An Act Respecting Certain Measures in Response to COVID-19

By Bruce Carson

NATIONAL ISSUES

Economy – An Act Respecting Certain Measures in Response to COVID-19. Will the Bill be amended before introduction later today?


Taking Parliament for Granted

It was all going so well, cooperation between the government and the opposition parties. A few weeks ago there was all party agreement to shut down parliament, but before doing so pass the legislation dealing with the new NAFTA and other necessary financial measures.

Last week Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer gave media interviews during which he spoke about the opposition’s changed role during a time of crisis. Canada is experiencing both a health and economic crisis and in this new reality the role of opposition shifts. The opposition will be supportive of measures that fight the disease and put money directly into the pockets of Canadians.

There could be quibbles about how that is being done and how quickly, but the opposition should in this new role remain generally supportive. For example NDP leader Singh would like to see cash payments go directly to Canadians from the federal government and no doubt he will express his views in Committee of the Whole this afternoon when MPs will be asking Finance Minister Morneau questions.

The consensus on working together even held during negotiations last week among party house leaders regarding the resumption of the House of Commons for a day to pass legislation to put in place the funding vehicles necessary to distribute the $27 billion announced by the government that would flow to Canadians in financial need. There was agreement that approximately 30 MPs should be present today representing all parties proportionally. The House will meet today and the Senate tomorrow, with Royal Assent later on Wednesday. 

Then yesterday morning at about the same time Prime Minister Trudeau was telling Canadians at his daily media availability that “Enough is Enough” dealing with the failure to practice social distancing and telling Canadians to “go home and stay home,” opposition parties were receiving the legislation which was to be tabled, debated and passed by the House today. 

That was where that rare commodity of trust among political parties started to fall away. 

While the bill contained clauses necessary to implement the government’s spending and other promises, it also contained clauses giving the government extraordinary powers in relation to the public purse, until the end of 2021. 

 It would give the finance minister new powers to spend, borrow and tax without parliamentary approval through to the end of next year. These powers would vest in the federal cabinet, something even the Emergency Powers Act does not allow.

The government would be allowed to spend money and change tax rules related to COVID-19 without approval of the House. A new clause would allow any cabinet minister with approval of the finance minister to dispense “all money required to do anything” in the event of a public health emergency. Patent restrictions could be ignored where a patent applies to a device deemed necessary to respond to a public health emergency. 

One could see an overly zealous legislative draftsperson putting together a bill which peels away any parliamentary or constitutional rule or convention which would stand in the way of government fiscal activity which is what this bill does. 

It gives to the executive the power over taxation and spending which belongs to the legislature. This is a power for which wars have been fought and people have died to ensure that the Commons has this power. This is not something which can be or should be cast aside even in times of crisis without warning and proper negotiations and agreement among all political parties including an oversight mechanism.

The bill also lands in a minority parliament and because of the changes it would make to the way taxation and spending are dealt with, would inhibit want of confidence motions specifically on these matters.

Yves Giroux, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said that the bill gives powers that are “unprecedented” to the government. He also stated that it “seeks to circumvent parliament for both spending and tax, by granting extraordinary powers to cabinet and ministers.”

Those who remember back a few years might compare this to the time when the Trudeau government introduced a motion to take away the opposition’s power to delay in the House of Commons, when the government’s agenda was being frustrated by the opposition.

Yesterday, after reviewing the bill, the Conservative Party sent out a release saying that “we will not give the government unlimited power to raise taxes without a parliamentary vote. We will authorize whatever spending measures are justified to respond to the situation but we will not sign a blank cheque.”  

According to an article by the Globe’s Bob Fife, the Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez around 11pm Eastern Time last evening sent out a tweet saying that the government will bring changes to the draft legislation and “we will always work collaboratively and respect the fundamental rules of Parliament.”

One wonders how such a situation could arise where the government house leader is presumably negotiating in good faith with the opposition and Finance Minister Morneau and the folks at Finance are operating on an entirely different track. It demonstrates a serious breakdown in communication among ministers in the Trudeau government.   

Trust among political parties has become a rare commodity of late but as noted above the COVID-19 crisis has seen a coming together of parties and their leaders to serve the interests of all Canadians. House Leader Rodriguez’s job has just become more difficult because of the situation which arose yesterday.

The question for later this morning is whether the offensive clauses have been removed from the bill so that it only deals with the government’s promises to help Canadians. If they have, there should be smooth sailing for the bill, if not; the COVID-19 crisis may only get worse.


To Come

Today
  • Prime Minister holds a media avail this morning
  • House of Commons meets at noon
March 25
  • Senate is to meet to consider and deal with the COVID-19 bill
March 31
  • GDP numbers for January to be released
April 9
  • Job numbers for March to be released
April 15
  • Bank of Canada deals with interest rates and releases its Monetary Policy Report–bc