Vote on new COVID-19 relief bill awaits deal on how to question ministers

OTTAWA — Legislation to enact a massive wage subsidy program is being held up as political parties debate how Parliament should work in the midst of a deadly global pandemic.

The Liberal government is trying to separate the longer-term issue of how to set up a virtual Parliament to operate for the duration of the crisis from the more immediate need to recall Parliament as quickly as possible to approve a massive, $73-billion wage subsidy program.

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The Conservatives want to tie the two together, demanding, among other things, that Parliament sit four days a week, with daily question periods to grill Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers.

However, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota indicated Wednesday that setting up some sort of virtual Parliament will take time — up to four weeks.

And Finance Minister Bill Morneau argued that small businesses and workers can't wait for the wage subsidy.

"It's critically important for thousands of people and it's in that context that I want to say we really need the other parties in Parliament to move forward and support this," he told a news conference Wednesday.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre confirmed that his party is "proposing that there be some form of question period so that we can hold the government accountable throughout this time."

He denied that the Conservatives are holding up the legislation. Rather, he argued that it's the Liberals who "goofed up" the wage subsidy, recalling Parliament two weeks ago to pass an emergency aid bill that included a 10 per cent wage subsidy that opposition parties argued at the time was far too limited.

The government has since beefed up the subsidy to 75 per cent and announced relaxed eligibility rules Wednesday to make it easier for more companies to qualify — all of which needs new legislation to enact.

"We think that the government would be better served by a Team Canada approach where we can help them come to the right conclusions in the first place rather than continually having to flip-flop and delay," Poilievre said.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian agreed the government needs to be held accountable and can benefit from opposition proposals. But he said the NDP's priority is pushing the government to introduce a universal benefit that all Canadians can use to weather the storm.

The Bloc Quebecois is supporting the government's bid to quickly pass the wage subsidy bill but unanimous consent of all parties is required to approve the bill in one day, as the government is hoping to do.

Opposition parties were given a draft of the bill Monday evening and discussions have been going on since in a bid to reach that unanimous agreement. Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, remained hopeful Wednesday that a skeleton Parliament — involving 32 MPs living within driving distance of the capital — could be recalled as early as Friday or Saturday.

However, no letter requesting the recall of the House of Commons had yet been sent to Speaker Rota. The government is holding off on that until agreement to pass the bill is reached, rather than repeat what happened last time, when what was supposed to be a brief sitting turned into a marathon, day-long negotiating session behind the scenes. MPs finally approved the emergency aid bill in the wee hours of the morning.

Except for that brief sitting, Parliament has been adjourned since March 13 as part of a countrywide effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. It is scheduled to resume on April 20 but all parties acknowledge the adjournment is likely to continue long past that date.

Trudeau stressed Wednesday that he welcomes the idea of Parliament, in some fashion, resuming its fundamental role during the crisis.

"I believe deeply in our democratic institutions, particularly in a time of crisis, and I look forward to continuing to work with all opposition parties to make sure that we have working systems in place," he said at his daily briefing.

However, Trudeau added it's "important that parliamentarians from every corner of the country, not just those within driving distance of Ottawa, should be able to weigh in on the working of our democracy."

Julian, who noted that his British Columbia riding is more than 4,000 kilometres from Ottawa, agreed a mechanism must be found to involve MPs from all corners of the country at a time when everyone is being advised not to travel.

Last weekend, government House leader Pablo Rodriguez wrote Rota to ask for his advice on how to assemble a virtual Parliament.

In response, Rota wrote Rodriguez on Wednesday to say he's asked the House of Commons administration to work with public and private-sector partners on the technology and logistics required, with the aim of holding a virtual Parliament "within four weeks."

Rota noted that the United Kingdom is taking a similar amount of time to work out a way for the mother of all parliaments to conduct its business virtually.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2020.

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