Government, opposition reach deal on COVID-19 emergency aid bill

OTTAWA —
After hours of tense negotiations, the House of Commons has adopted a modified version of the federal governments’ $82 billion aid package to bring direct financial aid to Canadians and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill C-13 will now go to the Senate for approval.

More to come. Our previous story follows below.

A day that promised to bring direct financial aid for Canadians and businesses to assist with the current COVID-19 pressures devolved into procedural complaints and opposition resistance to the government’s legislation to pass the relief package, as critics cited concerns over the broad powers it would grant the government without oversight.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked things off, calling on MPs to quickly pass the bill as they convened on Tuesday as part of the historic emergency recall of the House of Commons.

Within minutes of the sitting starting, it was put on pause as backroom negotiations continued about contentious aspects of the government’s proposed legislation.

At 6:25 p.m. the House agreed to extend the sitting hours for the day, allowing the debate—should it begin—to go late into the night if needed.

As of 11 p.m. no bill had been tabled, and as such, zero study of the measures within it had occurred. The latest signal of progress within the House chamber was talk of a new draft bill proposed by the Liberals given to the opposition for review. 

There has been some indication earlier in the evening that the opposition parties were pushing the Liberals to pull the draft bill apart, splitting it into two bills: one that solely passes the promised COVID-19 fiscal measures, and another that includes all of the new powers the government is seeking to give cabinet, and in particular the federal finance minister.

On CTV’s Power Play, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos indicated no movement on dividing the legislation to quell other parties’ concerns. Asked why the additional sections were included in the law, Duclos referenced the crisis situation and “light speed” that the government is moving at in an effort to triage the emergency pandemic situation.

Also appearing on CTV’s Power Play, both Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh implored the government to focus on the pre-promised aid on Tuesday, and shelve the other parliamentary and democratic overrides for now.

Both leaders said the roadblock was the Liberals’ added surprise measures that the opposition did not agree to and that they do not view as essential at this time, emphasizing the democratic role MPs should have at such an unprecedented time.

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

Speaking shortly after, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet called for the matter to come to a vote, stating that some amendments have been made during the day’s deliberations and that all Canadians need the money now, so it’s on MPs to pass it. 

Compounding this, a backbench Tory MP, who has previously raised issues with Scheer’s leadership, arrived for the special sitting despite party orders to stay away. Scott Reid, an Ottawa-area and long-serving Conservative MP said his plan, according to a statement released Tuesday morning, is to prevent the unanimous consent needed to fast-track the broad COVID-19 aid bill once something actually gets tabled.

Reid said his objection is procedural and not with the relief legislation, “as long as the government provides it to MPs with enough time to read and understand it.”

Scheer would not comment on Reid’s position, calling it “his own decision,” but noted the speed that the House can be granted when all sides agree. 

These developments come on the heels of Trudeau stating that: “When you’re trying to help get money out to people, speed is of the essence,” Trudeau said. “Especially in an unprecedented situation like this one.” 

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez, who initially expressed hope that the special “brief” sitting would start and finish within a few hours, said that all MPs need to “come together and get this done. Canadians are counting on us.”

The only item on the agenda at Tuesday’s rare special sitting was to be the 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.

Also included in the billions of new spending the Liberals promised that would start rolling out the door once this bill passes are implementing an emergency care benefit, deferring the tax deadline, waiving the one-week waiting period for EI sickness benefits, boosting the Canada Child Benefit, wage subsidies for small businesses and targeted assistance for vulnerable demographics to help “bridge to better times.”

Retreat on spending powers

The Liberals went into Tuesday’s sitting having already backed away from wording that the opposition decried as an attempt to get parliamentarians to sign a blank cheque amid a global pandemic.

A draft copy of the bill — leaked to various news outlets on Monday after being provided to opposition MPs under embargo — proposed to grant the federal government sweeping powers to spend money, borrow, and change taxes without parliamentary approval through to Dec. 31, 2021, several months beyond current estimates of when Canadian society may return to some sense of normalcy, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Trudeau tweeted Tuesday morning that this offending section of the bill will not be included in the version being tabled, though the Conservatives wanted more sections axed.

The prime minister also sought to reassure parliamentarians Tuesday morning that his government respects democratic institutions, after speaking with the leaders of the main three opposition parties about the sitting that he did not attend, due to his continuing self-isolation.

The broad spending and taxing power portion of the bill notwithstanding, 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: 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.

Details of economic aid bill

The initial draft copy of the bill obtained by CTV News also included 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.”

At the beginning of the sitting, deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton recognized the highly unusual circumstances of their gathering, “given the extraordinary circumstances in which we all fund ourselves in presently.”

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. 

There were no parliamentary pages in the Chamber, which was been cleaned in advance of the sitting. Hand-sanitizing stations and disinfectant wipes were placed in key areas, and while the viewing gallery for members of the press was open, the public gallery remains closed as it has been since March 13.

The Senate is set to reconvene on Wednesday with a similarly limited roster of senators and staff to scrutinize and pass whatever measures the House can agree on, should they be able to by night’s end. The expectation was that the final step — a royal assent ceremony — would happen by the end of the day on Wednesday.  

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 I keep saying all options are on the table,” Trudeau said. “If people do not comply with expert advice and government guidelines, we will have to take additional steps.”

As of Tuesday afternoon there are 2,584 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada.

‘Do your part’

During his daily update, Trudeau spoke to the latest federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including bringing more Canadians home from countries including Morocco, Panama, Tunisia, Ukraine, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Spain.

The prime minister also emphasized that the length of time before life returns to normal depends on the decisions Canadians make now.

“Every day, someone asks me how long these restrictions will be in place, and the truth is we don’t know yet. But here’s what we do know: The duration of this crisis will be determined by the choices we make right now, by decisions we take every single day. So if you want things to get back to normal, do your part,” Trudeau said.

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