OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Conservative Leader Andrew Sheer of being “irresponsible” Sunday, while the Green Party said Scheer was holding Parliament hostage and putting people’s health in jeopardy.
“My blood is boiling,” Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May told HuffPost Canada Sunday evening. “This is not acceptable.”
May was livid after Scheer refused to sign an agreement with the other parties earlier on Sunday to avoid the return of the House of Commons on Monday.
“I’m so distressed,” the Greens’ longtime leader said. The Conservatives “refused to do what was expected,” she said, when MPs agreed to put the Commons on hold until April 20 — a date, she said, was selected as a placeholder when the pandemic was just developing. “It’s now obvious that no one should have regular Parliament meetings starting tomorrow.”
Earlier in the day, Trudeau told reporters that calling MPs back to Ottawa for regular sittings of the Parliament was irresponsible and that while he believes Parliament has a function, it has to be done responsibly.
“Right now, the Conservatives are not taking a responsible approach,” the prime minister said during his daily press conference.
Public health authorities, experts and common sense, he said, all stress that Canadians need to limit their movements.
The Liberals, he added, proposed that some MPs sit in-person once a week and that virtual sittings be added to ensure that MPs across the country have a voice.
“We know that accountability is important, and taking questions every day from the media is a good thing, but it is also important that parliamentarians and opposition politicians get to ask questions of the government, which is why we’ve proposed that the Parliament sit every week in reduced fashion, … a proposal that was accepted by most parties.
“The Conservatives need to work on it a little bit in terms of their own reflection,” the prime minister said.
Sunday, the Conservative were insisting Parliament meet in-person three days a week for two hours.
They had so far refused to sign a letter to the Speaker of the House agreeing to avoid the normal return of the chamber Monday.
During a press conference, Scheer said “all parties have agreed several times that Parliament will reopen tomorrow.”
May insisted that was not the case, that the parties had merely agreed in March on April 20 with the understanding that the Commons would remain adjourned for a longer period with the agreement of the four recognized parties, those with more than 12 seats in Parliament — the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP.
Over the weekend, the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc agreed on a plan that would have seen some MPs to return to Ottawa on Wednesday for an in-person 2¼-hour accountability session of the House, so members can question the prime minister and government ministers. The following week, a 90-minute virtual session of question period would be organized on Tuesday, with the in-person sitting on Wednesday. Moving forward, there would be two 90-minute sittings of the House on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and one weekly in-person sitting.
The Liberals noted that doing so would give opposition members 90 minutes more a week to question the government than is normally allocated during the five weekly 45-minute periods.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez called the plan “responsible.”
“It provides parliamentary accountability. It ensures MPs from across the country can participate. And, most importantly, it’s in line with the advice from our public health experts about the risks of COVID-19,” he said in a tweet.
In a statement to HuffPost, NDP House leader Peter Julian called on the Tories “to get on board.”
“The NDP plan holds the government to account as often as the Conservatives say they want and makes sure that people from across the country have the chance to have their concerns raised in Parliament,” Julian said in an email.
But Scheer told reporters Sunday afternoon that the other parties’ negotiated offer isn’t good enough.
“Team Canada needs to be able to ask questions more than just once a week,” the Conservative leader said. There are questions to be asked about needed medical supplies, emergency benefit coverage, senior care, and the plan to reopen the Canadian economy, he said.
“The best place for our elected representatives to get answers to these questions is in the House of Commons in Ottawa,” Scheer said.
When questioned about why virtual sittings couldn’t be established, the Conservative leader said virtual sittings aren’t possible at the moment and parliamentarians “cannot wait for the weeks and weeks that it may take the House of Commons administration” to provide the technology.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, told MPs in a public letter on April 8 that staff are working towards the goal of having virtual sittings available by May 6.
On Friday, a memo to Commons staff said the House would sit on Monday at 11 a.m. as scheduled but “normal service levels will not be required.” Some services, such as pages, laundry, cafeteria staff, won’t need to be recalled, but others such as clerks, interpreters, and broadcast technicians will need to show up for work in the West Block. When the House was recalled on Saturday April 11, 40 additional employees were called in to work to support the 32 MPs showing up for the emergency sitting.
Scheer said the Tories had already put water in their wine, moving from a request for four in-person sittings a week to three. He said the House needs to sit more than once a week.
“Millions of Canadians are still working,” he said. “There are millions of Canadians who are providing services to their fellow citizens in this time of crisis. We believe the Parliament is an essential service and that we will get Canadians through this crisis in a better way, if Parliament is allowed to do its job.”
But May said opposition MPs have proved they can do their job and improve government measures without meeting in person in Ottawa.
“We should only be meeting in person when it’s essential to do so, and question period is not an essential reason to meet in person; it can be done virtually,” she said.
“Right now, the Conservatives are not taking a responsible approach.”
“If we weren’t seeing the government take steps, we could be saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re not listening to us, wait a minute.’” She noted there are still gaps in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), gaps in the wage subsidy, and problems for small businesses. “Lots of issues to deal with,” she said, “but we’ve been handling them really well without being in session.”
Holding question period multiple times a week as the Tories insist is “unreasonable and unjustified,” she said.
Scheer is holding not only Parliament hostage, she added. “It’s worse than that, he’s holding [hostage] the people who work in the Parliament Hill system… . They are being called back to work tomorrow, as if it’s an ordinary day, and that’s thanks to the Conservatives, and I think it’s just unconscionable.”
Scheer said Sunday that the Tories would not send all their caucus members to the capital.
Watch: Liberals, Conservatives can’t see eye to eye over re-opening House of Commons during COVID-19. Story continues below.
“We will have a similar number of members of Parliament that we’ve already had,” he said. During emergency sittings in April and March, the Tories had 11 MPs. That would show, Scheer said, “that we can both respect health guidelines and continue to ensure that our parliamentary and democratic institutions function in this crisis.”
But May insisted people could get sick because of the Conservatives’ actions.
“It will be a full-on Parliament tomorrow morning, because I think they’re just so bloody minded that they want to get media coverage for the Conservative Party and they’ve put that as a priority over public health,” she said.
“I feel so helpless, because I don’t want all those people to have to show up at work tomorrow and take the risk with their health,” she added. “And it’s clear to me that Andrew Scheer doesn’t understand social distancing or public health rules. I’ve watched him on a very personal basis. He doesn’t seem to understand that it applies to him,” she said, referring to her plane trip with the Scheer family as well as his behaviour in the opposition lobby.
May said she felt the Tories were getting away with “their tactics” because it’s not clear to people outside of “process nerds” what exactly Parliament will be like Monday.
It was all a bit rich, she said, coming from a party that under prime minister Stephen Harper had no qualms about putting Parliament on hold when it suited its needs during the 2008 financial crisis.
“This is from the party that prorogued Parliament to avoid a vote they knew they were going to lose,” May said. “Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in the fall. It lasted till late January. And there was no pandemic. In a pandemic, they want to insist we meet.”
The Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Bloc were still negotiating late Sunday evening with the expectation — or hope — that a deal could be struck before Monday.
Friday, the Senate announced it had extended the adjournment of the upper house until June 2.