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For the second time this week, the federal Health Minister and the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada are being called before a House of Commons committee to deal with aspects of the ongoing pandemic.

Earlier this week, the ethics committee voted to call the pair, and other officials, to face questions on why location information from millions of mobile phones was gathered to help shape pandemic policy and messaging. Story here.

And on Friday, the health committee voted to invite the pair – Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Theresa Tam – to appear by next Wednesday to discuss recent COVID-19 developments. These include the status of support for provinces addressing the Omicron surge, the availability of mRNA vaccine boosters, and the availability of rapid tests. You can watch video of the hearing here.

“It’s time to give an update on the state of our preparedness facing this pandemic and especially facing this wave of Omicron,” Tory MP Luc Berthold told his colleagues on the health committee.

Liberal MP Adam van Koeverden, also a committee member, said he looked forward to welcoming the officials to the committee next week. “Let’s thank them for their hard work because nobody’s worked harder on this pandemic than these folks,” he said. “We do owe them a debt of gratitude while, at the same time, demanding some accountability.”

The call from the health committee came as Dr. Tam told a virtual news conference on Friday that Canada could be approaching the peak of the Omicron wave of COVID-19 as the most populous provinces start to see case counts stabilize. Parliamentary reporter Marieke Walsh reports on that development here.

This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter sign-up page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.

TODAY’S HEADLINES

BREAKING - Former Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips, now minister of long-term care, says he will not be seeking re-election in this year’s provincial election. He will be stepping down next month as the MPP for Ajax. He was first elected in 2018. In a statement posted on Twitter, Mr. Phillips said he remains confident that Ontarians will re-elect the Progressive Conservatives in the election. But he said, “my professional life has been spent in the business world and I look forward to returning to the private sector.” In 2020, Mr. Phillips resigned his post as finance minister amid the controversy of his taking a vacation to St. Barts despite the public-health advice of his government during the pandemic.

NEWLY RELEASED - After spending nearly 15 years in an Egyptian prison for a crime he insists he did not commit, Canadian Egyptian Mohamed el-Attar has returned to Canada. Mr. el-Attar, who now goes by the name Joseph Attar, was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His conviction was based mostly on a confession, which he said he signed after being tortured with electric shocks and forced to drink his own urine. Parliamentary reporter Janice Dickson reports here.

FEW MOBILE HOSPITALS BUILT DESPITE FED FUNDING - Ottawa allocated $300-million at the beginning of the pandemic for the construction of 15 mobile hospitals, but only four 100-bed units have been completed and they are sitting in storage despite the strain on hospitals caused by Omicron across the country. Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and senior parliamentary reporter Steven Chase report here.

OTTAWA ACKNOWLEDGES TRUCKING POLICY ANNOUNCEMENT ERROR - A day after the Canadian Border Services Agency said an incoming vaccine mandate for truck drivers crossing from the United States would not be going into effect this week, the federal government said the reversal was all a mistake.

O’TOOLE OPPOSES QUEBEC VACCINATION TAX - Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says that while he respects provincial jurisdiction, he opposes Quebec’s plan “to tax and target” those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19.

QUEBEC VACCINATION TAX ANALYSIS - Tax and Fiscal Policy reporter Pat Brethour, in Friday’s Tax and Spend newsletter (you can subscribe to the newsletter on the page here), explores the issue of why Quebec’s proposed tax on the unvaccinated is unlikely to achieve its goal. The story is here.

THIS AND THAT

The House of Commons has adjourned until Jan. 31 at 11 a.m. ET.

GOULD EXPECTS OTTAWA-ONTARIO CHILD-CARE DEAL SOON - Federal Families Minister Karina Gould says she’s hoping for a child-care deal between the federal government and Ontario “sooner than later” after talks she said accelerated “significantly” in December. “I am hopeful and optimistic that Ontario will be joining sooner than later,” Ms. Gould told a news conference Friday on child-care savings affecting Nova Scotia. She also said talks are proceeding well with the territory of Nunavut. Ontario and Nunavut are the lone holdouts in striking a child-care deal with Ottawa as part of the federal government’s $30-billion five-year child-care plan that promises to cut fees to an average of $10 a day across the country by 2025. Asked about the minister’s comment, the office of Ontario Education Minister Steven Lecce said, in a statement, that the province is at the table with Ottawa making the case for a “fair deal” that “will ensure Ontario parents actually get 10-dollar-a-day child care.”

