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opinion

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau attends a news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, on March 11, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

That was a big oops. The Liberal government’s explanation for putting a 21-month blank cheque into emergency legislation was essentially that officials and aides wanted to give Finance Minister Bill Morneau flexibility in a crisis, and got carried away. Nobody caught the grab for additional powers. An accident. Oops!

So Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to start out his daily press conference pledging that he will stick with the whole democracy thing even in a time of crisis. Mr. Trudeau has for days been explaining he didn’t need to invoke the Emergencies Act for more powers, but by Tuesday, his government had so overreached that he had to profess his “unwavering commitment” to democracy.

The original version of the legislation, before the opposition cried foul, allowed for Mr. Morneau to tax, borrow or spend without any parliamentary approval, until the end of 2021. It dispensed with even the basic safeguard in the Emergencies Act, including limited parliamentary oversight and shorter time limits, such as 90 days, on emergency powers. It was so offside, the government withdrew the most offending part at the 11th hour – around 11 p.m. Monday night – and on Tuesday entered negotiations with the opposition about other sections.

The uncomfortable thing is that this grasping move betrays a panicky uncertainty among the people making economic policy in Ottawa.

They are so unsure about what is needed to stabilize the economy that they tried to obtain the power to borrow, tax, and spend as they see fit, at the stroke of a pen, for nearly two years.

The desire to be able to move quickly is understandable. Every week seems to bring the coronavirus crisis and its economic impact to a new scale. Yet this move is a byproduct of the way the Liberal government has handled the economic package that is supposed to reassure Canadians.

The first tranche announced last week was big, for normal times – $27-billion in spending and $55-billion in temporary tax deferrals – but not so big that it got ahead of the rising wave of fears and really reassured the public. The U.S. Congress is working on a US$2-trillion bill, and though the two packages and economies are not exactly comparable, the scale isn’t, either.

It seems likely that finance officials wanted all those extra powers because they’re not only worried about the unpredictability of the future, they’re uncertain about the adequacy of what they have already done. The economic package in the legislation going before Parliament doesn’t put Canada firmly ahead of the curve.

The 10-per-cent wage subsidy is so small, it seems like the government didn’t believe in the idea. And perhaps wage subsidies are not the right choice – but small ones will probably not keep a lot of people on payrolls. The emergency benefit of $900 every two weeks is not enough for those who don’t get some other sum, like the enhanced Canada Child Benefit. The feds might add sums later, but it is important to reassure quickly.

Some things, like industrial bailouts, might take a little more time. But for big things, it’s not impossible to recall Parliament, as they did Tuesday. In the meantime, the Finance Minister needs a little flexibility. But not a Constitution made of Play-Doh.

The Liberals note they sent a draft of the bill to the opposition in advance, and the offending provisions will be fixed. No harm, no foul. And let’s accept mistakes will be made in a rush job. But this one betrayed a reckless disregard for parliamentary checks and balances. It was a big mistake.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer took the sensible position that his party was willing to pass the package of economic supports, but not the most egregious overreaches for new powers without oversight. He was not wrong. Conservative backbencher Scott Reid defied his own party by showing up at the House of Commons when only a small rump of MPs from each party was supposed to attend, because he objected to the process, and that the bill won’t even have after-the-fact monitoring by a parliamentary committee. He was not wrong, either. Instead of mustering multiparty co-operation in a crisis, the Liberals triggered tense negotiations.

The partisan bickering wasn’t reassuring. Neither was the panicky grab for spending powers. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals had worked to reassure the public, and then we saw them sweat.