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Senator Plett on Bill C-4: In the midst of a pandemic, the Liberals and the NDP make backroom deals that only complicate and stretch out the Parliamentary process.

October 2, 2020 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:

Colleagues, just last week, the day after we were here in this chamber, the government tabled Bill C-2, An Act relating to economic recovery in response to COVID-19.

It was the first bill tabled in this new session after pro forma Bill C-1 and Bill S-1. This was the bill the government spent the last five weeks working on while Parliament was prorogued. It was touted as the “plan to help support Canadians through the next phase of the recovery,” which, no doubt, was combed over by armies of government lawyers and bureaucrats in order to ensure it was ready for tabling on September 24. Yet, today, we find ourselves here not considering Bill C-2, but Bill C-4. Only one week after it was tabled, Bill C-2 is now destined to die a slow and silent death on the Order Paper, stuck forever at first reading.

Imagine explaining this to a young political science student. How does this happen? The government’s flagship legislation for the new session of Parliament is dead after only five days. It was not defeated by the opposition; rather, it was abandoned by the government itself.

Was there something irreparably wrong with it? Apparently not. The only difference between Bill C-2 and Bill C-4 is that the title was changed and an additional subsection consisting of 37 words — out of 12,150 — was added to it in two different places. Changes of this magnitude hardly require starting over.

Colleagues, the only reason the bill needed to be abandoned and a new one introduced was because the Prime Minister wanted to circumvent the parliamentary process.

After boasting that he was ready to go to an election over his bold, new and phony agenda, the Prime Minister scurried away to hammer out a deal with the NDP in a series of backroom meetings and secret negotiations instead of on the floor of the House of Commons.

The leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, told the country last week that in order for the Prime Minister to win his party’s support for the Throne Speech, the Prime Minister was going to have to “extend CERB and put in paid sick leave for all Canadians.” That meant permanent sick leave for all Canadians for any sickness, not just COVID.

The only problem was that the Prime Minister was not about to do any such thing. However, there were two things he did need. One, he needed a way to stall the bill so that he could ink a deal with the NDP while making it look like the Conservatives were the ones holding things up; and, two, he desperately needed the NDP’s support on the Throne Speech, because he certainly didn’t have it from the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, which put him in a bit of a pickle.

So, after hammering it out for hours, with periodic media updates to heighten the dramatic tension, in the end they came to an agreement. The headlines all basically read the same: “Liberals strike deal with NDP to avert federal election.”

It sounds quite successful. But what did the NDP actually walk away with? The short answer is absolutely nothing.

Bill C-2 had already provided one year of coverage for up to two weeks’ paid sick leave for every employee across the country for reasons related to COVID-19. Bill C-4 does exactly the same thing. The amendments wrestled from the Prime Minister by Jagmeet Singh himself did not make the sick leave permanent, and it did not extend the coverage due to sicknesses that are unrelated to COVID-19. The NDP got nothing. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read it in the legislation.

Bill C-2, subsection 10(1)(f) says a person is eligible for the Canada recovery sickness benefit if:

. . . they contracted or might have contracted COVID-19 or because they isolated themselves on the advice of their employer, a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority for reasons related to COVID-19.

Bill C-4 kept this, but added subsection 10(1)(f)(ii), which tells us that a person is eligible for a Canada recovery sickness benefit if:

. . . they have underlying conditions, are undergoing treatments or have contracted other sicknesses that, in the opinion of a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority, would make them more susceptible to COVID-19 . . . .

That additional subsection provided some clarification, but it did nothing to expand the parameters of the original coverage that already existed in Bill C-2.

You might say Bill C-4 added issues of underlying conditions, undergoing treatments or contracting other sicknesses to the list. This is certainly an extension of the coverage provided in Bill C-2.

There is only one problem with that. These were already included without being itemized, because Bill C-2 provided coverage for anyone who needed to isolate for any reason related to COVID-19 on the advice of a doctor, employer, et cetera. That obviously would have included issues of underlying conditions, undergoing treatments or contracting other sicknesses.

You might say Bill C-2 restricted the sick leave coverage only to situations where the person either had COVID or needed to isolate due to COVID. The NDP amendment removed this limitation.

This is incorrect. The amendment changed nothing. As I said before, if someone has underlying conditions, is undergoing treatments or has contracted other sicknesses that would make them more susceptible to COVID-19, then they would have already qualified for the coverage in Bill C-2, because it included anyone needing to self-isolate for reasons related to COVID-19.

The NDP amendment changed nothing but the title of the bill. The whole exercise was little more than political smoke and mirrors with the Prime Minister and Jagmeet Singh both pretending that the NDP won something.

In reality, Justin Trudeau managed to buy the support of the NDP for a bargain-basement price, since he obtained it without actually giving them anything beyond phony bragging rights.

In return, the Prime Minister dodged an election and came up with a narrative that made it sound like the Conservatives would have stalled the bill so he was forced to do a side deal with the NDP and then ram it through Parliament.

In reality, it was the Conservatives — and the Conservatives alone — that were pressing to work through the weekend and get this legislation done so there would be no hiccups, but the government refused.

The Prime Minister likes to say he wants to help Canadians but then he doesn’t want to put in the work needed to get the job done on time. He knew full well that CERB was winding down in a few days and that Canadians were rightfully anxious about it, but he was happy to shut down Parliament for the weekend, go home and start the legislative process all over again on Monday with a new bill.

Colleagues, the only reason this bill was not passed weeks ago was because of this government’s incompetence. Everything in this legislation could have been completed long before the end of August without all the drama.

Consider what happened. On August 18, Justin Trudeau announced he was proroguing Parliament. He claimed that he needed to launch a new legislative session that focused on the next phase of Canada’s response to COVID-19.

