Trudeau calls on House to pass emergency aid bill quickly

OTTAWA —
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on MPs convening today to pass direct financial aid for Canadians and businesses, to do so quickly.

This afternoon there will be a historic emergency recall of the House of Commons to pass urgent financial aid.

“When you’re trying to help get money out to people, speed is of the essence,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau is speaking to the latest federal response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic, including bringing more Canadians home, and emphasizing that the length of time before life returns to normal depends on the decisions Canadians make now.

Among the countries Trudeau said the federal government is looking to charter flights to: Morocco, Panama, Tunisia, Ukraine, Equador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Spain.

The only item on the agenda at today’s rare special sitting is a bill from Finance Minister Bill Morneau, titled the “COVID-19 Emergency Response Act.”  

The legislation contains the amendments needed to enact the promised $82 billion response package, which includes $27 billion in financial aid for Canadians and $55 billion in economic stimulus and tax deferral measures for businesses.

The final text was still being negotiated late Monday night, with the Liberals backing away from wording that the opposition decried as an attempt to get parliamentarians to sign a blank cheque amid a global pandemic.

Trudeau tweeted Tuesday morning that the offending section of the bill will not be included in the version being tabled.

A draft copy of the bill — leaked to various news outlets after being provided to opposition MPs under embargo — sparked outrage over a proposal to grant the federal government sweeping powers to spend money, borrow, and change taxes without parliamentary approval through to Dec. 31, 2021.

If unchanged, this would allow money to flow without MPs scrutinizing it for a period of time considerably extended beyond current estimates of when Canadian society may return to some sense of normalcy, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Trudeau offered reassurances Tuesday morning that his government respects democratic institutions, after speaking with the leaders of the main three opposition parties before his address from Rideau Cottage where he remains in self-isolation. 

Speaking from West Block in advance of the noon sitting, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his caucus would like to focus on passing the measures spelled out by Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau last week.

“Any conversation about new government powers should not get in the way of passing much-needed assistance,” Scheer said, offering his party’s willingness to reconvene in short order again in the future if further measures are needed.

The broad spending and taxing power portion of the bill aside, MPs from all parties travelled to Ottawa—most from nearby though others were flown in on a government plane— ready to present a unified effort to pass urgently needed economic assistance measures for Canadians during an unprecedented and uncertain time.

Parties had agreed to a plan to have around 32 members in the House on Tuesday, when the bill will be fast-tracked through all stages and expected to be sent to the Senate by day’s end. There will be 14 Liberals, 11 Conservatives, three members apiece of the Bloc Quebecois and NDP, and one Green MP. Each MP will be seated the recommended distance from each other within the chamber.

Emergencies Act deliberations

Trudeau hosted a call with the premiers on Monday night, and in a readout issued Tuesday morning, the Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau solicited the premiers’ views on the act and other related emergency measures, still referring to it as “a measure of last resort.” 

All provinces and territories have declared some form of public health crisis or state of emergency and questions continue to circulate as to whether the local efforts are enough to crack down on those not following the requested physical distancing measures or whether it’s time the federal government intervene with extremely broad and restrictive powers.

Stronger measures have been on the table, and could come either through the Emergencies Act or through the Quarantine Act, limiting Canadians’ ability to move freely.

As of Tuesday morning there are 2,091 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada.

Details of economic aid bill

The bill, according to the draft version obtained by CTV News, also includes key legislative changes aimed at directly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • Spelling out how much more money each province is getting to beef up their preparedness efforts
  • Creating a 16-week window where eligible Canadian workers can be absent from work on account of the novel coronavirus 
  • Enacting a new “Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act” which would grant the finance minister the ability to spend “all money required to do anything, including making payments to provinces and territories,” in relation to public health events of national concern 
  • Providing the finance minister a range of new powers related to procuring, loaning to, merging, selling, winding-up or dissolving corporations; and 
  • Allowing for, on the authorization of the health minister, the ability to “make, construct, use and sell a patented invention to the extent necessary to respond to the public health emergency”

The House and Senate were both suspended to limit the spread of the virus and were not set to resume until the week of April 20, though now it’s likely to stand adjourned for longer once these measures pass, unless the government makes a declaration under the Emergencies Act, which requires parliamentary approval. 

According to the House of Commons, there will be no parliamentary pages in the Chamber, which has been cleaned in advance of the sitting. Hand-sanitizing stations and disinfectant wipes have been placed in key areas, and while the viewing gallery for members of the press will be open, the public gallery remains closed as it has been since March 13. 

The Senate will then reconvene on Wednesday with a similarly limited roster of senators and staff to scrutinize and pass the bill, and the final step — a royal assent ceremony — is expected that day.

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