After hours of tense negotiations, the government and opposition parties in the House of Commons are nearing a deal on an $82-billion aid package to help Canadians struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic — legislation that will improve access to Employment Insurance and other programs to provide money to workers and businesses in need.
All parties had agreed on an aid package to help people grappling with the economic ramifications of the pandemic, which has thrown thousands of Canadians out of work. But added provisions by the Liberal government to the enabling legislation to expand cabinet's unilateral spending powers were bitterly opposed by the opposition.
Despite word that the Liberals had agreed to remove or amend the offending sections, MPs were still waiting to be called back to the House as of 11:50 p.m. ET.
In an email to his caucus sent shortly before midnight, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer told Tory MPs that a final deal has yet to reached between all parties.
Scheer said that he's prepared to fight "full out" in the face of "power grab provisions" that give cabinet extraordinary powers to borrow and spend without parliamentary approval.
Negotiations between Liberal government officials including House Leader Pablo Rodriquez, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Candice Bergen, the Conservative House leader, and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre started at noon Tuesday.
Bill is Liberal overreach, says Scheer
"Candice, Pierre and I are still deep in discussions ... meeting late into the night and maybe past that. We won't back down," Scheer told his MPs, according to an excerpt shared with CBC.
He said Conservatives won't rest until certain parts of the bill are amended to assuage concerns about a Liberal cabinet overstepping Parliament.
Sources told CBC News late Tuesday that the government agreed to a September end date on some of the spending and borrowing provisions that were most problematic for the opposition.
The bill, as originally written, allowed for cabinet-led spending well into 2021. The government had already agreed to drop language around taxation powers.
The Liberal government tried to justify new powers for Finance Minister Bill Morneau to spend freely by citing the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic, while the Opposition Conservatives said Ottawa was upending centuries of parliamentary tradition by allowing ministers to spend without sign off from MPs.
The proposed aid package from Ottawa includes:
- A temporary boost to Canada Child Benefit payments, delivering about $2 billion in extra support.
- A new Emergency Care Benefit of up to $900 biweekly, for up to 15 weeks, to provide income support to workers, including the self-employed, who have to stay home and don't qualify for paid sick leave or employment insurance. The measure could disburse up to $10 billion.
- A new Emergency Support Benefit to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.
- A six-month, interest-free reprieve on student loan payments.
- A doubling of the homeless care program.
- An extension of the tax filing deadline to June 1. A policy change allowing taxpayers to defer until after Aug. 31 tax payments that are due after today and before September.
- $305 million for a new Indigenous Community Support Fund to address immediate needs in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities.
The House of Commons met for only a few minutes at noon Tuesday before the session was suspended because it was clear the parties had failed to come to an agreement on the legislation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted early Tuesday the government would remove part 2 of the draft legislation — a measure that would have allowed the government to increase or lower taxes until the end of 2021 without parliamentary approval.
But Conservatives are equally opposed to part 4, which allows Morneau to spend on just about anything without going to Parliament. Part 9 is also problematic for the Tories because it allows the government to borrow unlimited amounts of money without first consulting MPs and senators.
Trudeau said some of the cabinet spending measures were necessary to support the government in its efforts to shore up the Canadian economy as daily life and economic activity grinds to a halt.
"When you're trying to help get money out to people, speed is of the essence, especially in an unprecedented situation like this one," Trudeau said during his daily morning exchange with journalists.
"But I want to make it very clear. I believe in our democratic institutions. All of us in Parliament must work together."
If passed in the Commons, the legislation will be sent to the Senate where debate will continue Wednesday.
If the bill secures the necessary votes in the upper house, Royal Assent is the final parliamentary step before bureaucrats can get to work on the mechanics of rolling out cash to people in need.
With files from the CBC's Rosemary Barton, David Cochrane, Emma Godmere and Vassy Kapelos