OTTAWA – Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez betrayed little of what was going on in the back rooms when he strode into the House of Commons at noon Tuesday and asked for proceedings to be suspended.
What was supposed to be a relatively quick debate and vote on a series of sweeping financial measures — more than $27 billion — to keep the Canadian economy on life support and respond to COVID-19 was knocked off course.
Opposition parties balked as the Liberals tried to give themselves far reaching financial authority to tax, spend and borrow as much as they wanted to deal with the crisis all the way until 2022.
It would be 15 hours of negotiations, ending around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, before the House actually sat down to review the bill that was supposed to be debated at noon.
It was agreed upon that there couldn’t be any surprises
The historic sitting of Parliament, with just 32 members of the 338-seat House, was called on Sunday, designed to give the Liberals room to respond to the crisis while also not bringing back all MPs and turning the House of Commons into a public health threat.
The idea was to have the MPs present give unanimous consent for the bill’s passage, allowing the government to move quickly through the legislative process. The opposition was on board, but Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said she made it clear to Rodriguez he shouldn’t push the envelope.
“Pablo, you want to get it done but there can be no surprises,” she said she told Rodriguez. “We were told we’d get the bill in advance and it was agreed upon that there couldn’t be any surprises.”
Bergen and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer were brought to Ottawa for the special session by government aircraft. She said the no surprises pledge ended on Sunday night when they received the draft legislation.
“We got the bill on Sunday night and it was full of bombs,” she said. “I let Pablo know he had a big problem. I told him we had agreed to what the prime minister had announced.”
Bergen said she did not know what happened, but Rodriguez had always been direct with her before. She did not know if he was misinformed or not being straight with her, but she felt betrayed by the government’s actions.
“It was so unnecessary and it has broken trust. There are no personal hard feelings but there is damage to working relationships.”
Rodriguez rejected the notion the opposition parties were blindsided saying they had the bill 48 hours before it was tabled in parliament, a unique step he made to smooth the process.
He said the special powers to spend had to be in the bill.
“The government in times of crisis, such as this one, has to have the capacity to move forward to move quickly and respond to challenges that evolve by the minute,” he said. “Last week was a different Canada, the way things evolved, today is a different Canada than it will be a week from now.”
When the House adjourned on March 13, NDP whip Rachel Blaney stayed behind in Ottawa for a few days to deal with some issues. By early the next week it was clear she would have to stay.
“Before I was about to fly out it came down that there were discussions and that Parliament was going to have to come back,” she said.
There are no personal hard feelings but there is damage to working relationships
Blaney said when she saw the bill on Sunday she saw overreach on the government. She said the NDP understood the government had to move fast, but that did not mean Parliament should be on the sidelines.
“All of us see what is happening across the country and across the world. We want to provide the flexibility to address issues as they arise, but there are ways of doing that that also have parliamentary oversight,” she said.
The overreaches in the bill included a provision that would have allowed Finance Minister Bill Morneau to raise, lower or eliminate taxes through to Dec. 31, 2021. He also could have borrowed and spent endlessly on the crisis over the same time frame.
The contents of the bill leaked to several political reporters Monday night and opposition parties made it clear it was going too far. On Tuesday morning, the prime minister said he would remove the controversial tax section, but Bergen said the there was still far too much unchecked authority for the government.
“It was still chock full of power grabs. Everyone was talking about section two, that would give them what they wanted on tax until 2022. But there was more in the bill that didn’t provide accountability. We needed sunset clauses.”
She said it was not until the Conservatives made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill as is was that things started to change.
“At noon, the House was suspended and finally they took us seriously,” she said.
Alain Therrien, parliamentary leader of the Bloc Québécois, said the Conservatives were the main barrier to the process. He said the Liberals had agreed to remove the tax authority by late Monday night, and sunset their spending and borrowing powers in September.
He said the Bloc were prepared to agree to the deal on Monday night. He said on Tuesday afternoon with the House suspended Morneau painted a dark picture of the economic situation.
“Morneau then came to give us the financial portrait for all of us. And it wasn’t pretty at all. And that comforted me that we had a good deal on Monday night,” he said.
Rodriguez said he thought there was a good level of oversight in the original bill, but the government was fine with the additional layers added Tuesday. He said much of the issues were settled before the House was sitting.
He also pointed out that when the House of Commons came back, the opposition have levers they could pull.
“It is still a minority government, so once Parliament is recalled, the opposition can do what they want,” he said. “That is another layer of security that they have.”
After the Tuesday afternoon negotiations, the Liberals went back to their corner for a few hours and presented new legislation to the opposition around 1 a.m. Wednesday, which was then put up for debate around 3 a.m. and finally voted on around 6 a.m.
It included the sunset clauses as well as regular updates to House committees.
Rodriquez said he hadn’t expected to be negotiating the agreement until the wee hours, but he was also determined the bill pass.
“Families are asking themselves how they’re going to pay the rent, how they are going to put food on the table for their kids, so there was no way we are leaving here without that bill.”
The bill had a much quicker passage in the Senate Wednesday morning and was signed by the Governor General in the afternoon.
— With files from John Ivison and Chris Nardi