Parliament’s spending watchdog told MPs it is “unfortunate to say the least” that a government motion approved this week to suspend regular House of Commons sittings will limit a review of billions in COVID-19 spending to no more than four hours.
“It comes up as a very expensive four hours, potentially, for Canadian taxpayers,” Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux told MPs Friday during a video appearance before the House of Commons committee on government operations and estimates. “The amount of scrutiny for this unprecedented spending would also be unprecedented, but for the wrong reasons.”
The House of Commons voted Tuesday to suspend regular sittings for four months, citing safety concerns due to the novel coronavirus. The suspension arrangement schedules four sitting days during that period, in addition to June 17, when MPs will review and approve billions in coronavirus-related spending. NDP MPs and one Green Party MP voted in favour of the government motion, while Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs were opposed.
Government spending must be approved by Parliament through a process called the spending estimates. The next round of spending estimates is due to be released in early June and will then be approved during the June 17 sitting after no more than four hours of debate, according to the motion approved this week.
“These estimates are very likely to include dozens of billions of dollars in new spending, if not over a hundred billion dollars in new spending, and to have only a committee of the whole [House of Commons] look at that for a maximum of four hours, to me, it’s unfortunate, to say the least," Mr. Giroux told MPs. “Because there will be very little opportunity for parliamentarians to look at these important amounts of spending and to hold the government to account on what amounts to unprecedented spending. So, in my opinion, it would have been better to allow for more scrutiny.”
The NDP agreed to support the minority Liberal government in exchange for a pledge to work with the provinces on a plan to implement a national program allowing for 10 paid sick days per year. Liberal and NDP MPs said parliamentary scrutiny will continue during the suspension through meetings of the temporary COVID-19 committee, which meets four days a week on the floor of the House of Commons until June 17.
Conservative MP Kelly McCauley, who asked Mr. Giroux to comment on the arrangement during Friday’s committee session, said Parliament is more than a venue for “flowery speeches” and said the PBO summed up the situation “very well.”
In an interview, Mr. McCauley noted that normally, federal ministers would have to appear before relevant committees with their officials to defend their spending proposals and explain how the money will be used.
“None of that will exist now," he said. “It’s a complete abdication of parliamentary responsibility, and frankly to me, an attack on the very basis of what Parliament is, which is the oversight of spending.”
When the Liberals and NDP announced their arrangement earlier this week, it was not clear whether Ottawa, the provinces or private-sector employers would be expected to cover the cost of additional sick days for workers.
During his daily news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would cover a substantial portion of the cost.
Mr. Trudeau said that during a call Thursday with provincial and territorial premiers, concerns were expressed that adding new costs on employers in terms of additional sick-day obligations would harm the economic recovery.
“I assured them that the federal government will provide a major share of this support for people who need sick leave,” said Mr. Trudeau, adding that it will be important to have measures in place by the fall so workers can afford to stay home when they are sick.
Federal spending announcements to date related to COVID-19 add up to $152.8-billion, according to the latest Finance Department update released Thursday.
When combined with lower tax revenues, the PBO has said this year’s federal deficit could exceed $250-billion, compared to the government’s prepandemic projection in December of $28.1-billion.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau cancelled plans to release a federal budget in March and has not provided a timeline for when he will release a budget or fiscal update.
In another report released Friday, the Finance Department said the deficit for the previous fiscal year, which ended on March 31, stood at $21.8-billion. The official deficit figure for that year – 2019-20 – won’t be announced until the fall and could be different from the figure released Friday due to year-end adjustments.
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