The House of Commons approved emergency legislation authorizing billions in new spending for workers and businesses after the government abandoned controversial plans to give cabinet special powers through to 2022.
A revised bill passed quickly through all stages in the early hours of Wednesday morning after Finance Department officials rewrote an earlier draft bill that had been rejected by opposition parties as an excessive power grab.
The original draft bill would have given cabinet the power to tax, spend and borrow in unlimited amounts through regulation and without Parliamentary approval until Dec. 31, 2021. The revised version approved Wednesday removes the section relating to taxation powers and limits other special powers to a period of no later than Sept. 30, 2020.
Both the original draft bill and the revised version approved Wednesday authorize the government to proceed with the $82-billion in spending and tax deferral measures the government announced last week to address the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
The approved version of the bill retains a section that creates a Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act.
The section grants the finance minister the power to spend “all money required to do anything in relation to that public health event of national concern.”
The new legislation lists four examples of measures that could be a approved under this provision, including the purchase of medical supplies, providing assistance to the provinces for safety and emergency response needs, providing income support and “funding public health-related programs or covering expenses incurred by federal departments and agencies.”
The approved bill now includes a sunset clause that repeals the new act on Sept. 30, 2020.
The Prime Minister is scheduled to hold another news conference Wednesday morning at 11:15 EDT.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the opposition succeeded in forcing the government to back down.
“The Liberals shamefully tried to use a public health crisis to give themselves the powers to raise taxes, debt and spending without parliamentary approval until January 1, 2022,” he said in a statement. “But after hours of negotiation, the government has backed down.”
Mr. Scheer said in a news release that the government has agreed to present regular reports to the House of Commons committees on health and finance and that the finance committee has the right to recall Parliament if abuses are identified.
The House of Commons was scheduled to begin a brief one-day sitting Tuesday at noon to pass legislation implementing the package announced last week. But opposition parties said they were shocked when they received an advance copy of the draft bill on Monday that included a host of new cabinet powers that went far beyond the measures announced last week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to address those concerns Tuesday morning by offering to remove one part of the bill related to taxation powers that would last until 2022, but the offer failed to win over the opposition. Mr. Trudeau later told reporters that the government is seeking to balance the need for parliamentary oversight with the government’s desire for flexibility to make decisions quickly in response to the fast-developing COVID-19 crisis.
“We recognize that this pandemic is moving extremely quickly and 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 told reporters during his daily news conference Tuesday.
Just minutes after the House of Commons opened at noon Tuesday, MPs agreed to suspend the sitting and launched into hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise.
Around 6:30 p.m., MPs appeared briefly in the House of Commons before continuing with the negotiations. The procedural move allowed negotiations to continue past midnight without formally ending the Tuesday sitting of the House of Commons.
A source of uncertainty throughout the negotiations was the role of Conservative MP Scott Reid, who attended Parliament Tuesday against the wishes of his party leader and is strongly opposed to the Liberal government’s original proposals. He could have denied unanimous consent, which would have delayed immediate passage.
After the deal was reached, Mr. Reid issued a statement on Twitter praising Mr. Scheer and the Conservative Party’s negotiating team for securing a “remarkable turnaround” by the government.
“The vast power-grab of Bill C-13, in its original form, has been pared back, while reasonable aid efforts are retained – and Parliamentary sovereignty is preserved,” Mr. Reid wrote.
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