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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill Tuesday May 26, 2020 in Ottawa. The government – a minority government, remember – has been able to operate with minimal oversight since March.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

While Canadians struggle with government-imposed restrictions on their movements, their businesses and their employment, and face fines or even jail time for failing to quarantine properly, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to do its best to shield itself from parliamentary accountability during the pandemic.

The government – a minority government, remember – has been able to operate with minimal oversight since March. That’s when all the parties agreed to temporarily adjourn Parliament, as part of the emergency lockdown measures brought about by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Since April, thanks to a Liberal motion opposed by the Conservatives, but adopted with the support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois, the Trudeau government has only had to answer to an all-party special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 30-member committee meets through videoconference twice a week, and one day a week in the House of Commons, with time allotted for opposition members to question ministers – but only on issues related to the pandemic.

What might look like Question Period when the committee holds its meetings in the House of Commons has in fact been a pale imitation of the real thing.

Mr. Trudeau has meanwhile been able to stand in front of a microphone every day, far from Parliament, and make announcement after announcement about new programs.

The special committee meetings have been accountability-lite – some of the fizz, none of the calories – and now even they are coming to an end.

Under a new Liberal Party motion on track to be adopted on Tuesday evening with the support of the NDP, the special pandemic committee will cease to exist as of June 18, and Parliament will remain suspended until Sept. 21.

There will be only three scheduled days this summer when opposition MPs will be allowed to ask questions of the government. As well, only a handful of committees will be allowed to hold meetings, and must do so remotely.

Most worrying of all, under the Liberals’ latest plan, a whole-of-government committee will have exactly four hours on June 17 to debate, and then approve “without amendment," more than $150-billion in new spending on proposed COVID-19 relief programs.

Those spending estimates have not been released, so it’s impossible to say exactly what’s included. But what it is safe to say is that your average family spends more time deciding on a new washing machine than Parliament is going to be given to consider tens of billions of dollars in new authorities.

This is not how Canadian democracy is supposed to work. We largely agree with the Liberal emergency measures – but that’s not the point. As keeper of the public purse, the House of Commons is in charge of approving, or not, government spending. While successive governments of all stripes have done their best to minimize this role, none has ever gone quite as far as cancelling the tabling of an annual budget, and then reducing debate on its near-budget to half a day’s work.

We live in a difficult time when the federal government is working in overdrive, and will likely need to do so through the summer, but the elected body that it reports to has been jammed into neutral. That’s not Canadian-style responsible government, especially when the government in question is a minority.

Parliament should be, and could be, sitting. You only have to look around the world to see that legislatures have found ways to continue their vital role during the crisis. That includes parliaments in Britain, Germany and France.

As businesses across Canada begin to be allowed to reopen, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand why Parliament can’t. A recent report by the House of Commons Administration says it is ready to hold virtual sittings, or hybrid sittings in which some members are in the chamber and others are at home.

The Liberals and the NDP need to make an immediate U-turn and support the return of Parliament. The tools exist to practise both physical distancing and democracy. We don’t have to choose.

And the need is urgent. Canada’s limitations on large in-person gatherings could well continue into 2021. The Trudeau government might be happy to go a year with a silenced Parliament, but nobody else should be.

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