Federal Parliament Gets Political Again

The week of June 15th was to be the last sitting week for the House of Commons before summer. However, COVID-19 forced Parliament to quickly reinvent itself to deal with pandemic related priorities. Parties put aside their own interests to support the healthcare and finance measures required to get through the first few weeks of Canada’s response. A Special Committee was formed to review the measures taken by government (the so-called “virtual” Parliament). This Committee was augmented by a select few Parliamentary Standing Committees which were called into action to study COVID-19. The House of Commons itself rarely met to pass emergency legislation.

These temporary arrangements are nearing their end-stages, with the next sitting of the House of Commons on Wednesday and the Special COVID-19 Committee slated to wrap up its work on Thursday, June 18th. While the House is scheduled to meet four times over July and August to address any emergency needs, most of the temporary structures put in place to provide some level of Parliamentary oversight on the government’s COVID-19 response will wrap up this week.

However, the unravelling of the temporary political détente has already begun. Last Wednesday, the sitting of the Commons lasted less than 20 minutes. This was just enough time for the government to table Bill C-17, the proposed legislation outlining new COVID-19 measures, including new penalties to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

There was no party ready to proceed with the bill. Opposition parties each sought something different from the Liberals in exchange for supporting the legislation. The Conservatives continued their call for Parliament to resume regular sittings. The NDP would not support the proposed CERB penalties, arguing they would harm the people they are intended to help, and called for expansion of the benefit. The Bloc Quebecois had multiple demands, including a First Ministers’ conference on health, an economic and fiscal update, and for the Liberal Party to cease using the wage subsidy.

In past emergency sittings of the House, the government managed to work “behind the scenes” to find consensus amongst the parties to pass the legislation. At times finding this was not easy, with negotiations up to and during pauses in the sittings, but a path forward was found.

The short duration of the most recent sitting of the House of Commons indicates that minority politics are back. The Liberals will have to find a willing partner to lend support to the proposed legislation or make the changes demanded by at least one opposition party.

This political backdrop is the basis for the next sitting of the House of Commons on Wednesday. The session will consider the Supplementary Estimates, providing the government with Parliamentary approval for expenditures. As a money bill, the Estimates are a confidence vote for the minority Liberals, requiring the support of at least one opposition party. But to gain this support, the government’s key response mechanisms are becoming the political bargaining chips for support.

The economic realities are starting to settle in. The uptake of CERB remains high – with over $43 billion in payments made as of June 4th.  At the same time, there has been relatively low uptake of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, with only $10.5 billion paid out as of June 8th.  The wage subsidy was intended to enable companies to keep jobs in place so that workers could keep their jobs and maintain consistencies in the workforce. The facts are still open to interpretation, but lead to concerns about how many jobs were lost because of the pandemic.

For now, the Prime Minister has announced that the CERB benefit period will be extended by an additional eight weeks. In line with comments made last week, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has indicated that extending CERB will be key to his party supporting the government on a budget bill.

The precedent for making a deal with the NDP to pass COVID-19 related legislation already exists. The price for NDP support for the government’s most recent legislation was a mandatory 10-days of sick leave for Canadian workers. The Liberals made this deal. It’s unlikely the Liberals will make common cause with the Conservative demand for more House of Commons sittings, so the path forward likely lies somewhere between the positions of the NDP (no CERB penalties/extended benefit) and the Bloc (First Ministers meeting on health/end wage subsidy/economic fiscal update). Those wanting to place bets, may decide the path forward lies with the NDP.