The 39th sitting of the minority Parliament lasted just 12 minutes Wednesday as the Liberal government failed to secure opposition support for legislation imposing new fines and jail time for people who file fraudulent claims for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
The Liberal government recalled Parliament in order to introduce a bill that had been circulated in advance to opposition parties.
With regular House of Commons sittings suspended until September, the government sought unanimous consent to allow the bill to be debated and put to a final vote in one day. After several days of behind-the-scenes negotiations that continued during the day Wednesday, the Liberals were unable to secure the support of any of the opposition parties in the House to allow that debate and vote to occur.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough introduced the bill Wednesday afternoon. The public version of the bill appears to be unchanged from a draft version obtained by The Globe and Mail earlier this week. The legislation outlines new penalties for fraudulent CERB claims. One section would impose retroactive fines, while another section that is not retroactive includes harsher penalties, such as up to six months in jail.
The bill also includes changes to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy that the government said Wednesday are related to support for seasonal workers. Another section temporarily suspends various court-related deadlines in response to pandemic-related delays in the justice system. The legislation also authorizes a one-time payment of $600 related to COVID-19 to people who are eligible for the Disability Tax Credit, a payment the government announced last week.
“These changes matter. They matter for the worker who needs more flexibility in order to support his or her family. They matter for the small-business owner trying to get their business up and running again and they matter for the 1.52 million Canadian adults and families with children with disabilities in urgent need of support," said Ms. Qualtrough before the bill was introduced.
The government later proposed to split the bill into two parts in order to quickly pass the section related to disabilities but did not receive unanimous consent for that proposal.
Given that Conservative MPs have repeatedly raised concerns about fraud and the CERB, the Official Opposition was viewed by some as the most likely of the opposition parties to support the government bill.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said the situation shows why Parliament should be sitting regularly so that MPs can debate and review government legislation. The Conservatives also called on the government to increase funding for the Auditor-General.
“The Liberals shut down Parliament and should explain to Canadians how they expect to pass bills without it," she said in an e-mailed statement. “Conservatives have been clear that Parliament remains essential and should have the ability to thoroughly debate and improve important legislation.”
Since the Oct. 21, 2019, federal election, the minority Parliament has met for just 39 regular sitting days because of the suspension of regular sittings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and other policy experts expressed concern this week that imposing retroactive penalties raises concerns of fairness and could potentially be unconstitutional.
Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said Wednesday morning that while he had not yet seen the draft bill and the debate between parties is “fluid,” he had concerns.
“I don’t think that you can retroactively criminalize behaviour that was performed in an act of good faith and an act of need during a pandemic," he said in an interview.
The Bloc Québécois laid out three conditions for supporting the government this week: a first ministers’ meeting on health transfers, a requirement that the Liberal Party return all wage subsidies from pandemic-related programs and the release of a fiscal update by July 1.
Speaking with reporters, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Canadians deserve to know the state of federal finances through a fiscal update, joking that in a pandemic, a mask goes over the mouth, not the eyes. Mr. Blanchet said his main concern is that the Liberal minority government is acting like it has a majority.
“The most poisonous pill of all of that is the government trying stubbornly to act as if there were not 338 people having been elected last October, and doing as if it was a majority government led by some kind of a prince, which is not the case," he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called the proposed CERB penalties “ludicrous." Mr. Singh said Wednesday his party cannot support the bill as written because of its “punitive” measures and the fact that many people with disabilities will not qualify for the one-time payment. The NDP is also calling for an extension of the CERB program.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said he was disappointed that a deal could not be reached but that he planned on reaching out to the other parties to find a compromise. “I’m not going to quit,” he said in an interview. “I’m going to look at what else is possible.”
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