The Trudeau 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.
Passage of legislation needed to implement the program was assured Saturday after Conservatives dropped their attempt to tie the bill to the longer-term question of how Parliament should function in the midst of a national health crisis.
At a morning news conference just hours before the House of Commons was to meet 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 per cent 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 per cent of their revenue in March or 30 per cent 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 today’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 in-person sittings.
For the past couple of weeks, the Commons finance and health committees have been meeting weekly via teleconference. As part of the deal to speedily pass the wage subsidy bill, government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said more committees — industry, government operations, human resources and procedure and House affairs — will also begin virtual meetings.
The latter committee will be specifically tasked with exploring the best ways for the Commons to function in the weeks ahead.
“We have to be creative,” Rodriguez said.
“On one hand, we can’t tell Canadians, ‘Stay home because that’s the way to fight this (pandemic)’ and then come here every day and meet.”
Both Singh and Blanchet said their parties will support the speedy passage of the wage subsidy bill and claimed credit for making some improvements to it.
Singh, who has been pushing for a universal benefit for all Canadians, said the motion seeking unanimous consent for the wage subsidy will also include a guarantee that the government will close some of the gaps that have left some Canadians without any help from either the wage subsidy or the previously passed Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
And he said he still wants Trudeau to go further and drop all the eligibility criteria for the CERB. Singh said he’s heard from many Canadians who don’t qualify for the emergency benefit, which opened to applicants this week, including people who are still earning a small income, students and those who were unemployed before the pandemic began.
Blanchet said his party successfully negotiated some additions to the bill that will see businesses get help with some of their fixed costs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address Canadians from the Commons later Saturday, marking his first public appearance away from his home in 26 days.
The Canadian Press