The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged our country into an unprecedented public health emergency. More than 30,000 Canadians have gotten sick and many have been hospitalized. Too many of us are mourning the loss of family members and friends. Healthcare workers are working around the clock without always having the necessary medical supplies. Our economy is almost completely shut down, putting millions out of work and endangering businesses from coast to coast. Children are losing valuable school time. Our seniors are isolated and in tragic cases, in need of much better care. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Trudeau tells us it will be many weeks before Canada can begin to open up again.
On March 13, as the scale of the crisis became clear, the House of Commons adjourned its normal business for five weeks. During this adjournment, Parliament has sat twice to pass emergency legislation that was needed to get urgent help to Canadians.
As things stand, the House of Commons is scheduled to sit once again on April 20. All parties have been negotiating to determine how exactly the House should reconvene given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conservatives have proposed a reasonable workplan that would keep Parliament open so that we can improve government programs and policies and get better results for Canadians.
Everyone understands that we cannot have all 338 Members of Parliament in the House and still respect public health advice. That is why, during the previous two emergency sittings, on March 24 and then again on April 11, the House met with a much smaller number of MPs. Each party was represented in proportion to the size of its total caucus. We are proposing that model continues to be used.
In order to ensure that Canadians get the real help they need, there must be oversight and accountability. That is why Conservatives have proposed having three in-person sittings each week to allow MPs to debate and vote on essential COVID-19 legislation. MPs would also have two hours each day to question the Prime Minister and ministers on all aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic. These sessions have proven to be extremely valuable thus far. We have improved the government’s wage subsidy legislation, pressed the government to include seasonal workers in the eligibility criteria for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and gotten answers to many questions that Canadians have been asking.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has also been tasked with studying the possible implementation of virtual sittings to augment these in-person sittings. If the committee recommends virtual sittings, we would be happy to meet virtually one day a week to allow a broader range of MPs to participate.
As this crisis progresses, we recognize that the government may need to pass new legislation to help Canadians who are struggling. Opposition parties have already demonstrated how debate, discussion and tough questions ultimately improves government programs and policies. Conservatives are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Parliamentary committees also play an essential role in holding the government to account. Normally they are the masters of their own domain and can call witnesses, pass motions and force the government to produce documents. In February, the Health Committee was able to secure over 1,000 pages of information related to the government’s handling of the pandemic. But what they received in March was heavily redacted by the government. Virtual committees have no recourse to get this information. Canadians deserve to know where things went wrong and how the government intends to improve going forward.
Currently, the Health and Finance committees are meeting virtually, and several other committees are expected to start meeting next week. But the government has refused to give virtual committees the same powers regular committees have. Conservatives are pushing for all committees to be able to meet virtually to discuss the pandemic response and for them to have their regular powers. The government must not be allowed to hide things from Canadians.
Through our tireless efforts to ensure proper accountability, Parliament has tasked the Auditor General with reviewing the unprecedented level of government spending during this crisis and ensuring that not one cent of taxpayer dollars is misspent. In order to carry out this vital work, the government must appoint a permanent Auditor General with a ten-year term and provide his or her office with the necessary resources.
Some have suggested that Conservatives are only interested in holding weekly sittings for partisan purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our focus is on helping Canadians through this crisis and ensuring that when the time comes, we have a plan to get Canada’s economy back on track.
In the words of the great John Diefenbaker, “Parliament is more than procedure – it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.”
No government should use a health crisis to try to effectively shut down democracy or take away hard-won rights or freedoms. When the government has tried to grant itself sweeping new powers, we have stopped them. When they have tried to avoid accountability, we have required transparency. And when they have brought forward legislation to help Canadians, we have made improvements. That work must continue.
Parliament is an essential service. Representatives in Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Finland and the European Parliament are continuing to meet during these trying times. Our democracy should be no different.
It is my sincere hope that all parties will agree to our common-sense proposals. Canadians are counting on us.
Andrew Scheer, Leader of Canada’s Conservatives and of the Official Opposition