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Parliament resumes full operations today with debate on throne speech

OTTAWA — The fate of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government hangs in the balance as Parliament resumed all normal operations Thursday for the first time in six months.

Several dozen MPs took their seats in the chamber, while more signed in online as opposition parties readied to give their official responses to Wednesday’s speech from the throne.

They’ve already signalled the government can’t count on support from any of them to survive the eventual confidence vote and avoid plunging the country into an election when some areas are already in a second wave of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The Conservatives were unequivocal: they will not support the throne speech.

They accused the Liberals of using prorogation, which led to the speech, to shut down parliamentary scrutiny of their decision to award WE Charity a contract to run a student grant program.

Before debate on the speech could even get underway, Conservative MP Michael Barrett was up on his feet saying his privileges had been breached by the redactions of documents related to that affair, showing that the Opposition does not intend to let that issue go.

“If the speech from the throne was about presenting a refreshing agenda reflecting the COVID pandemic, the prime minister could have simply prorogued Parliament the night before last, or yesterday morning for that matter,” Barrett said.

“What he didn’t need to do was to shut down Parliament on the 18th of August. The only thing that accomplished was to kill committee investigations cold in their tracks.”

The committees are to be reconstituted in the coming days, part of getting the hybrid Parliament back underway.

Debate on the throne speech is scheduled for six days, though they do not have to be consecutive.

Bloc Québécois MPs have said they will not consider supporting the throne speech unless Trudeau agrees to fork over at least $28 billion more each year in unconditional transfer payments to provinces for health care, as demanded unanimously last week by premiers.

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet is giving the government just one week to accede to that demand, in the expectation that the confidence vote on the throne speech will take place next week.

That leaves New Democrats as the Liberals’ most likely dance partner but NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has conditions of his own: legislation assuring that Canadians left jobless due to the pandemic won’t have their emergency benefits cut and that Canadians who fall ill will get paid sick leave.

The government could meet the NDP’s conditions in legislation being unveiled shortly to transition jobless Canadians off the $500-per-week Canada Emergency Response Benefit and back onto a more flexible, generous employment insurance system.

Last month, the government promised to ensure that unemployed Canadians would continue to get $400 per week under proposed reforms to the employment insurance program.

It also promised to introduce three new temporary benefits, among them the Canada Recovery Benefit of $400 per week for those who don’t traditionally qualify for EI, as well as the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which is to provide $500 per week for up to two weeks for workers who fall ill or must self-isolate due to COVID-19.

There is also to be a Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit to provide $500 per week of up to 26 weeks for those unable to work because they must care for a child or other dependent due to pandemic-induced closure of schools, day cares or other care facilities.

The throne speech promised to do whatever it takes to protect Canadians’ lives and provide financial support for as long as the pandemic rages, including extending the 75 per cent emergency wage subsidy through to next summer and making a “significant, long-term, sustained investment” in a Canada-wide child-care system.

It also promised expanded emergency loans for businesses and targeted financial support for industries hardest hit by the pandemic, including travel, tourism and hospitality.

Over the longer term, the speech promised to work with the provinces to set national standards for long-term care facilities, where more than 80 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19-related deaths have occurred, and to set up a universal pharmacare program.

And it promised to make action on climate change the “cornerstone” of its plan to create one million new jobs.

Apart from brief sittings to pass emergency aid legislation, Parliament has been suspended since the country went into lockdown in mid-March to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Those modified sittings gave opposition MPs a chance to question the government but did not allow for the full range of normal parliamentary operations, such as opposition days and private members’ bills.

Under a motion passed unanimously Wednesday, all parliamentary functions are now restored, albeit with a new hybrid model House of Commons.

Until at least Dec. 11, only a small number of MPs will be physically present in the chamber while the rest will participate virtually, including taking part in rollcall votes via video conference.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz and Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press


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