Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said today that Parliament should reconvene on May 25 for regular in-person sittings, arguing that the current practice of virtual meetings has run its course.
He also said Finance Minister Bill Morneau should table some sort of fiscal update in short order so that Canadians can take a closer look at the government’s books as pandemic spending continues to grow.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill this morning, Scheer said provinces are starting to re-open their economies as the COVID-19 infection curve flattens, and the House of Commons should reopen as well. He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been dodging the opposition.
“Mr. Trudeau should not be using a health pandemic to avoid accountability and oversight and should not be eliminating the role of the peoples’ representatives,” Scheer said.
“The prime minister wants to sideline Parliament during an unprecedented pandemic, a crisis, an economic crisis, something that we haven’t seen since the 1920s,” he added in French.
Scheer said online meetings on the Zoom platform aren’t cutting it anymore and MPs should have a chance to question the government in the chamber.
He said the opposition has serious concerns about emergency relief benefit abuse and what he calls an “inflexible” commercial rent assistance program, and Trudeau should personally face his critics.
“We’ve always said virtual sitting can augment but it’s certainly no replacement,” he said. “Elected members of Parliament come here to be a voice for their constituents, to hold this government to account, and that needs to resume on May 25.”
Trudeau said Friday the current model — virtual sittings paired with a limited in-person sitting once a week — has worked well.
“I think it’s a balance that is yielding very good results. It allows all MPs to express the concerns of their regions or constituents,” he said, adding the current system should continue as it is now.
He said the government is focused on COVID-19 and it’s not the time to introduce legislation unrelated to the pandemic.
While beset by technical glitches, the virtual meetings have allowed MPs to question Trudeau and his ministers for two hours twice a week.
Commons committees also have met via Zoom to grill ministers like Morneau and the senior bureaucrats responsible for sending cheques to Canadians. Those meetings have forced the government to produce documents and answer questions about fraud in the emergency response benefit program.
The federal Parliament is also meeting much more frequently than provincial legislatures. Ontario’s Queen’s Park has met only twice since the pandemic began, while the B.C. legislature hasn’t gathered since March.
After the last emergency sitting of Parliament, all parties agreed to return on Monday, May 25 — but the government has expressed concern about the health risks associated with bringing more MPs and their staff to Ottawa.
Scheer said he doesn’t expect all 338 MPs to return for in-person duties right away; he said the parties could negotiate the size of a smaller contingent of parliamentarians. “We need a responsible work plan to enable MPs to do their job,” he said.
Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, called Scheer’s request irresponsible — and tied his demand for a return to the Commons to his record on social issues.
“Who would’ve thought that a Conservative who doesn’t take climate change seriously, doesn’t support LGBTQ rights and doesn’t favour women’s right to choose is also against finding modern ways for Parliament to do its job virtually in the context of a public health crisis?” he said.
Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux has asked the government to table a fiscal update soon to show Canadians just how much has been spent so far on COVID-19 relief payments.
The PBO has done his own calculations and says spending has increased by more than $200 billion in the last two months. That number is likely higher now, he said, because the government has been announcing new support programs daily. He said the federal debt load could hit $1 trillion by year’s end.
Trudeau has dismissed the need for a budget or a fiscal update in the midst of a fast-moving pandemic. He said the government doesn’t know what will happen in the next 12 weeks, let alone the next 12 months.
“Fiscal management has never been this government’s strong suit. So it’s no surprise that they’re reluctant to announce a date when they would provide that kind of an update,” Scheer said.