By Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Parliament will be recalled Saturday to vote on the Trudeau government’s $73-billion emergency wage subsidy program to help businesses keep their employees on the payroll through the COVID-19 crisis.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez wrote Thursday to House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to request that the chamber be recalled to deal with the legislation necessary to implement the massive program.
The Senate is also being recalled the same day.
As part of the countrywide effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Parliament has been adjourned since March 13, except for a brief sitting of fewer than three dozen MPs two weeks ago to pass the first phase of emergency aid to individuals and businesses.
Only 32 MPs and a reduced number of senators, primarily those within driving distance of the capital, are expected to be present in their respective chambers on Saturday — similar to the manner in which the first aid bill was handled.
The government must have unanimous consent of all parties in order to pass the bill in a few hours on a single day, bypassing the usual lengthy legislative process. To that end, the government provided opposition parties with a draft of the bill on Monday and had been negotiating with them since then over the fine print.
While all parties are on side with the principles of the wage subsidy, the negotiations bogged down over the issue of how to hold the government to account over the longer term.
That issue remained unresolved late Thursday. But a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the government decided to push ahead with the Saturday sitting regardless in hopes that the Conservatives will agree to pass the wage subsidy bill and resolve the impasse over how Parliament should function later.
In a letter to Trudeau earlier Thursday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer outlined his party’s position that the Commons should sit with a small number of MPs, with “regular” opportunities for them to grill the prime minister “as we would normally during question period.”
He also said that Commons committees should begin holding meetings again, where MPs can present motions, call witnesses and question ministers and officials.
Among other things, the Conservatives want Parliament to sit four days a week, in person, though Scheer said Thursday they’d be open to adding virtual sessions on top of that.
“If the government has a counter-proposal, if they have a rationale for why four sessions a week are not possible, we’re open to hearing that rationale and we’re open to hearing alternative measures,” he told a news conference in Regina.
“But this is something we believe will benefit Canadians.”
Scheer also said his party supports the wage subsidy program and wants to improve it, but argued the bill does not require urgent assent. He noted the government has said getting the package out will take as long as six weeks, and the back-end infrastructure needed is already being put in place.
However, government officials pointed out that Finance Minister Bill Morneau said nine days ago that it would take three to six weeks to start implementing the wage subsidy so there’s not as much time as Scheer believes. Moreover, Morneau has argued it’s critical to pass the bill as soon as possible in order to give businesses certainty that they’ll soon have a 75-per-cent wage subsidy to help them keep workers on their payrolls.
For his part, Trudeau agreed it’s essential that Parliament continue to hold the government to account during the crisis but he argued that virtual sittings would be better than having MPs gather in person in the Commons.
Having even a small number of MPs meet regularly in person would still require “a significant number of support staff” to come to work at a time when all Canadians are being advised to stay home and avoid contact with others as much as possible, Trudeau said.
As well, he said it wouldn’t allow the vast majority of MPs who don’t live within driving distance of Ottawa to participate and give voice to the concerns of their constituents.
On Wednesday, Speaker Rota advised Rodriguez that he’s asked the Commons administration to work on setting up a virtual House of Commons, with the goal of having it up and running within four weeks.
Trudeau urged the Opposition not to tie the longer-term issue of how Parliament should function to the urgently needed wage subsidy bill.
“It’s really important that parliamentarians get together to make sure the work of getting the help to Canadians happens and happens quickly while these continued conversations about furthering our democracy in this moment of crisis continue,” he said Thursday.
“It’s not the time to further delay getting help to Canadians.”
The Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Greens were all on side with passing the wage subsidy bill quickly and dealing separately with the longer-term issue of how Parliament should function during the crisis.