Have sufficient changes been brought to the Emergency Relief Bill to secure opposition support?

By Bruce Carson


Economy – An  Act Respecting Certain Measures in Response to COVID-19. Have a Sufficient number of Changes been Brought to the Bill to secure opposition support?

Will it be voted on today in the House and the Senate?

The process didn’t go exactly as planned yesterday for the emergency relief bill yesterday as debate on the merits actually never began. It was widely reported before the House met at noon and before Prime Minister Trudeau gave his daily update and held his media availability which has become routine, that the opposition was not happy with the bill.

Instead of staying strictly within the boundaries of what was announced last week as aid/stimulus measures the Liberals had added clauses that would allow the government access to the public purse and the power to tax without seeking authority from parliament.

The opposition, particularly Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer would have none of this, particularly when there had been absolutely no prior consultation. The opposition parties thought they were appearing in reduced numbers in the House of Commons to simply pass an aid package announced the previous week so that money could flow into the pockets of the unemployed and other measures would be given necessary legislative authority so they could proceed. 

They didn’t suspect that throughout the bill there would be clauses that would enable the government to basically ignore parliament regarding financial matters.

Yesterday, it was obvious that there was trouble when Mr. Trudeau came out of his home, Rideau Cottage, and began his usual speech by saying his “government is here to help” but “speed is of the essence” and then went on to say “I believe in our democratic institutions” and that he will “protect and uphold democratic values and institutions.” One would have thought those sentiments would go without saying. 

However, what Trudeau was setting out was that in spite of a bill which would be introduced within minutes of his speech, which ignored the authority of at least one of those democratic institutions, his “government is here to help.”

When asked during the Q and A session why he had brought politics into the midst of a pandemic he answered that his government needed flexibility to get measures out the door and it needed to act quickly. There was no explanation as why the measures in question which would appropriate the power of the purse to his government without parliamentary approval were not discussed with the opposition prior to the distribution of a draft of the COVID-19 bill on Monday.

In interviews on Power and Politics both Conservative leader Scheer and NDP leader Singh said they would happily pass a bill that contained the aid measures announced last week and Finance Minister Morneau could bring forward his ideas on spending and taxation without parliamentary approval, in a separate piece of legislation for discussion. Singh said he didn’t “understand why we are dealing with extra issues.”  

Bloc leader Blanchet said he was prepared to support a bill which contained the aid measures and limited the government’s actions without parliamentary approval for reducing taxes and spending as needed to deal with COVID-19 until September 30, 2020.

Bob Fife and Bill Curry of the Globe writing around midnight said that MPs had reached a deal. They wrote that the Liberals agreed to pull contentious measures from the bill and submit a new version early this morning. 

The new bill would allow the government to spend money on emergency health care measures without parliamentary approval until September 30, 2020, not December 31, 2021.

The House reconvened at 3:15 this morning and the Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez put forward a motion which was adopted unanimously that would see the Emergency Bill adopted this morning and then sent to the Senate and should it be adopted, then receive Royal Assent.

An integral part of the agreement which allowed the bill to proceed today is the fact that both the House of Commons Health and Finance Committees will have an oversight role supervising the use of the authority given to the government by virtue of this legislation. There are to be regular meetings of these committees by video or teleconference.

 Perhaps the most important role for the Finance Committee is that if it is not happy with the conduct of the government under this bill, it can write a report to the Speaker and the House of Commons can be recalled.

Also there will be a six month review of this legislation by the House Finance Committee.

Because we are dealing with a minority parliament the oversight authority given to committees is real and the government should realize that it will be responding to these two committees, Health and Finance for all of its actions. Conversely there is an obligation on the opposition to monitor the work of the government in a diligent fashion.

Hopefully the committee oversight of government activity under the Emergency COVIG-19 Act will be effective, but the brouhaha concerning this bill, of course, did not have to occur. While this crisis may be more severe than anything Canada has faced to date, there was no evidence to support placing extraordinary powers in this bill, without prior discussion with the opposition. 

There is no question that the need for aid delivered to Canadians is great so hopefully the government will ensure that implementation of the aid measures will take place in a timely fashion. The measures won’t be in place in time to help with the April rent or mortgage cheque; butthey must be in place and cash distributed in time for the May rent or mortgage cheque.  

To Come  

  • House of Commons continues to deal with An Act Respecting Certain Measures in response to COVID-19, presently at second reading
  • Senate should receive the COVID-19 Emergency Bill
March 26
  • G-20 leaders’ conference call
March 31
  • GDP numbers for January to be released 
April 2
  • International trade numbers for February to be released
April 9
  • Job numbers for March to be released–bc