In­side the bat­tle for COVID-19 spend­ing bill

‘WE GOT THE BILL ... AND IT WAS FULL OF BOMBS’

Vancouver Sun - - PANDEMIC - Na­tional Post, with files from John Ivi­son and Chris Nardi RYAN TUMILTY in Ot­tawa

Govern­ment House Leader Pablo Ro­driguez be­trayed lit­tle of what was go­ing on in the back­rooms when he strode into the House of Com­mons at noon Tuesday and asked for pro­ceed­ings to be sus­pended.

What was sup­posed to be a rel­a­tively quick debate and vote on a series of sweep­ing fi­nan­cial mea­sures — more than $27 bil­lion — to keep the Cana­dian econ­omy on life sup­port and re­spond to COVID-19 was knocked off course.

Op­po­si­tion par­ties balked as the Lib­er­als tried to give them­selves far reach­ing fi­nan­cial au­thor­ity to tax, spend and bor­row as much as they wanted to deal with the cri­sis all the way un­til 2022.

It would be 15 hours of ne­go­ti­a­tions, end­ing around 3 a.m. on Wed­nes­day, be­fore the House ac­tu­ally sat down to re­view the bill that was sup­posed to be de­bated at noon.

The his­toric sit­ting of Par­lia­ment, with just 32 mem­bers of the 338-seat House, was called on Sun­day, de­signed to give the Lib­er­als room to re­spond to the cri­sis while also not bring­ing back all MPs and turn­ing the House of Com­mons into a pub­lic health threat.

The idea was to have the MPs present give unan­i­mous con­sent for the bill’s pas­sage, al­low­ing the govern­ment to move quickly through the leg­isla­tive process. The op­po­si­tion was on board, but Con­ser­va­tive House Leader Candice Ber­gen said she made it clear to Ro­driguez he shouldn’t push the en­ve­lope.

“Pablo, you want to get it done but there can be no sur­prises,” she said she told Ro­driguez. “We were told we’d get the bill in ad­vance and it was agreed upon that there couldn’t be any sur­prises.”

Ber­gen and Con­ser­va­tive leader An­drew Scheer were brought to Ot­tawa for the spe­cial ses­sion by govern­ment air­craft. She said the no sur­prises pledge ended on Sun­day night when they re­ceived the draft leg­is­la­tion.

“We got the bill on Sun­day night and it was full of bombs,” she said. “I let Pablo know he had a big prob­lem. I told him we had agreed to what the prime min­is­ter had an­nounced.”

Ber­gen said she did not know what hap­pened, but Ro­driguez had al­ways been di­rect with her be­fore. She did not know if he was mis­in­formed or not be­ing straight with her, but she felt be­trayed by the govern­ment’s ac­tions.

“It was so un­nec­es­sary and it has bro­ken trust. There are no personal hard feel­ings but there is dam­age to work­ing re­la­tion­ships.”

Ro­driguez re­jected the no­tion the op­po­si­tion par­ties were blind­sided say­ing they had the bill 48 hours be­fore it was tabled in par­lia­ment, a unique step he made to smooth the process.

He said the spe­cial pow­ers to spend had to be in the bill.

“The govern­ment in times of cri­sis, such as this one, has to have the ca­pac­ity to move for­ward to move quickly and re­spond to chal­lenges that evolve by the minute,” he said. “Last week was a dif­fer­ent Canada, the way things evolved, to­day is a dif­fer­ent Canada than it will be a week from now.”

When the House ad­journed on March 13, NDP whip Rachel Blaney stayed be­hind in Ot­tawa for a few days to deal with some is­sues. By early the next week it was clear she would have to stay.

“Be­fore I was about to fly out it came down that there were dis­cus­sions and that Par­lia­ment was go­ing to have to come back,” she said.

Blaney said when she saw the bill on Sun­day she saw over­reach on the govern­ment. She said the NDP un­der­stood the govern­ment had to move fast, but that did not mean Par­lia­ment should be on the side­lines.

“All of us see what is hap­pen­ing across the coun­try and across the world. We want to pro­vide the flex­i­bil­ity to ad­dress is­sues as they arise, but there are ways of do­ing that that also have par­lia­men­tary over­sight,” she said.

The over­reaches in the bill in­cluded a pro­vi­sion that would have al­lowed Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau to raise, lower or elim­i­nate taxes through to Dec. 31, 2021. He also could have bor­rowed and spent end­lessly on the cri­sis over the same time frame.

The con­tents of the bill leaked to sev­eral po­lit­i­cal re­porters Mon­day night and op­po­si­tion par­ties made it clear it was go­ing too far. On Tuesday morn­ing, the prime min­is­ter said he would re­move the con­tro­ver­sial tax sec­tion, but Ber­gen said the there was still far too much unchecked au­thor­ity for the govern­ment.

“It was still chock full of power grabs. Ev­ery­one was talk­ing about sec­tion two, that would give them what they wanted on tax un­til 2022. But there was more in the bill that didn’t pro­vide ac­count­abil­ity. We needed sun­set clauses.”

She said it was not un­til the Con­ser­va­tives made it clear they wouldn’t sup­port the bill as is was that things started to change.

“At noon, the House was sus­pended and fi­nally they took us se­ri­ously,” she said.

Alain Ther­rien, par­lia­men­tary leader of the Bloc Québé­cois, said the Con­ser­va­tives were the main bar­rier to the process. He said the Lib­er­als had agreed to re­move the tax au­thor­ity by late Mon­day night, and sun­set their spend­ing and bor­row­ing pow­ers in Septem­ber.

He said the Bloc were pre­pared to agree to the deal on Mon­day night. He said on Tuesday af­ter­noon with the House sus­pended Morneau painted a dark pic­ture of the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion.

“Morneau then came to give us the fi­nan­cial por­trait for all of us. And it wasn’t pretty at all. And that com­forted me that we had a good deal on Mon­day night,” he said.

Ro­driguez said he thought there was a good level of over­sight in the orig­i­nal bill, but the govern­ment was fine with the ad­di­tional lay­ers added Tuesday. He said much of the is­sues were set­tled be­fore the House was sit­ting.

He also pointed out that when the House of Com­mons came back, the op­po­si­tion have levers they could pull.

“It is still a mi­nor­ity govern­ment, so once Par­lia­ment is re­called, the op­po­si­tion can do what they want,” he said. “That is an­other layer of se­cu­rity that they have.”

Af­ter the Tuesday af­ter­noon ne­go­ti­a­tions, the Lib­er­als went back to their corner for a few hours and pre­sented new leg­is­la­tion to the op­po­si­tion around 1 a.m. Wed­nes­day, which was then put up for debate around 3 a.m. and fi­nally voted on around 6 a.m.

It in­cluded the sun­set clauses as well as reg­u­lar up­dates to House com­mit­tees.

Ro­driquez said he hadn’t ex­pected to be ne­go­ti­at­ing the agree­ment un­til the wee hours, but he was also de­ter­mined the bill pass.

“Families are ask­ing them­selves how they’re go­ing to pay the rent, how they are go­ing to put food on the ta­ble for their kids, so there was no way we are leav­ing here without that bill.”

The bill had a much quicker pas­sage in the Se­nate Wed­nes­day morn­ing and was signed by the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral in the af­ter­noon.

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