FORMER NEWFOUNDLAND LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR AND CABINET MINISTER DIES - Edward Roberts, Newfoundland and Labrador’s former lieutenant-governor and a cabinet minister in the administrations of three premiers, has died, aged 81. Mr. Roberts was appointed lieutenant-governor in 2002, and held the office for about six years. Born in St. John’s, he became a lawyer, entered provincial politics in 1966 and served in the cabinets of Liberal premiers Joey Smallwood, Clyde Wells and Brian Tobin. Judy Foote – the current lieutenant-governor and a former federal Liberal cabinet minister – said Mr. Roberts was a mentor throughout her career including her current role. “He always took my telephone calls and gave advice readily when asked,” Ms. Foote said in a statement.

THE DECIBEL – On Friday’s episode of The Globe and Mail podcast, Dr. Devon Greyson, an associate professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, talks about the ethical considerations of the planned Quebec “health contribution” tax for people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The Decibel is here.

PRIME MINISTER’S DAY

Private meetings in Ottawa. The Prime Minister virtually joined Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston to make an early learning and child-care announcement. Interviews with the Prime Minister were scheduled to air Friday afternoon on Halifax’s 105.9 Seaside-FM and Nova Scotia’s CKBW FM.

LEADERS

No public schedules provided for leaders.

PUBLIC OPINION

Philippe J. Fournier of 338Canada reports here in Maclean’s that new polling suggests Quebec’s governing CAQ has slipped in voting intentions since the holidays. The good news for the CAQ is that they are comfortably ahead in an election year. However, public opinion in Quebec appears to be in flux.

OPINION

Andrew Coyne (The Globe and Mail) on how Quebec’s unvaxxed tax may be a stretch, but it’s hardly the assault on liberty critics claim: A better argument for the tax is simply as an incentive to get vaccinated. That was always the real argument for restaurant-and-flight vaccine mandates; Quebec is only making explicit what was previously implicit. But that runs into a couple of other potential roadblocks. One: is it likely to work? Will it persuade hardcore vaccine refuseniks to get the jab, or will they simply pay the fine – or even refuse to do that? Even if the cost to rights is small, if the benefits to public health are even smaller, it fails the test of proportionality.”

Robyn Urback (The Globe and Mail) on the Conservatives handing Beijing a win by abandoning their China committee: “Shortly before Christmas, when Canadians were preoccupied with a new COVID-19 variant and holiday plans, the Conservative Party of Canada revealed that it would not attempt to bring back its Special Committee on Canada-China Relations in the new year. It was a strange decision for a party whose leader has said there is “no greater threat to Canada’s interests than the rise of China.” For years, the Conservatives have hammered the Liberal cabinet for its timid and conciliatory approach to relations with Beijing: for abstaining from a motion recognizing China’s treatment of its Muslim minority as “genocide”; for dithering on whether to join other Five Eyes partners in banning or restricting Huawei’s access to our 5G network; for its apparent inertia in repatriating the two Canadians held hostage by Beijing in retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou; for failing to provide documents to the Canada-China committee on the firing of two scientists from Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory in 2020.”

Andrew MacDougall (The Ottawa Citizen) on how Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole latest rant shows he’s caught in a trap of his party’s making: Is there anyone in Canada with half a brain who thinks [federal Environment Minister Steven] Guilbeault is going to phase out Canadian energy in just 18 months? Nope, not even the solar-panel and wind-turbine manufacturers. Hell, O’Toole himself doesn’t believe it. Sure, the Trudeau government wants to end fossil-fuel subsidies in that timeframe, along with tabling a roadmap to eventually phase out fossil fuels, but that’s not phasing out Canadian energy in 18 months. Not by a long shot. Does O’Toole think people don’t know how to Google? Looked at another way, is there anyone who is going to be convinced that Guilbeault is going to let Canadians freeze in the dark based solely on O’Toole’s word? Why yes, dear reader, there are. They’re called the Conservative membership. The ranty video was just the latest episode in the endless series called Preaching to the Converted. But unless the Conservatives can figure out a way to get each member to vote approximately 25 times each on election day, it’s only wasted breath.”

Murray Mandryk (Saskatoon StarPhoenix) on how Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s COVID-19 reality reveals the need for a better approach: Wednesday, we needed to see a government plan based on science. And we needed some policy leadership. We needed clarity – not unsubstantiated notions about what is or isn’t working or largely politically motivated ideas about how we can all be rugged individuals and get through this on our own. Instead of the practical, common-sense policies aimed at stopping Omicron spread that we see implemented in most every other jurisdiction, we instead got a lot of talk of how we can no longer allow this pandemic to infringe on our freedoms and liberties. That Moe’s message came just as federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was launching his own campaign suggesting “Canada’s Conservatives want to see an end to … restrictions to your liberty” seems no small coincidence.”

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