told HuffPost Canada in an interview.
“There’s simply no reason why we’re not meeting now to get that legislation in place.”
He said there are people in his Lower Mainland riding who have had certainty over the past few months on CERB, despite the pandemic’s impact on their personal finances.
“If the benefit does not continue, they just have no means of putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads once they get to the end of September,” Julian said.
CERB benefits are set to expire Sept. 27, four days after the throne speech.
With the government treating the throne speech as a major reset of its objectives, the four-day window allows little time for fulsome debate on the throne speech and legislation extending CERB.
“There’s simply no reason why we’re not meeting now to get that legislation in place,” Julian said. “There’s no reason why we can’t meet next week to get that legislation in place.”
Uncertainty over how Parliament will function when it returns
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole unveiled his leadership team Wednesday, but it remains unclear if he’ll get a chance to sit across the aisle from the prime minister later this month for a regular sitting.
Parliament was suspended in March at the onset of widespread physical-distancing measures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Until August, it operated on a hybrid model for chamber sittings. Up to 120 MPs were able to attend sittings virtually via Zoom. In-person attendance in the chamber was restricted to about 50 members.
MPs and senators have turned to virtual sittings and committee meetings as an alternative to meeting in-person. But it’s obvious to anyone who has tuned into a public livestream of a virtual meeting that the quality of debate and discussion is affected by a speaker’s internet connection and their flawless use of the mute button.
The NDP sent a letter to House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota last week, asking to enact a model of Parliament “which allows for all Parliamentary powers as well as remote participation of some members.”
This hybrid model would allow for opposition days and private members business, which were aspects of Parliament that were taken away after March’s suspension of regular activity. It would give MPs the option of attending sitting in-person or remotely.
“I don’t think there is any health care professional that would recommend 338 MPs being at close quarters in Ottawa during a pandemic and then going back to their ridings, spreading potentially COVID-19 across the country,” Julian said.
Rota’s office did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
A committee report released in July recommended House staff continue development on an app that would allow MPs to vote remotely, but it remains unclear if it’s a tool members will be ready and available when Parliament returns in a few weeks.
With files from Althia Raj