Left: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Right: Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer. (Justin Tang, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The House of Commons will reconvene Saturday to debate the government’s wage subsidy legislation — a bill designed to send tens of billions of dollars to businesses disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A small contingent of MPs will be in the Commons for a 2:15 pm. ET start. A Saturday sitting is an exceedingly rare occurrence, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today there’s an urgent need to get the legislation passed so that bureaucrats can start paying the subsidy to eligible businesses to prevent further layoffs.
The legislation implementing the emergency wage subsidy was drafted last weekend and shared with the opposition parties on Monday.
Since then, government House leader Pablo Rodriquez has been locked in negotiations with Candice Bergen, the Conservative House leader, and representatives of the other opposition parties on proposed amendments to the wage subsidy bill. The Conservatives have said that, as the legislation stands now, it could unfairly leave some businesses without any support.
Beyond the subsidy itself, talks have been held between the government and the opposition on how best to hold sittings of Parliament at time when the pandemic has limited travel options for MPs and senators.
When asked Thursday about delays to tabling the legislation, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said negotiations were being held to decide how the opposition can effectively hold the government to account.
Trudeau said Thursday businesses hit hard by the pandemic need support as quickly as possible and the government’s wage package shouldn’t depend on the outcome of negotiations on arranging a virtual Parliament. He said those details “about furthering our democracy” could be sorted out in the days ahead.
The government held off bringing Parliament back until it could secure opposition approval of the wage subsidy bill to avoid a repeat of the last emergency session.
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In the legislation introduced at that session, Bill C-13, the government included some extraordinary tax-and-spend powers for cabinet that were vehemently opposed by the opposition parties. That led to protracted late-night negotiations in the halls of Parliament.
Trudeau said today the government is open to “tweaks” from the opposition.
“We look forward to working with them on suggestions or amendments that they have,” Trudeau said, adding that those amendments have to address the wage subsidy legislation itself.
“There seems to be a sense from the Official Opposition that this is a moment to define or determine how Parliament will function in the coming weeks and they are negotiating around the structures.”
Watch: Scheer says Parliament must sit again to fix legislation
In a letter to the prime minister sent Wednesday, Scheer said he wanted Trudeau to commit to “regular opportunities for myself and other opposition leaders to question you, as we normally would during question period.”
He said the government should also agree to weekly committee meetings — accountability measures he said would prevent Parliament from “rushing through” flawed emergency legislation.
The first pandemic aid package did not include the mechanisms necessary to implement the emergency wage subsidy, which was pitched by Finance Minister Bill Morneau last week.
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The government initially proposed a 10 per cent wage subsidy for small and medium businesses before implementing a much more extensive subsidy program in response to pressure from the opposition and lobby groups.
Scheer said Parliament has a role to play during this pandemic and the government must be held to account by the opposition parties.
Watch: Scheer says Conservative MPs are prepared to go back to the House of Commons:
He said he understands it would not be feasible to have all 338 MPs gather in Ottawa, given current public health warnings, but a smaller contingent could make the trip or meet virtually.
Scheer said the media receive regular briefings from ministers and the opportunity to ask questions at ministerial press conferences — and so too should the opposition parties.
“Obviously, we would like to see as many of those sessions take place as possible,” Scheer said Thursday at a press conference in Regina.
“You get better results when you have a second set of eyes go over the legislation. You get a better bill, you get a better program, if opposition parties can highlight concerns and challenge ministers.”
Watch: Trudeau is asked what is holding up Parliament’s return to pass financial relief
Scheer said payments from the wage subsidy are still six weeks away and the ongoing negotiations won’t have any material impact on when businesses will have access to federal funds, which are designed to cover up to 75 per cent of the pre-crisis wages paid by businesses.
A senior Department of Finance official, speaking on background to reporters at a technical briefing last week, said the government planned to roll the funds out in three to six weeks — a timeline that might be affected by the parliamentary delays.