The House of Commons unanimously approved wage subsidy legislation Saturday afternoon, while Conservatives and Liberals disputed when and how Parliament should meet again.
A smattering of MPs – just 20 are required for quorum – met briefly to approve the Canada emergency wage subsidy, which will subsidize 75 per cent of workers’ wages to keep employers from laying them off during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The subsidy, which is retroactive to March 15, will cost the federal government $73-billion, a massive expenditure that is expected to cover wages for up to 12 weeks, though additional support will almost certainly be required.
The Senate passed the legislation later on Saturday, followed by royal assent from the Governor-General.
Addressing the House, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau compared the sacrifices Canadians are being asked to make during this pandemic to the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers who captured Vimy Ridge on April 9 through 12, 1917, and of those who served and fought in the Second World War, some of whom are still alive and extremely vulnerable to this disease.
“They fought for us, all those years ago, and today we fight for them,” Mr. Trudeau said to a silent House, adding, “for them, and for their grandchildren, we will endure, we will persevere and we will prevail.”
The government shared the legislation with the opposition parties in advance of the sitting, and tweaked some measures to ensure consent. But Mr. Scheer, Leader of the Official Opposition, wants the House to start meeting regularly, despite the physical distancing regulations in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“We can absolutely accommodate the directions of public health officials by having a reduced number of MPs," he told reporters, saying that only regular sittings of the House could provide "the transparency and oversight that this government needs, that every government needs all the time, especially in a crisis.”
Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said Parliamentary committees were already meeting virtually, and that Parliamentarians and House of Commons officials were exploring ways to convene the House remotely.
But he maintained it was not feasible for the House of Commons to meet with reduced numbers, in part because support, security, cleaning and other House staff would also have to be present, putting their health at risk.
“On the one hand, we can’t tell Canadians to stay home, because that’s the way to fight this, and then come here every day and meet,” he said at a press conference.
In the House, Mr. Scheer criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic in its early days, when the Liberal government played down the threat of the coronavirus. He was also critical of the government’s failure to ramp up testing in the early stages of the spread and questioned why the government delayed its decision to impose restrictions on people coming to Canada.
“This is why the Conservatives are demanding regular opportunities to ask the Prime Minister and the House of Commons questions about all aspects of the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis," he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, noting that the government was automatically approving any and all applications for the Canada emergency response benefit for workers who have lost their job, urged the Liberals to remove any conditions on receiving it.
“Announce that all the criteria will be dropped and simply tell people, if you need help, apply for it, you will get it,” he urged.
But Mr. Trudeau declined. “We of course recognize there are gaps, and are working with all Parliamentarians to fill those gaps.”