The Liberal government’s $82 billion aid package to help Canadians grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled in the Commons, with opposition parties balking at some measures in the proposed legislation that would give Finance Minister Bill Morneau unprecedented spending powers.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet told reporters late Tuesday that the Liberals dropped some of their more contentious requests — like tax-and-spend powers until December 2021 — and the bill should go to a vote now to help the million Canadians now temporarily out of work as a result of COVID-19 measures.
“We negotiated some very important changes in the bill, which brought it somewhere in the middle between what we would have dreamed of and what the government first asked for,” Blanchet said.
“If the chamber cannot adopt it unanimously, let’s vote and see who has more votes.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged the government to rework the legislation by carving out the aid package as one bill — and repackaging some of the requested new cabinet spending and borrowing powers as a separate piece of legislation that can be debated another day.
Both said they agree with the government’s proposed fiscal supports for Canadians.
“What I’m saying is, we can really quickly pass the assistance,” Scheer said.
“For heaven’s sake, we shouldn’t be removing parliamentary oversight. Our system has served us through two world wars and other health crises. We shouldn’t be so quick to sideline the role of Parliament,” he said, referring to clauses in the bill that would allow cabinet to authorize spending in the months ahead without parliamentary oversight.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said measures beyond the aid package should be put aside for now. Most of the government’s proposed measures need to be approved by Parliament before money can flow.
“I’m asking all parties to come together and pass what we agree on in the quickest way possible,” Singh said.
The proposed aid package from Ottawa includes:
- A temporary boost to Canada Child Benefit payments, delivering about $2 billion in extra support.
- A new Emergency Care Benefit of up to $900 biweekly, for up to 15 weeks, to provide income support to workers, including the self-employed, who have to stay home and don’t qualify for paid sick leave or employment insurance. The measure could disburse up to $10 billion.
- A new Emergency Support Benefit to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.
- A six-month, interest-free reprieve on student loan payments.
- A doubling of the homeless care program.
- An extension of the tax filing deadline to June 1. A policy change allowing taxpayers to defer until after Aug. 31 tax payments that are due after today and before September.
- $305 million for a new Indigenous Community Support Fund to address immediate needs in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities.
The House of Commons met Tuesday for only a few minutes before the session was suspended because it was clear the parties had failed to come to an agreement on the legislation.
Since noon, Liberal and Conservative operatives have been locked away in a room negotiating the finer details of the support package, and the proposals to expand cabinet’s spending powers.
Deal could be ‘hours’ away: sources
The Opposition Conservatives have said they are not willing to vote for the bill as it is currently written. The Tories have concerns about provisions in the legislation that grant unprecedented spending authority to Morneau during this crisis, with an ill-defined role for Parliament.
Part 4 of the draft bill the government presented to the opposition on Monday ahead of today’s sitting would allow Morneau access to “all money required to do anything, including making payments to provinces and territories.” Such broad terms are raising red flags with opposition MPs.
A source told CBC the talks could go on for “hours” longer as negotiations between House Leader Pablo Rodriquez, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Candice Bergen, the Conservative House leader, and Conservative whip Mark Strahl continue.
The government wants the flexibility to roll out any additional COVID-19 funds easily, while the opposition is intent on protecting parliamentary oversight of spending. The Conservatives maintain they are not opposed to the proposed financial aid measures the government has included in the draft bill — but do oppose other measures that would give cabinet powers rarely seen in our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.
The Commons will be suspended until a deal is reached to define the spending powers available to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers.
The Senate is expected to sit tomorrow to receive any legislation from the Commons — if in fact that legislation gets a vote from MPs in the meantime.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos was asked on CBC’s Power & Politics at 5 p.m. ET if he thought an aid bill would pass by the end of the day.
“That’s what we hope and that’s certainly what we expect,” he said. “We’re facing dire circumstances.”
Liberals drop one controversial measure
The Liberal government has backed away already from one controversial proposal in the bill — part 2, which would have given the government sweeping new powers to spend, borrow and tax Canadians for 21 months without parliamentary approval. The Tories criticized the move as an ill-fated attempt to get Parliament to sign a blank cheque.
While agreeing to drop part 2, Trudeau defended the bill Tuesday, saying the government needs to get assistance to the Canadian people as quickly as possible and Ottawa must plan for all eventualities.
“Passing this bill today means getting you the support you deserve as soon as possible. When you’re trying to help get money out to people, speed is of the essence, especially in an unprecedented situation like this one,” he said today during his daily morning exchange with journalists.
“But I want to make it very clear. I believe in our democratic institutions. All of us in Parliament must work together.”
‘Power grab provisions’
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the party’s finance critic, said the Tories would be willing to pass the aid part of the legislation — additional money for Employment Insurance and the newly created Emergency Care and Emergency Support benefits — “without any of the power grab provisions that they tried to sneak in.”
“If they do that, it will be a happy day for Canadians,” Poilievre said in a video posted to Twitter. Poilievre cannot be in the Commons today because he is waiting for COVID-19 test results.
Poilievre also flagged part 9 of the act, which allows for virtually unlimited borrowing by Morneau “if the minister is of the opinion that the borrowing of money is necessary” during this pandemic. It authorizes Morneau to “pay any amount” between the bill’s passage and December 31, 2021.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez tweeted a plea for swift action as negotiations dragged on.
“Canadians need support to get through this. Fast,” he wrote. “The negotiations with other parties are still ongoing and the House will resume later today. We all need to come together and get this done. Canadians are counting on us.’
Rogue Tory MP vows to delay proceedings
Conservative MP Scott Reid was in the Commons Tuesday despite an order from his party’s whip to stay away from Parliament — and he promised to delay proceedings to protest how the chamber is operating.
Each party sent only a handful of MPs to ensure that politicians could practice social distancing and sit far enough apart to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
In a letter to constituents, Reid said it was unreasonable for his party to dictate who can and cannot appear in the Commons, adding that he was motivated to attend the sitting because of concerns about the legislation the government has proposed.
Reid said he would deny the unanimous consent needed to quickly pass the proposed aid package because he said such consent would trample on the rights of parliamentarians to properly review legislation.
He said spending bills passed earlier this month, before the Commons rose for an extended break, were equally problematic, as MPs voted on bills not yet tabled. Those bills granted Morneau interim spending powers for the remainder of this fiscal year.
“I do not deny that the COVID-19 crisis had, by [March] 13th, induced widespread panic among the public, in Canada and abroad. But panic is never, ever an excuse to override our ancient political conventions. These conventions are the oldest and best protections that exist for our political liberties,” Reid said, citing earlier bills passed through Parliament.
Once the emergency aid legislation passes in the House, it will move on to the Senate for more debate, which is expected tomorrow.