OTTAWA—The Liberal government is asking Parliament to fast-track its latest COVID-19 economic recovery package, prompting a torrent of opposition outrage that government forced this issue by proroguing Parliament in August.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez proposed Monday to limit debate on Bill C-2, which establishes more flexibility to qualify for employment insurance.
It would also set up three new benefits for Canadians who won’t qualify for EI but are still impacted by the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Liberals secured NDP support for the legislation last week by raising the amount of those benefits to $500, from $400.
That includes a Canada Recovery Benefit for self-employed and gig workers who still won’t qualify for EI, as well as sick leave and caregiver benefits for workers who have to stay home because they or someone they care for, such as children, have to stay home temporarily because of COVID-19.
The $500 a week will equal what was paid out under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which the Liberals introduced last spring as millions of Canadians lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Because CERB expired over the weekend, the new bill will need to pass quickly in order for Canadians to begin applying for the new benefits. Applications for the recovery benefit are to open Oct. 11 and, for the other two benefits, on Oct. 4.
Rodriguez said Canadians are watching to see if political parties will work together to pass the aid package quickly.
“Canadians need our help now and this is exactly what the motion is attempting to accomplish,” he said Monday. “Quick action.”
The motion proposes to limit debate on the bill to just 4.5 hours and have no committee time, allowing the bill to likely pass before the end of the day.
Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell called that a “joke.”
“What we have today is a government who wants 4.5 hours of debate for $50 billion in taxpayer dollars,” said Deltell.
The Liberals prorogued Parliament in August, which prevented any debate or committee work until it resumed last week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government needed to prorogue in order to bring in a throne speech and get Parliament’s approval for the COVID-19 recovery plan.
But he also did it amid multiple investigations by House of Commons committees about the Liberals’ decision to award a contract to WE Charity to administer a massive student grant program, when many Liberals, including Trudeau, had clear ties to the organization.
Deltell wants to amend the motion to add a committee hearing where the ministers of finance, employment and children all take questions from MPs for 95 minutes each.
NDP House leader Peter Julian said his party will support the motion but only begrudgingly because people need the help. He said the Liberals’ actions mean millions of Canadians are suffering and anxious about what help they will get.
“Why did they take millions of Canadians right to the precipice before acting?” Julian asked.
The debate comes as the House resumed Monday morning for the first full week of operations for the pandemic Parliament, and as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the country’s two biggest provinces.
Debate on the government’s throne speech will also continue this week, with speeches expected by both Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, both of whom have been quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19.
Blanchet was out of his quarantine on Monday, speaking publicly about the Bloc’s proposals for an economic recovery plan, while O’Toole is expected to be out of his quarantine later in the week.
His response to the speech from the throne will be his first statement in the Commons since becoming party leader just over a month ago.
Ginny Roth of Crestview Strategies suggested grand speeches delivered on the floor of the Commons matter less during the digital era, as being a strong performer in Parliament doesn’t necessarily translate to votes in a general election.
Even as O’Toole was stuck in his basement, the party was pushing out video clips—including one about the pivotal role his hockey coach played in helping him through the death of his mother when he was a child—in a bid to introduce him more broadly to the public.
“His biggest challenge is his name recognition, people just don’t know who he is,” Roth said. “He’s using the format that works the best for people and seems to access people the most right now: online video content.”
O’Toole’s remarks in the Commons will draw on his experiences waiting to be tested for—and ultimately diagnosed with—COVID-19. But he’ll also use the opportunity to set a tone for how he’ll seek to lead the official Opposition in the coming months and win the country in the eventual next election.
“We’re going to oppose, and we’re going to challenge and hold the government to account,” O’Toole said in an interview last week with The Canadian Press. “But we’re also going to offer some contrasting vision.”
O’Toole’s Tories came out fast against the throne speech last week, arguing it didn’t go far enough to offer support to Canadians impacted by the pandemic. The Bloc Québécois said absent a federal government plan to transfer billions more for health care to the provinces, they aren’t sure they can support it either.
But the NDP have now said that if their demands for a stronger COVID-19 safety net are in the new relief bill before the Commons this week, they will likely support the speech from the throne.
By Mia Rabson and Stephanie Levitz