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Committee weighs bill to make feds accountable to Parliament on future pandemic plans

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OTTAWA -

Opposition members of Parliament say they fear that new pandemic preparedness legislation would allow the government to sidestep a thorough review of how it handled COVID-19.

Nate Erskine-Smith, a Liberal backbencher who is eyeing the Ontario Liberal leadership, is behind the private member's bill under review by the House of Commons health committee.

Erskine-Smith says the government needs to be held accountable on a regular basis so parliamentarians, experts and the public can make sure the government is doing enough to avert the kind of ordeal Canada endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If you look at the experience with SARS, there was there was a report, there were recommendations and some were even acted on -- but not all," said Erskine-Smith, who appeared before the committee by videoconference on Thursday.

"There wasn't recurring accountability, such that it fell off the table."

The bill calls for the Public Health Agency of Canada to table its pandemic preparedness plans with Parliament to improve transparency.

It would also create an advisory committee to review Canada's pandemic performance.

But opposition parties are pushing back on that, calling instead for a full independent inquiry.

"I totally support the pandemic prevention preparedness plan, and couldn't be more opposed to the review provision of the bill," NDP health critic Don Davies told the committee.

He said if the health minister is allowed to appoint an advisory committee to do a review, it would be like "the defendant appointing the judge."

Opposition parties have been calling for an independent inquiry into how the government handled COVID-19 for months.

When the committee asked Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos about that inquiry in March, the minister referred to Erskine-Smith's private member's bill.

"We are currently discussing a bill in the House that is also pointing to the importance of having a review of COVID-19," Duclos told the committee on March 23, sparking concerns that the government would use Erskine-Smith's bill to sidestep a more independent investigation.

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux said he fears the government would use the bill as a shield, though he said he doesn't think that was Erskine-Smith's intention.

Erskine-Smith said the measure were not meant to preclude an independent review.

But to avoid politicizing the bill, he said he is fine with MPs removing it and focusing instead on holding future governments to account.

Davies is expected to file a motion to remove the advisory committee from the bill before it goes to the House of Commons for third reading.

But Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs still expressed reservations about passing the bill before an independent review is done, because such a review would inform the sorts of things the health agency should be reporting on.

Conservative MP Laila Goodridge said she's also not convinced that asking the agency to report to Parliament will actually make it more accountable for its actions.

"You can have an absolutely stunningly brilliant plan, but if you don't actually follow it, what is the point?" she asked.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2023.

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