Politics·Analysis

Partisan sniping and sabre-rattling: the House of Commons gets back to normal

If you've been missing the world as it was before COVID-19, you might take some comfort from the sounds of discord and discontent now emanating from Parliament Hill.

MPs are back to their old antics. It had to happen, emergency or no emergency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during a meeting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

If you've been missing the world as it was before COVID-19, you might take some comfort from the sounds of discord and discontent now emanating from Parliament Hill.

As always, it's only the welfare of Canadians hanging in the balance.

"We have all shown that we can put politics aside and work together on legislation that quickly helps Canadians," Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said this morning as he announced the government's intention to move forward with a new bill of emergency measures. "And I think that with good will and with collaboration, we can do that again."

A short while later, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet compared the Liberal government's legislative style to a baker who puts cod liver oil into a chocolate cake.

Watch: Yves-François Blanchet says Liberals want opposition to act as 'rubber stamp'

Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet accuses the Liberals of acting as if they have a majority government and their leader — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — of "acting like a prince" in attempting to push forward legislation that would extend COVID-19 aid programs. 2:18

When MPs convened at noon, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh condemned the government's legislation as insufficient. The prime minister responded by accusing opposition MPs of refusing to debate the bill. At 2:30 pm, when Rodriguez asked for the unanimous consent of the House to begin an expedited process for passing the legislation, he was turned down.

The Liberals and Conservatives then took turns presenting proposals that they knew the other party would reject, allowing them to accuse each other of intransigence.

The current standoff is the direct result of a confluence of grievances — though it should also be viewed as partisan politics reverting to its normal mean.

Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls on opposition to debate bill

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer debated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the COVID committee of the House of Commons on Wednesday. 0:53

The Conservatives, who have been accusing the Trudeau government of "shutting down" Parliament, are refusing to cooperate with the government on anything unless or until the Liberals agree to resume Parliament's normal schedule. The Conservatives insist that can be done with approximately 50 MPs physically present in the House.

The Liberals believe normal business shouldn't be allowed to resume until all MPs are able to fully take part, either in-person or virtually via video conferencing. But the Conservatives seem unwilling to agree to any arrangement that involves MPs voting from afar.

A quest for leverage

The members of the Bloc Québécois caucus are not particularly keen on Parliament's current arrangement — which sees a special committee of all MPs meet each day to put questions to government ministers — but they have separate demands. They would like the government to present new economic and fiscal projections and they would like the prime minister to call a first ministers' conference on the topic of increasing federal health transfers to the provinces. They also would like the Liberal Party to withdraw its request for the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy.

None of those demands is specifically related to anything in the new legislation. But opposition parties are entitled to use whatever leverage they can find to pursue whatever they want.

The NDP, meanwhile, wants the bill amended in three ways: to extend the availability of the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), to remove criminal penalties for fraudulent CERB claims and to expand support for the disabled.

Watch: Jagmeet Singh says the government is to blame for stalling pandemic bill

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke with reporters after the opposition parties voted to stop the House of Commons from debating a pandemic relief bill. 1:05

The Liberals might not mind looking both generous — by extending federal supports — and tough by vowing to come down hard on anyone who intentionally abuses public funds. They also might not be too upset if the Conservatives come off looking obstinate.

Complicating matters is a shortened time frame and the extraordinary arrangements adopted to pass legislation in the midst of a pandemic.

Given the circumstances, the Liberals have been privately sharing draft bills with the opposition parties. In this case, the proposed legislation was sent to the opposition over the weekend.

Negotiations continued behind closed doors, but copies of the draft were leaked to reporters. Soon enough, the Liberals and NDP were openly debating the legislation, even though only some people were able to see it.

Credible policy analysts had serious concerns about what was leaked from the bill (or at least from some early version of that bill) — the changes to the CERB rules, the process for adjudicating disputes and the retroactivity of some penalties. In normal times, such issues would be discussed and investigated openly over the course of weeks.

In the early weeks of this crisis, there was a case to be made for moving quickly to find the necessary agreement among the parties to pass emergency relief measures. But the last few days have shown that moving quickly and privately is far from ideal.

Politics never dies, even in an emergency

The concerns raised about the details of the bill are at least a useful reminder of the actual stakes: what happens in the House of Commons affects real policies that will affect real people. Politics is never truly put aside, not completely. But it's also too easy to view these debates only in terms of political manoeuvring.

The risk in appearing to put partisanship ahead of the general good usually forces compromises at moments like this. But even in a global pandemic, parties have fewer incentives than ever to work together. In the era of Twitter and restricted fundraising, it pays to nurture and stoke a rabid base of supporters who view your cause and your opponents in the starkest of terms.

So a quick end to the relative peace that came with the scary early days of COVID-19 was inevitable.

Even in normal times, the best thing you can say about Parliament is that — while its proceedings are generally unedifying to behold and its disagreements are often ridiculous — it usually arrives at a defensible result after all is said and done.

That's still the likeliest outcome here. Not because politics will be put aside, but because it will be in the political interests of a majority of MPs — perhaps the Liberals, NDP and Greens — to see that something gets done.

Still, the emergency moment is passing. The sabre-rattling is back to its usual volume. If you were worried that life would never get back to normal, take heart.

Watch: Jennifer Robson of Carleton and Lindsay Tedds of the University of Calgary debate pandemic relief

The Liberal government is proposing legislation that would impose tighter rules for claiming the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and is threatening to impose fines and jail time on those who deliberately lie on applications. 9:22

 

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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