The Liberal government’s plan to extend the suspension of regular parliamentary sittings until September because of COVID-19 went ahead Tuesday with the support of the NDP.
The NDP also supported a motion to shut down debate on the extension, which was opposed by the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois. The NDP voted with the government in exchange for a pledge to work with the provinces toward a new national system of 10 days of paid sick leave.
The Liberal-NDP deal is shaking up the political dynamics of the minority Parliament. The Bloc Québécois, which has supported the government on the two previous motions to suspend Parliament, lashed out Tuesday at the two parties.
“What’s happening now is a deal between the NDP and the Liberals to shut down Parliament,” Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said. The Bloc Leader dismissed the sick leave proposal as a promise of “two weeks of vacation for everyone in Canada” – interfering in provincial jurisdiction over labour laws.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said she was "very, very disappointed” and accused the government of avoiding scrutiny Tuesday afternoon after it moved a motion to shut down debate.
The government introduced a motion Monday outlining alternative scenarios for political debate during the proposed suspension to Sept. 21, such as meetings of some committees and a total of four formal sitting days.
It also allows the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic to meet four days a week in the House until June 18, including remote participation by MPs via videoconferencing. The Special Committee, made up of all members of the House of Commons, was created as part of an agreement in April to extend the suspension of regular sittings.
The government says this provides a venue for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and cabinet ministers to answer questions from opposition MPs, but Conservative and Bloc MPs dismiss the committee as a weak replacement for regular sittings. The government said the plan balances the need for accountability and public-health considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Current Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux and former PBO Kevin Page are raising questions about a section of the deal that will limit a House of Commons review of billions of dollars in new spending to no more than four hours.
Government spending must be approved by Parliament through a process called the supplementary estimates. The next round of spending is due to be made public in early June. It is likely to include at least some of the more than $150-billion in new measures the government has announced to address the pandemic. The motion states that these estimates are to be approved by the House on June 17 after no more than four hours of debate.
Mr. Page said MPs should be given adequate time to review and approve government spending requests.
"It is a fundamental principle – power of the purse rests with the House of Commons,” Mr. Page said. “I do not see how four hours could be enough time.”
The former PBO, who is now president and chief executive of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, said the process will make for an interesting calculation of how many billions of dollars are approved per hour of parliamentary debate.
Mr. Giroux, the current PBO, said in an interview that while changes to the status quo are understandable given the pandemic, the government should make extra efforts to provide MPs with briefing materials.
"With less time for parliamentarians to scrutinize government spending, you’d hope that the government would be more transparent in releasing the technical documents that support the funding requests,” he said.
The government has not provided details on the proposed new sick leave, such as whether it would be paid for by the federal or provincial governments or by private employers.
Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said the NDP was “smart” to reach a deal with the Liberals that advances support for workers. Mr. Yussuff said one potential option would be to create a sick-leave program through the federal Employment Insurance system.
He also said it was “reprehensible” for the Bloc Leader to equate sick leave with vacation days and expressed hope that Mr. Blanchet did not intend to be insensitive. Mr. Yussuff said the vast majority of workers with paid sick leave do not abuse the system.
The labour leader, who has advised the government on its emergency measures during the pandemic, noted that Parliament normally takes a break in June and recesses for the summer.
“I don’t think it’s robbing our democracy,” he said of the motion.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Mr. Blanchet’s comments “irresponsible and not progressive.”
In an interview, Mr. Singh’s chief of staff, Jennifer Howard, explained her party’s rationale for supporting the government motion. She said the NDP secured additional days of the Special COVID-19 Committee and four sitting days during the summer recess for MPs to question the government.
“We were satisfied that the process that [the government] laid out for the rest of June and the summer was a process that would allow us to hold the government to account," she said. “But we were also really clear that the point of the House of Commons, the point of Parliament, is to get things done for people."
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