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Bill C-24 is long overdue, and it highlights the Liberal Government’s incompetence.

March 16, 2021 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak briefly to Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (additional regular benefits), the Canada Recovery Benefits Act (restriction on eligibility) and another Act in response to COVID-19.

I would like to thank Senator LaBoucane-Benson and my colleague Senator Poirier for their work, both as the sponsor and the critic of this bill. As Senator Poirier pointed out in her speech, we will be supporting this legislation. We have to support this legislation. It is needed by Canadians.

We have always supported getting help to those who have been hit hard by the pandemic. What we do not support, however, is this government’s incompetence. It was pointed out to us very clearly in my colleague Senator Housakos’s speech on Bill C-18 about some of the mishandling of legislation, and we have seen it here again with Bill C-24. We have seen time and time again how bills are introduced at the eleventh hour and then rushed through the legislative process as parliamentarians scramble to make up for precious time that the government lost with unnecessary delays, legislative rewrites and procedural fumbles.

Consider, for example, the portion of this bill that amends the Canada Recovery Benefits Act. These amendments close a loophole that stems from a policy announced over seven months ago.

It was August 20 when the government announced last year that they would be creating the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. The only problem was that the Prime Minister had already prorogued Parliament two days before the announcement, and it was not scheduled to be recalled for another five weeks.

Even though the government knew for a month that the CERB program was winding down on September 26, they took no legislative action to fill the gap that would be left until September 24 — two days before the deadline when they introduced Bill C-2, An Act relating to economic recovery in response to COVID-19.

Honourable senators will recall that this bill was going to implement the Canada Recovery Benefit and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. Knowing that the timetable was tight, the Conservative opposition offered to work through the weekend to get the bill passed. Similarly with Bill C-7, they offered to work through the weekend. They were turned down and then accused of filibustering when they hadn’t even started debate.

The government refused here and instead decided to go home. Then, four days later, on September 28, the government abandoned Bill C-2 entirely and started the legislative process over with Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19. Now it was Bill C-4 that would implement the new programs, including the flawed Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, and the government proceeded to push the bill through every stage in the House of Commons in one single day.

Because the government decided to take five weeks off and prorogue Parliament for no good reason — well, the Prime Minister thought there was a good reason: He wanted to avoid some scandal issues — the Senate was left with little choice but to expedite the process as well.

We received the bill the following day, Wednesday, September 30, and had it out the door two days later, on Friday, October 2. It would be another three months, before Minister Qualtrough finally acknowledged that there was a serious problem with the legislation. It allowed people quarantining after a holiday to apply for the benefit, but by this time the government had already processed 450,000 applications for the CRSB.

Three weeks later, on January 20, the government circulated draft legislation to fix the loophole, but that legislation was never tabled. Instead, they waited five weeks, until February 25, and then tabled Bill C-24 before us today, which would finally close the loophole, along with increasing EI coverage for those impacted by COVID-19. Since February 25 was a Thursday before a break week, Bill C-24 wouldn’t see second reading until 11 days later, on March 8, 2021.

March 8 was 201 days since the government had first announced the CSRB program, and on March 8, after taking 201 days to address their mistake, Minister Qualtrough released an open letter to Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, urging him to support the government’s plan to rush the bill through all of its legislative hoops. It was a crass political move by the government, designed to try and shift attention away from their disastrous handling of the legislative agenda and paint the opposition as responsible for delays.

Later that day, the bill was debated for a total of two and a half hours. Three days later, on March 11, it was debated for another three hours. It then went to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, which reported back to the House, without amendment, the same day.

The following day, on March 12, the bill was passed by the House of Commons. This means that from the day the new programs were announced by the government to the day they realized they had created a gaping hole, 136 days had passed. It then took another 55 days for them to table legislation to fix the problem. That’s 191 days from when the government created the problem until Parliament was presented with the plan to fix it.

It then took only three sitting days for the House of Commons to pass the bill, and we plan to pass it here in this house in the same amount of time. Of course, the government spread those three sitting days over more than two weeks, but given how poorly they manage a legislative agenda that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Honourable senators, in the midst of the greatest health and economic crisis to hit this country in over 100 years, this government has exhibited a disturbing pattern of incompetence. With a few variations, the pattern usually unfolds along these lines:

One, the government dawdles until the eleventh hour and then rushes to introduce legislation;

Two, they breathlessly note that time is short and demand that the bill be hurried through Parliament without allowing time for proper examination and debate;

Three, when the opposition tries to point out that proper scrutiny of the legislation will help ensure we don’t experience further delays and surprises, the government blames the opposition for holding things up;

Four, after the bill is passed, the government reluctantly admits that it contains errors and must now be fixed;

Five, they take more time to draft the amendments to fix the errors than they took to write the original legislation;

Six, they eventually get around to introducing the amending legislation and make the changes retroactive to mop up the mess they created;

Seven, they insist that Parliament rush this amending legislation through because the clock is once again running down.

And eight, they return to step one and repeat the process for any additional legislation required.

Honourable senators, not all of this can be chalked up to incompetence. Some of it appears to be the government’s willingness to put its political interests ahead of the people of Canada, even in the midst of a pandemic. Rather than admitting to and fixing its mistakes in a timely manner, this government chooses to wait until it can bury its amendments in a larger bill.

Consider that with the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit they had legislation ready to go on January 20, yet they chose to wait until they could distract the public from their error in packaging it in a bill that would include additional COVID support measures.

Furthermore, I would remind you that we are still waiting for the promised fix to the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy. You may recall that Bill C-9 was written in a way that it required business owners to pay their rent before they would qualify for the rent subsidy. If a business cannot pay their rent because of COVID-19 they can apply for the rent subsidy, but only after they pay their rent.

The government promised to correct this problem, but as of today the law remains as it was passed by Parliament on November 19 of last year. Instead of doing their job properly, the minister shrugged and instructed the Canada Revenue Agency to ignore the law because they would eventually get around to correcting it — and eventually they did. The fix is now buried in clause 4 of Bill C-14. It is a total of 160 words.

Why did the government not introduce a simple 160-word bill to correct this problem rather than choosing to wait more than four months to bury it in a bill of over 2,500 words, which has nothing to do with the rent subsidy?

It is difficult to know whether the answer to that question is political opportunism or incompetence. Either way, it does not serve the people of Canada well.

Colleagues, this last year has been a very difficult one for most Canadians. As I said earlier, Conservatives strongly support getting help to those who have been hit hard by the pandemic and the government’s mishandling of it, but we do not support this government’s incompetence and blatant self-interest in the midst of a global pandemic.

We will be supporting this legislation, but regret that the government has repeatedly failed to provide much-needed support to Canadians in a timely manner. Thank you, colleagues.

This speech can also be found here: https://sencanada.ca/en/senators/plett-donald-neil/interventions/555392/29

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