Commons returns as Liberals seek to extend wage subsidy, approve disability payment

MPs returned to the House of Commons today to debate legislation introduced by the Liberal government that is meant to provide further relief to individuals and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bloc Quebecois says its MPs will support this new bill, making its passage all but certain

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau answers a question in the House of Commons July 8. The House is meeting again today as the Liberals seek to pass a bill to extend their wage-subsidy program. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

MPs returned to the House of Commons today to debate legislation introduced by the Liberal government that would reform the federal wage subsidy and provide relief to people with disabilities.

The new bill, C-20, would expand the number of companies that qualify for the wage subsidy, change the amount companies can put toward their workers' wages and extend the program to the end of the year. 

If passed, the bill also would send a one-time payment of $600 to people with disabilities and extend some legal deadlines for court cases.

Minister of Middle Class Prosperity Mona Fortier said the reforms would fix a number of issues identified by businesses.

"We launched the Canada emergency wage subsidy to give businesses, non-profits and charitable organizations support so they could keep and rehire workers," Fortier said as she was introducing the bill.

"The changes in this bill would promote growth as the economy continues to recover from the shock of this pandemic."

Conservatives argue reforms are too 'complex'

But the Opposition Conservatives say the approach the Liberals are taking to the wage subsidy is overly convoluted and they're going to press for changes.

The original program covered 75 per cent of wages, up to a weekly maximum of $847, for eligible companies and non-profits. Companies had to show a 30-per-cent drop in revenues.

The proposed changes would see the program pay on a sliding scale based on revenue drops due to the pandemic, with the hardest-hit businesses eligible for a 25-per-cent increase to the previous maximum payment.

"We have major concerns around the wage subsidy. We've highlighted ideas to make it simpler," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said ahead of the Commons sitting.

"You need a degree in mathematics to fully understand all the permutations and combinations they've come up with."

Scheer said the Tories do support the elements of the bill that grant up to $600 for people with disabilities and allow for court extensions, and they don't want to hold those up. But Conservatives want a chance to question the prime minister in person.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wasn't in the Commons today. His itinerary says he's taking a personal day.

Bill expected to pass on Tuesday

Negotiations between the parties produced an agreement to have the Commons sit for two days this week — not just one — to allow more time to debate the bill.

Since the Bloc Québécois has said its MPs will support the bill, the Liberals have the majority of votes required to ensure it passes the Commons.

The agreement also provided for getting two more House of Commons committees — the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security and the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations — up and running, something Conservative MP John Brassard said his party pushed for.

The Canada-China committee hasn't met since the pandemic began, while the public safety committee has met just twice.

New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party takes some credit for the changes proposed by the Liberals, and vowed to continue to advocate for expanded benefits.

"We fought and we pushed this government to deliver help for Canadians living with disabilities," Singh told reporters following question period.

"It's not enough, and we're going to continue to fight to ensure that everyone that is living with a disability gets the help they need."

The one-time disability payment — which originally was only going to benefit Canadians who qualify for the federal disability tax credit — will now also go to those receiving disability benefits through the Canada Pension Plan, the Quebec Pension Plan and Veterans Affairs Canada.

Scheer accuses Trudeau of avoiding questions on WE Charity

Scheer suggested today Trudeau is deliberately ducking questions about his personal connections to WE, an organization the government asked to manage a $900-million student jobs program.

After controversy erupted over the charity's ties to Trudeau and his family, WE handed the program back to the government and both Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau admitted they should have recused themselves from cabinet discussions on WE's contract. Trudeau's mother has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for participating in WE events and Morneau's daughter works for an arm of the WE organization.

"(Trudeau) picked today to come back to debate this bill and also to participate in question period. Then he decided to take a personal day," Scheer said.

"Well, it's completely unacceptable that he doesn't show up for work on the day that he chose. It's an insult to Canadians who have very serious questions about the WE scandal and who still are suffering because of the gaps in Mr. Trudeau's programs."

With files from the Canadian Press

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