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MPs pass legislation for COVID-19 supports after opposition limits government’s powers

The House of Commons has passed emergency legislation to free up $82 billion to help Canadians weather the COVID-19 crisis, but its approval came after a late night of wrangling to limit the Liberal government’s ability to spend more money without Parliamentary approval.

Following a day of tense negotiations, MPs began debating the bill in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and a vote took place shortly after.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said it’s now up to the Senate to approve the bill. Senators will begin reviewing the legislation just after 10 a.m. ET.

Earlier on Tuesday, Conservatives raised objections to what they dubbed a Liberal “power grab.”

An emergency sitting of the House of Commons was suspended Tuesday moments after it began as Conservatives balked at provisions that would give the government sweeping powers to unilaterally spend, borrow and change taxation levels without Parliament’s approval for the next 21 months.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said early in the day that his party would support emergency efforts to get money to Canadians struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, but would oppose any attempts by the Liberal government to expand its power.

His warning came before a small group of 32 MPs gathered in the Commons to debate and vote on legislation to deliver $82 billion in financial aid and tax deferrals to individuals and businesses, as proposed last week by the government to deal with COVID-19 and its ensuing economic havoc.

They convened as scheduled. However, the sitting had only just begun when the House leader asked that it be suspended so that the government could continue negotiating details of the legislation with opposition parties.

“Canadians need support to get through this. Fast,” Rodriguez tweeted shortly after the sitting was suspended.

Almost six hours later, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet angrily denounced the delay. If the government couldn’t get consent needed to pass the legislation in one day, as hoped, Blanchet said the bill should be put through the normal, lengthy legislative process necessary to get the money flowing as quickly as possible.

He guaranteed Bloc support to approve the legislation.

In the end the bill received all-party support, but it passed on division during second reading after Conservative MP Michael Chong voiced his opposition.

With the bill now approved by the Commons, the plan is for the Senate to approve it Wednesday, followed immediately by royal assent.

The proposed aid package from Ottawa includes:

  • A temporary boost to Canada Child Benefit payments, delivering about $2 billion in extra support.
  • A new Emergency Care Benefit of up to $900 biweekly, for up to 15 weeks, to provide income support to workers, including the self-employed, who have to stay home and don’t qualify for paid sick leave or employment insurance. The measure means up to $10 billion could be disbursed.
  • A new Emergency Support Benefit to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.
  • A six-month, interest-free reprieve on student loan payments.
  • A doubling of the homeless care program.
  • An extension of the tax filing deadline to June 1. There is also a policy change allowing taxpayers to defer until after Aug. 31 tax payments that are due after today and before September.
  • $305 million for a new Indigenous Community Support Fund to address immediate needs in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Scheer said the Conservatives had no issue with the relief package promised by Trudeau last week. But they wouldn’t agree to give the government a blank cheque to spend and tax as it pleases for almost two years, as initially proposed in a draft of the bill.

“Any conversation about new government powers should not get in the way of passing this much-needed assistance,” he said. “Canadians are counting on us.”

Even as Scheer was speaking, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the legislation would be tabled “without clause 2,” suggesting the bill would not contain the offending elements.

At his own news conference outside his residence, where he remains in self-isolation after his wife contracted COVID-19, Trudeau said the government is trying to balance the need to act quickly to help Canadians with the need to remain accountable to Parliament.

House adjourned until April 20

“It is an exceptional situation that requires extreme flexibility and rapidity of response by governments to be able to help Canadians and react to a situation that we’ve seen is moving quickly every single day,” he said.

“So saying, we have a Parliament that works, we have an Opposition that is doing its job of making sure that we are taking the right steps the right way.”

He said the government was negotiating “up until the last minute” to find a way to give it the flexibility it needs to get the money into Canadians’ hands quickly while maintaining “our democratic institutions and the values that are so important to us all.”

Blanchet said the Bloc agrees the government needs some flexibility to quickly get financial relief to Canadians and businesses without having to recall Parliament each time — but that extraordinary power need not last longer than September.

Defeat of the bill would be a vote of no confidence for the minority Liberal government and possibly trigger an election.

The bill only needed one party’s support to pass the Commons eventually, but it needed the support of every MP present to be put through on the one-day schedule the Liberals wanted.

Wednesday morning, after the bill passed, Scheer released a statement highlighting oversight measures included in the final draft, including shortening the period during which the federal cabinet has special spending powers to keep the government moving and requiring regular reports on spending to House of Commons committees.

This is what an “effective Opposition” looks like, he said.

The Conservative position on the bill was complicated by one of its own MPs, Scott Reid, who threatened on his website Tuesday to show up in the Commons despite not being one of the designated 11 Tories who were supposed to be present, and deny the unanimous consent needed to expedite the bill’s passage.

He later amended his post to say he has no objection to same-day passage of the relief measures provided MPs have enough time to read and understand the bill.

Parliament adjourned on March 13 until at least April 20 as part of a countrywide effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. But it was recalled Tuesday to deal with the emergency aid package.

CBC

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