Feds face new opposition push for deep dive into COVID-19 response
OTTAWA -- A day after surviving a confidence vote, the Liberals are facing a new Conservative challenge in proposing another committee deep dive into the federal government’s COVID-19 response, but this showdown isn’t likely to end in a snap election.
The second Conservative opposition day motion of the week is being debated in the House of Commons on Thursday, and it’s calling for wide-sweeping disclosures on a spread of health-focused policy decisions related to the pandemic.
Unlike the anti-corruption probe proposal, this one is set to have the backing of both major opposition parties, the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats, meaning it’s set to pass despite the Liberals’ objections.
According to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, the motion won’t be considered a matter of confidence.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Thursday that while it’s true his caucus has no confidence in the Liberals, he doesn’t think these calls for COVID-19 answers should be something the Liberals look to go to the polls over.
Defending the motion he said that the Conservatives had no choice but to take the push for this study into Canada’s response so far to the House, as attempts to have the conversation at committee have been met with Liberal resistance.
“They've been inactive, they've been slow, they've been late. We will continue to do our jobs. They are the ones playing politics,” he said.
“Borders stayed open, mask-wearing guidance changed, federal aid programs rolled out slowly, and now, we are falling well behind our allies and securing future COVID-19 vaccines and approving and rolling out rapid testing,” O’Toole said. “It needs to be reviewed.”
Speaking to the motion, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that much like the contentious anti-corruption committee proposal, what the Conservatives are seeking would impede on the government’s ability to focus on responding to the ongoing health and economic threat the pandemic poses.
“We need to stay focused on what matters now… You don’t do the post-battle review in the middle of the fight,” Hajdu said.
She said the motion appears “specifically designed” to make it “such a challenge to respond.”
The motion—which was tabled by Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner—proposes that the House of Commons health committee take on a study into “the emergency situation facing Canadians in light of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The motion calls on the committee to scrutinize the government’s handling of, and compel documentation related to:
- The approvals process, procurement plans and protocol for distribution related to rapid and at-home testing as well as vaccines;
- federal public health guidelines and the data being used to inform them, including current long-term care facility COVID-19 protocols as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada’s communication strategy;
- the availability of therapeutics and treatment devices for Canadians diagnosed with COVID-19 as well as the availability of personal protective equipment;
- the early warning system and the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN);
- the government’s progress in evaluating pre- and post-arrival rapid testing for travellers as well as the impact of delaying the closure of Canada’s borders;
- the government’s consideration of and decision not to invoke the federal Emergencies Act;
- the availability of paid sick leave for those in need, including quarantine and voluntary isolation;
- the development, efficacy and use of data related to the government’s COVID Alert application as well as the government’s contact tracing protocol; and
- Canada’s level of preparedness to respond to another pandemic.
The motion calls on the government to disclose a host of emails, documents, notes, and other records from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as from cabinet ministers’ offices since mid-March related to the COVID-19 response as well as related to discussions with the World Health Organization.
Further, the Conservatives want the study to start within a week and the government to provide “comprehensive” responses to all of the above issues within 15 days, with an exception for personal privacy information and national security concerns.
And, once the documents are submitted, the committee would have the ability to call a slate of cabinet ministers to testify, for three hours each.
“Our initial analysis of this motion indicates that the very officials that are working day and night on Canada's response will be removed from their immediate tasks,” Hajdu said. “Instead of working together to protect Canadians during this difficult time, the member would prefer to divert their focus to an unnecessary task but does not help Canadians in any way.”
Rebutting Hajdu’s assertion, Rempel Garner asked the minister to suggest a reasonable timeline for the documents to be produced.
“We do have to do a review right now because the number of cases in Ontario today are record, which means that the government response has failed,” Rempel Garner said.
The issue dominated question period on Thursday, with Hajdu facing more questions about what a reasonable timeline for disclosure would be, to which she responded by accusing the Conservatives of smearing the work done by public servants.
Following question period, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh confirmed his caucus will be supporting the Conservative motion, but will be looking for some adjustments to the language.
Singh agreed with the Conservatives that the Liberals should be able to at least offer a realistic timeline to turn over information related to the long list of questions the motion poses.
“They have the documents they just need to disclose them… What have you done? What decisions have you made? Show us. It's really the function of Parliament, to be able to have access to information like that,” Singh said.
As of Thursday, there are more than 23,000 active COVID-19 cases in Canada.
The motion isn’t expected to come up for a vote until next week.
STILL NEGOTIATING ETHICS PROBE
Meanwhile, the Conservatives are still looking to work out an agreeable alternative after Wednesday’s Bloc Quebecois-backed motion to create an anti-corruption committee failed.
Late Wednesday, Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell sent Rodriguez’s office an amended version of the Liberals’ committee proposal in an effort to find a compromise on how to move ahead with looking into alleged conflicts of interest and other government mismanagement of funds related to COVID-19.
The latest version makes no reference to WE Charity explicitly or the other Conservative-alleged Liberal scandals they wanted to study, but the wording is vague enough to leave that door open depending on how the committee would agree to proceed.
What the Liberals had proposed was a Liberal-led committee to study the “unprecedented expenditures of public funds” related to COVID-19, which would include the billions of dollars doled out for personal and business financial assistance.
In the Conservatives’ proposed amended wording, the committee would be opposition-chaired and set up quicker than the Liberals had suggested. The request for certain personal financial document productions have been dropped, though the opposition still wants un-redacted versions of previously-requested documents.
On Wednesday when asked what’s next from the Liberal perspective, Rodriguez said he still thinks their proposed committee was “reasonable.”
He said he will discuss with his counterparts how to move ahead with a new committee but didn’t say much about ending the filibusters over calls for new WE Charity controversy disclosures at the House ethics and finance committees.
“Committees are independent so I’m not going to tell the members what to say or do but the fact that we’re suggesting the creation of this special committee shows you right there that we’re not hiding or afraid of anything,” he said.
According to Deltell’s office, the government has yet to respond to their latest proposal.
While the NDP and Greens backed the Liberals in defeating the anti-corruption committee, both parties have said they still want to find ways for outstanding WE Charity questions to be answered.
The NDP has already floated a proposal to pick up these various threads at the House ethics committee, which next meets on Monday.