Liberals push forward with COVID-19 bill despite likely impasse

The Liberals are pushing forward with a contentious piece of emergency legislation that would extend COVID-19 aid programs even though Opposition parties appear unlikely to allow it to move forward quickly.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez says the bill is the quickest and most efficient way to get help to some of the most vulnerable Canadians affected by the pandemic, and he hopes the other parties will give unanimous consent to allow the bill to be debated today.

“Today there’s a deadline, there’s Canadians who need us and we have to move forward,” he said.

The bill would bring in a number of already promised measures, including benefits for disabled Canadians and an expansion of the federal wage-subsidy program to include seasonal workers and some additional businesses.

But it would also impose penalties for fraudulently claiming the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — a move that appears to have no support among the main opposition parties.

The Liberals need unanimous consent from all MPs in the House of Commons to allow the bill to be debated today. Without it, the government will not be able to pass the bill after just a few hours of debate, as it has done with four previous pandemic-related bills.

In his negotiations with opposition House leaders, Rodriguez says he does not feel they are heading toward unanimous consent, but he says he remains an optimist and hopes things can change.

“I remember one night we got a deal at 3 a.m. and we debated until 6 a.m.,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

“We hope the other parties join in and we can move forward.”

He also expressed disappointment at the indications coming from the other parties they may block the bill from moving forward, as it contains measures they have been pushing the government to adopt, including help for Canadians with disabilities.

The NDP is balking at the prospect of Canadians who fraudulently claim the $2,000-a-month CERB being fined or sent to jail — despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assurances that the punishment is aimed at those who deliberately defraud the government, not those who make honest mistakes.

In a statement today, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says his party will not support the Liberals’ proposed bill as it is unacceptable in its current form.

The Conservatives are holding out for a full resumption of House of Commons business.

And the Bloc Quebecois is demanding three conditions be met before it will support the bill: a fiscal update this month, a first ministers’ meeting before September on health care transfers to the provinces and a ban on political parties accessing the wage subsidy to avoid laying off staff.

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said he believes the Liberals are acting like a majority government in trying to force legislation while not providing transparency about the country’s finances.

“The most poisonous pill of all of that is the government trying stubbornly to act as if there were not 338 people having been elected last October and doing as if it was a majority government led by some kind of prince, which is not the case,” Blanchet told reporters.

“They are not asking us for negotiations, they are asking us for a rubber stamp.”

He also said he believes the Liberals are trying to pass the controversial fraud penalties by attaching provisions in the bill to extend benefits to disabled Canadians, which his party and others support, likening this to “putting cod-liver oil in chocolate cake.”

Blanchet believes the measures for Canadians with disabilities should be voted on separately.

The minority Liberals would be able to proceed with the bill with the support of just one opposition party but that would take days or weeks longer.

Rodriguez said the government will, if necessary, find other ways to deliver on some of the measures that are included in the bill, although that could entail delays.

In particular, government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Ottawa will follow through on the promised one-time tax-free payment of up to $600 for Canadians with disabilities, announced by Trudeau last week.

The bill includes a provision to allow the Canada Revenue Agency to share information so that the benefit can be delivered to Canadians who are eligible for the disability tax credit. Officials said a different delivery mechanism can be found if necessary.

The bill also includes changes to the CERB in response to concerns that the benefit is discouraging people from returning to low-paying jobs. People would be cut off if they fail to return to work when “it is reasonable to do so” and their employer has asked them to come back, or if they are able to work but decline a reasonable job offer.

As well, it would allow people to make claims for the CERB for a two-week period, rather than the current four weeks. That is intended to help Canadians experiencing short-term job loss or having to take time off work to quarantine themselves or care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

It would also protect Canadians from penalties for missing deadlines in legal matters due to the pandemic.

(Canadian Press)

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