Liberals throw down challenge, make COVID-19 aid bill a confidence matter

OTTAWA — New Democrats have joined forces with the governing Liberals to ensure speedy approval of legislation authorizing new benefits for workers left jobless or underemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A government motion to fast-track Bill C-4 through the House of Commons has been passed by a vote of 176-145, with Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs voting against.

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The bill will now be subject to 4.5 hours of debate, with a final vote on it to follow in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez announced earlier Tuesday that that the vote will be a confidence measure, meaning the minority Liberal government would fall if the bill is defeated.

There is little chance of that, however, since the NDP has promised to support the bill, having won two key changes to it.

The bill is intended to replace the now-defunct $500-per-week Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which came to an end last weekend after helping almost nine million Canadians weather the impact of the pandemic.

In its place, the government is proposing a more flexible and generous employment insurance regime and, for those who still don't qualify for EI, a new Canada recovery benefit. The bill also creates a new sick leave benefit and another new caregiver benefit for those forced to take time off work to care for a dependent due to the pandemic.

At the behest of the NDP, the government has increased the proposed new benefits to $500 per week from the originally proposed $400, ensuring no one receives less than they were getting under the CERB.

It has also expanded the eligibility criteria for the sick leave benefit so that it applies not just to individuals who contract COVID-19 but also to those with underlying health conditions or other illnesses, including the flu or the common cold, that makes them more susceptible to COVID-19.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the new measures are estimated to cost about $34 billion. Even with the changes demanded by the NDP, that's still some $3 billion less than the government's original estimate in August — due, Qualtrough said, to the fact that the CERB was cut off two weeks earlier than originally proposed.

The bill also includes some $17 billion more in other COVID-19-related measures.

The NDP grudgingly agreed to support fast-tracking of the bill in order to provide assurance to CERB recipients that they won't be cut adrift now that the CERB has been wound down.

But all opposition parties blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for necessitating the speedy approval without allowing for adequate parliamentary scrutiny,

They pointed to Trudeau's decision last month to prorogue Parliament, which prevented it from dealing with any legislation until Parliament resumed last week. And they accused him of using prorogation to put a stop to studies by Commons committees into the WE Charity affair, which has triggered investigations into possible conflict of interest by Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau.

To draw attention to other Liberal ethical lapses, Conservative MP Michael Barrett forced debate and a vote on a motion calling on former Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido to apologize to the House of Commons for breaching conflict of interest rules when he was still an MP.

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion issued a report eight months ago saying Peschisolido repeatedly failed to disclose his private interests, including assets, loans, his marriage and the fact his B.C. law firm was taken over by the Law Society of British Columbia.

Barrett said it was just another example of Liberals ignoring the rules.

Prince Edward Island Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the matter should get properly debated but that "today is not the day." Liberals accused the opposition of putting political games ahead of the needs of people, thousands of whom are anxiously waiting to see if the new benefits will be approved.

Barrett shot back that if the Liberals wanted the bill dealt with quickly they should not have "slammed the door on Parliament" by proroguing in August.

Rodriguez in turn slammed the Conservatives for wasting so much time on something "that had nothing to do with COVID and will do nothing to help Canadians."

Debate on Barrett's motion delayed progress on Bill C-4 for more than two hours. In the end, his motion passed easily with all opposition parties supporting it.

The Conservatives delayed matters again late Tuesday by proposing an amendment to the government motion to fast-track the bill to allow for several more days of debate. That triggered another vote, which has become a time-consuming process as most MPs are voting remotely through videoconference.

The amendment was defeated with all but Conservative MPs voting against it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.

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