OTTAWA—The Liberal government has struck a deal with opposition parties to swiftly approve a massive $73−billion wage subsidy program aimed at helping businesses and workers survive the economic ravages of the COVID−19 pandemic.
At a morning news conference just hours before the House of Commons met for a rare emergency sitting on the Easter long weekend, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his party had agreed to support passage of the bill and to continue discussions on the future of Parliament later.
Under the bill, which is expected to pass the Commons and the Senate and receive royal assent later Saturday, the federal government will pay companies 75 percent of the first $58,700 normally earned by employees, up to $847 per week for up to 12 weeks. The subsidy is retroactive to March 15 and will be available to companies that lost 15 percent of their revenue in March or 30 percent in April or May.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the money will begin to flow within two to five weeks, with the government working to get it started in the shortest possible time.
Scheer said that Conservatives had won some improvements to the bill over the past week of negotiations and that their support for the wage subsidy was never dependent on settling the matter of how or when Parliament should sit going forward.
That said, Scheer argued that the work of opposition parties to improve the legislation demonstrates how important it is to have the Commons sitting regularly so that the government can be held to account.
“This shows that during times of crisis, Parliament needs to play its role,” he said.
Scheer reiterated his party’s contention that the Commons should sit—with reduced numbers—four days a week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued that in−person sittings present a health risk for Commons clerks, administrators, security, and cleaners who’d have to come to work at a time when all Canadians are being urged to stay home to curb the spread of the deadly virus. He’s also argued that small sittings—like Saturday’s sitting of just 32 MPs who are primarily within driving distance of the capital—would shut out MPs from all corners of the country.
Trudeau’s Liberals have been promoting the idea of virtual sittings of Parliament. Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has instructed Commons administration to consult with experts about the logistics and technology required for virtual sittings, with the goal of having them up and running within four weeks.
But Scheer said: “We can’t wait that long.”
He suggested that in−person sittings should be held until virtual sittings can be implemented.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he’s open to discussing either virtual sittings or “limited” in−person sittings. But Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves−Francois Blanchet said he would never agree to regular, in−person sittings.
By Joan Bryden