Senate passes emergency aid bill after overnight House compromise
OTTAWA -- The Senate has passed the federal government’s COVID-19 aid package, after hours of dealmaking and an overnight session in the House of Commons.
The special sitting in the Upper Chamber got underway Wednesday morning, with Senators holding what is called a “committee of the whole” allowing the bill to move quickly through the usual legislative steps.
Facing questions from Senators during the rare gathering, Finance Minister Bill Morneau called the novel coronavirus pandemic a crisis “unlike any we have ever faced.”
“The outbreak of the disease is rapidly evolving and the government’s ability to respond must be rapid too. It must be nimble, responsive, and above all able to take rapid action. We must be able to protect Canadians’ health and protect our economy.”
Governor General Julie Payette granted royal assent to the bill—seeing the new fiscal measures become law—by 1:35 p.m. EDT. The royal assent came in writing instead of hosting a formal ceremony in the Senate given the circumstances.
While parliamentarians awaited royal assent, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam addressed the Senate on the latest efforts in the government’s COVID-19 response.
The Senate’s sitting was conducted under modified conditions to respect public health guidelines around physical distancing, including operating with the minimum number of Senators needed for their proceedings to occur: 15.
Passed early Wednesday in House
The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act passed third reading in the House just before 6 a.m. EDT Wednesday after significant delays caused by opposition to the Liberals' attempt to grant broad spending and taxing powers to cabinet without parliamentary oversight – something both the Conservatives and NDP described as an unexpected attempt to acquire a blank cheque.
Both opposition parties urged the government to split those powers into a separate bill from the multi-billion dollar aid measures for Canadians and businesses, as no party appeared to take issue with the financial assistance.
Hours of tense negotiations resulted in the emergency parliamentary sitting lasting long past its expected end time. Early Wednesday morning, a modified version of the bill received approval from all sides.
The modifications include removing the Liberals' ability to raise taxes unilaterally and shortening the period in which the government can take emergency spending measures without Parliament's approval from two years to six months.
During those six months, the new spending authority is limited to specific categories including income support for Canadians, the purchase of medical supplies, public health-related programs, covering expenses incurred by the government and helping provinces and territories pay for emergency response needs. Provinces and territories are also receiving an extra $500 million in federal funding.
Morneau is given some new powers, including the ability to authorize the borrowing of money without Parliament's approval if it is needed for legislatively-approved payments or to "maintain the efficiency of the financial system in Canada." This authority, too, is only valid through the end of September, and requires Morneau to report to MPs within 30 days of any borrowing.
For Canadians, the biggest direct impact comes from the $82 billion in aid, which is split into $27 billion in direct funding and $55 billion in tax deferrals and similar measures.
Though as Morneau noted on Wednesday the $27 billion that was already announced received a $52 billion boost, bringing the overall aid passed through the legislation to $107 billion.
This includes the creation of two new benefits for workers whose jobs are affected by the coronavirus pandemic, expanded employment insurance benefits and increased payments through the Canada Child Benefit.
While some aspects of the new aid are set to flow in early April, Morneau has cautioned that other measures will not be ready until May.
“Clearly this is unprecedented, clearly the systems were not built for this type of stress and strain,” he told Senators.
Additional parliamentary review
The bill had been expected to pass unanimously, but the first sign of trouble came Tuesday afternoon when Ottawa-area Conservative MP Scott Reid said he would vote against it – against his party's wishes – because of a procedural issue.
Reid was not present during the overnight voting session, but one of his Conservative colleagues – rural Ontario MP Michael Chong – voiced opposition of his own, citing a clause that he said allows the employment minister to amend a law with only Morneau's approval needed.
The bill passed on division, and the agreement to advance it came with some new parliamentary oversight measures.
While the House is adjourned the health and finance committees can still hold weekly meetings via video or teleconference, "for the sole purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Morneau will also have to report regularly on the actions taken under the certain new powers he has been granted and within 30 sitting days of the resumption of regular sittings of the House, the government will have to table a comprehensive report of all activities taken under the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act.
As well, the government has agreed to provide regular updates to representatives of opposition parties on its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a bi-weekly conference call between the finance critics of recognized parties and the minister of finance.
With files from CTV News producer Mackenzie Gray