OTTAWA — The Trudeau government has struck a deal with opposition parties to swiftly approve today a massive $73-billion wage subsidy program aimed at helping businesses and workers survive the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Passage of legislation needed to implement the program was assured after Conservatives dropped their attempt to tie the bill to the longer-term question of how Parliament should function in the midst of a national health crisis.
At a morning news conference just hours before the House of Commons was to meet for a rare emergency sitting on the Easter long weekend, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his party has agreed to support passage of the bill later today and to continue discussions on the future of Parliament later.
The program will provide companies that have experienced a 15 per-cent drop in revenues since March 15 with a 75 per-cent wage subsidy for each employee.
He said that Conservatives had won some improvements to the bill over the past week of negotiations and that their support for the wage subsidy was never dependent on settling the matter of how or when Parliament should sit going forward.
That said, Scheer argued that the work of opposition parties to improve the legislation demonstrates how important it is to have the Commons sitting regularly so that the government can be held to account.
“This shows that during times of crisis, Parliament needs to play its role,” he said.
Scheer reiterated his party’s contention that the Commons should sit — with reduced numbers — four days a week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued that in-person sittings present a health risk for Commons administration and staff at a time when all Canadians are being urged to stay home to curb the spread of the deadly virus. He’s also argued that small sittings — like today’s sitting of just 32 MPs who are primarily within driving distance of the capital — would shut out MPs from all corners of the country.
Trudeau’s Liberals have been promoting the idea of virtual sittings of Parliament. Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has instructed Commons administration to consult with experts about the logistics and technology required for virtual sittings, with the goal of having them up and running within four weeks.
But Scheer said: “We can’t wait that long.”
He suggested that in-person sittings should be held until virtual sittings can be implemented.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he’s open to discussing either virtual sittings or “limited” in-person sittings. But Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said he would never agree to in-person sittings.
Both Singh and Blanchet said their parties will also support the speedy passage of the wage subsidy bill later today and claimed credit for making some improvements to it.
Singh, who has been pushing for a universal benefit for all Canadians, said the motion seeking unanimous consent for the wage subsidy will also include a guarantee that the government will close some of the gaps that have left some Canadians without any help from either the wage subsidy or the previously passed Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
And he said he still wants Trudeau to go further and drop all the eligibility criteria for the CERB. Singh said he’s heard from many Canadians who don’t qualify for the emergency benefit, which opened to applicants this week, including people who are still earning a small income, students and those who were unemployed before the pandemic began.
Blanchet said his party successfully negotiated some additions to the bill that will see businesses get help with some of their fixed costs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address Canadians from the Commons later today, marking his first public appearance away from his home in 26 days.