When Canadians needed their MPs to act like adults, they delivered

Last night's gathering of the House of Commons to pass pandemic response legislation was remarkable for what it didn't feature: heckling, applause and personal attacks. It also proved that Canada's parliamentary system is perfectly capable of putting knee-jerk partisanship into cold storage in an emergency.

Calls for unity in a crisis are all good — but the system only works when the opposition does its job

With a limited number of members of Parliament on hand and spread out, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau responds to a question after tabling the government's pandemic response financial measures bill in the House of Commons Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the wee small hours of Wednesday morning, after a day of negotiations, members of the House of Commons met to discuss and pass emergency measures to address a global health emergency.

The episode might someday serve as a case study in the politics of pandemic.

The sitting and the dispute that preceded it were extraordinary in every respect. But the official proceedings were also notable for what they lacked.

There was no heckling or jeering, very little clapping — and only glancing attacks upon anyone's character.

It was not an entirely friendly affair — though one opposition member did publicly thank the minister of foreign affairs for his efforts in trying to repatriate Canadians abroad.

When the circus left town

But it was not quite the circus-like atmosphere we've come to associate with Parliament.

"I am confident that all parliamentarians will rise to the occasion," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in asking the House to approve his legislation. "Canadians are counting on us."

"If I could take off my partisan hat for just a moment," Conservative House leader Candice Bergen replied. "I think we all recognize what a difficult time this is, obviously, for the country, for the world and for the Canadian government, of any political stripe, this is a very heavy load to bear.

"And I'm glad that we can be here together, not always agreeing, but agreeing on one thing, and that is that we are putting the needs of our fellow Canadians first and foremost."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer later criticized the Liberal government's approach, which touched off a slight tussle between the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois over how each party had approached the situation.

Nothing is really 'above' politics

Just before 6 a.m., the House of Commons voted to pass the legislation, though not unanimously (it seems that at least one MP on the Conservative side still had reservations).

It is sometimes said that certain issues or situations should be put "above" or "beyond" politics. The implication is that politics is an inherently grubby business. But politics is the lifeblood of society — the conversations, ideas, feelings and institutions that shape a nation.

What people likely mean when they say that politics should be "set aside" in a crisis is that politicians should abandon (or at least curtail) the least-flattering aspects of their profession — the shameless attempts to score partisan points, the wild accusations, the gratuitous ginning-up of conflict, the shallow proposals and the theatrical umbrage.

For the most part, political actors across Canada seem to have decided that there are no points to be scored right now — or at least that the public would take a dim view of anyone trying to score points in the midst of a national health emergency.

Implicitly or explicitly, it seems understood that gravely serious situations require a serious approach.

The Liberals overreach

This week's two-day furor was the first real outbreak of political conflict at the federal level since the novel coronavirus brought the normal life of this country to a sudden stop.

At issue was the Liberal government's proposal that it be given extraordinary powers to change taxes or spend public funds without reconvening Parliament — powers that could have remained in place to the end of 2021.

Opposition MPs were permitted to review the proposed legislation on Monday, a day before it was to be tabled in the House (normally, government legislation is kept secret until it is tabled). After seeing what the government was asking for, some opposition MPs talked to reporters about their concerns.

Watch: Justin Trudeau announces the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — $2,000 per month for workers who lose jobs due to COVID-19

PM says Canadians affected by pandemic to get $2k per month

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit will provide $2,000 per month for the next four months to workers losing income as a result of COVID-19.

Soon enough, there was an attempt to spread the hashtag #HellNo on Twitter as an expression of protest.

In the midst of a global pandemic, a government wants to be able to act quickly — without having to reconvene Parliament each time it needs to do something. But in a parliamentary democracy, the opposition has the right and the duty to hold the government to account and require it to seek legislative approval for its actions — particularly when it comes to taxing and spending.

The opposition does its job

Getting the country through this pandemic with minimal damage to lives and prosperity is the paramount goal right now — but undermining the basic foundations of our democracy would be a terrible price to pay to accomplish it.

It seems unlikely that the Liberals were planning to raise taxes in the midst of severe economic downturn, but it was also obvious that they'd asked for more than they could justify. And being accused of undermining democracy is not a great look in the midst of a crisis.

Hours of negotiation ensued, through Tuesday and late into the night. In normal times, a dispute like this one might go on for days or weeks. But all sides seem to have understood that it was in their best interests to find a solution that would not hold up economic aid for Canadians.

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer rises to question the government on its financial response to COVID-19 during a special sitting of Parliament in the House of Commons Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The result was a bill that extended some spending powers to the government for the next several months, but with mechanisms for review and oversight: the Commons health and finance committees will meet remotely each week, the finance minister will be required to prepare bi-weekly reports and opposition parties will have the power to call for Parliament to be recalled if they are unsatisfied with the minister's use of his new powers.

Should the Liberals have presented something like the final bill in the first place? Quite possibly, even if allowances have to be made for officials who are moving fast and trying to do hundreds of things at once.

Watch: Andrew Scheer says Parliament must continue to provide oversight during COVID-19 crisis

Scheer on government's COVID-19 response 

2 years ago
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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says Parliament must continue to provide oversight of the government during the COVID-19 crisis. 

During debate in the House, Scheer suggested to the government side that they would have been better off discussing these issues with the opposition informally beforehand, instead of surprising MPs with the draft legislation on Monday.

If the Liberals opened themselves up to suspicion and endangered some amount of goodwill on Tuesday, they might still repair that damage by demonstrating openness in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The system worked

But the parliamentary system did what it is supposed to do: it tested the government's proposal and shaped it into something more broadly acceptable.

Then, for two hours, the opposition peppered the government with questions about outstanding concerns and further measures that might be taken — questions that were largely posed without the ostentatious rhetoric typical of Parliament.

Though there are sometimes calls for bi-partisan national unity governments to respond to moments of great peril, there's a lot to be said for openly airing differences and concerns — for the parliamentary tradition of debate.

But the most serious situations require a greater degree of seriousness from those who partake in the frequently un-serious business of partisan politics. When the stakes are highest, words and actions matter more.

It might be nice to imagine politicians getting into the habit of being that serious all the time. But at the very least, we can hope they'll rise to meet the most profound occasions.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

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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