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Don Martin: MPs should boost pandemic productivity by physical distancing from House
OTTAWA -- There’s a school of thought out there which believes MPs should take a hefty pay cut because many of them only reported for House of Commons seat duty 40 times in the last year.
But the nonsense on painful Commons display Wednesday proved MPs being physically distanced from Ottawa is a vote for pandemic productivity more than grounds for a salary slash.
What happened during the weekly clash between the increasingly self-righteous prime minister and his severely miffed opposition was pathetic even by the normal parliamentary routine’s low standards.
An emergency relief bill aimed at giving the disabled a payment boost was put forward, along with measures to punish those cheating on federal coronavirus relief programs.
In theory, helping the disabled endure COVID-19 should’ve melted any stone-hearted opposition and been the sort of emergency assistance any decent minority government could easily ram through the process.
Alas, neither happened and, after a dizzying round of procedural wrangling, the bill was tossed into next week to face an uncertain resolution.
There’s really no excuse for the combined opposition parties to delay a bill which would give disabled Canadians a $600 payment to cope with their challenges while punishing anyone who improperly pocketed emergency support.
But there’s plenty of blame to share with the Trudeau government, which appears to believe the prime minister’s morning media briefing, parroted later by fawning cabinet ministers, is a substitute for parliamentary accountability.
For the prime minister to demand immediate passage of a major bill without constructive consultation is a hubris high in a minority mandate, particularly for a government which consults to a fault before moving on anything.
The truth is no government has unleashed so much spending with such cursory accountability, particularly when it’s piling on debt which will take generations to reduce.
It doesn’t help the optics when they ignore a funding request from the Auditor General to better probe the merits of all those pandemic-coping programs.
And releasing a budget or at least a fiscal update on this massive spending spree is a valid opposition request, one shrugged off by a finance minister who says forecasting is too hard.
But for the opposition to deny unanimous consent and delay this bill in a pique of protest over the lack of parliamentary sitting time? Oh, puh-LEEZE…
Honestly, does anyone believe MPs sitting in a mostly-empty Commons or tuning in via a glitchy video connection represents the best investment of their political time these days?
The opposition needs to keep up the pressure to ensure efficiency of programs and value for money, but there are better ways to do it.
For example, it was the Conservatives who asked the parliamentary budget office to calculate the cost of increasing emergency relief support to 28 weeks from 16 weeks now.
The answer was a jaw-dropping $64 billion -- a figure which demands the prime minister pause for reflection if indeed he is leaning in that direction.
But for most MPs, Ottawa is a place best avoided to better help stressed-out constituents endure uncertain employment, a hodgepodge of isolation regulations and a bewildering array of federal assistance programs.
When Parliament is sitting, co-operation should replace confrontation, government transparency should reign over opposition suspicion and leaders should play nice to deliver a better minority than could be achieved by a single-minded majority.
What we saw Wednesday was none of the above.
By embracing physical and emotional distancing from Ottawa, struggling to keep local communications open even if their offices are closed, MPs are delivering on their prime directive as politicians to help others.
If voters find they’re getting useful pandemic survival and reopening advice and assistance, MPs are indeed earning their paycheques -- by simply staying home.