Here’s what he said:

We need a mandate from this Parliament to move forward on implementing these ambitious ideals. And it’s important that we have an opportunity to debate it.

What ambitious ideals? There was nothing new in his Throne Speech. It was all regurgitated from previous announcements. The Prime Minister did not need a new mandate. He already has one and it’s exactly the same as the old one. Get to work.

Quit hiding out in your cottage or your bungalow. Quit stalling and quit playing political games. Quit obstructing the investigations into your multiple scandals. Quit shutting down Parliament. Maybe even work over the weekend if that’s what is required to get the job done. But instead, the PM shutters Parliament on August 18.

Then two days later on August 20, the government suddenly announces a suite of new COVID recovery benefits to replace CERB, which was coming to an end on September 26. There was only one problem. Parliament is already prorogued until September 23. As you all know, but the Prime Minister apparently forgot, a prorogued Parliament cannot pass legislation necessary to implement those new benefits.

This meant that Parliament would stand idle for five long weeks while the clock was ticking down. And when it finally resumed, the Liberal government introduced new legislation in a panic, insisting that the opposition must pass it immediately.

However, when the Conservatives agreed to work with the government and offered to sit through the weekend to get the job done, the government refused. Instead, they took the weekend off, did a little side deal with the NDP, introduced new legislation after the weekend and then invoked time allocation to ram it through.

When the Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland was in this chamber yesterday, she left the clear impression that Bill C-4 sailed through the House of Commons and passed with everyone holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” She said:

It was actually a remarkably collegial, even friendly and convivial atmosphere. We joked across the aisle, and ultimately there was unanimous support for the bill.

Senator Harder has alluded to that two or three times in this chamber.

I’m not sure where the minister was during the debates but they were hardly convivial.

When the bill finally got to the floor of the House of Commons, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said, “It is time for action. It is a time of urgency,” and invoked closure with the help of the NDP. Is that what the Minister of Finance calls “collegial.”

Every party except the NDP was outraged. After shutting down Parliament for five weeks, the Liberals have the gall to up and inform the house that they are ramming a $41-billion piece of legislation through with four and a half hours of debate because “it’s urgent.”

This is unbelievable, colleagues. And even some Liberals are waking up to the fact that this is not the proper way to conduct the business of the nation.

In response to The Globe and Mail story entitled “Federal Liberals move to shut down debate on billions in pandemic-related spending”, former Liberal MP Andrew Leslie tweeted:

I wonder what the great Prime Ministers . . . of the past might think. During the entirety of the Second World War, neither the British . . . nor the Canadian . . . PMs ever sought to limit debate, especially on matters involving financial appropriations.

For once, I fully agree with a Liberal. And it took only 70 years for me to do that so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the next time.

Colleagues, I’m not sure if the Liberal government understands how things function. There is a better way. If the Liberals wanted to get the legislation passed, all they needed to do was show up for work. And if they wanted to consider an NDP amendment to the legislation, there is an existing venue for that as well. It’s called Parliament.

Why does this government insist on doing backroom deals instead of having a fulsome public debate? Why does this government constantly skirt around any accountability by limiting how often Parliament sits, shutting down committees, proroguing Parliament and moving the debate on important bills into backrooms. Why is everything a rush and nobody seems to know what is going on from one day to the next?

We were here just last week and the Government Representative in the Senate decided that we did not have any government business to attend to. He insisted there was no reason to sit until October 5 and a motion to adjourn was passed accordingly. Two days later, colleagues, the Speaker of the Senate was forced to reverse that decision and call the Senate back for September 30.

Yesterday, we saw this play out again. Senator Gold struggled to answer a simple question from Senator Tannas about how confident he was that this chamber will not be called back before October 27 to pass some emergency measure. Senator Gold was unable to provide us any such reassurance.

You might ask, “How can the government leader in the Senate not know what the government is doing? How could he not know last week that there was some urgency to Bill C-2 and that the expectation of the government was to pass it this week?”

Colleagues, I’m glad you asked, because I can answer. It’s because this government is incompetent and despite his very best efforts, Senator Gold cannot change that. I suspect that the reason we are told one thing on Thursday and another thing on Friday is because Senator Gold is being told one thing on Thursday and another thing on Friday. It’s not because Senator Gold changed his mind; it’s because the Prime Minister cannot make up his mind.

This government reminds me of a news story I read recently about a driver in Alberta who blew through a police radar at 150 kilometres per hour in a 110 kilometre per hour zone.

What was even more alarming was that the police officer could not see anyone driving the vehicle as it sped past. Apparently, the driver had put his Tesla on autopilot, reclined his seat and decided to have a snooze. It wasn’t until the police officer pulled up behind him and turned on his siren that the driver woke up and realized what was going on.

This is frightening, colleagues.

It’s bad enough when someone falls asleep behind the wheel, but when a person actually makes the decision to check out for a while and have a little nap while he is rocketing down the highway in a 2,100-kilogram vehicle, that person should not be driving at all.

That is how I feel about this government. It’s like they are hurtling down the highway and the prime minister is fast asleep behind the wheel, completely unaware that he’s about the hit gravel at 150 kilometres per hour. The only problem is we’re all along for the ride. We look out the window and see the asphalt is coming to an end up ahead and wonder, “Is anyone paying attention?”

Colleagues, it’s not just that CERB was coming to an end while the government was asleep at the wheel. The clock was winding down on other measures as well. For example, the spending authority for COVID measures was due to expire on September 30. The spout where the money comes from was about to be shut off because the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act was about to be automatically repealed.

You may recall Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act, included section 10, which said the following:

The Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act is repealed.

Section 11 then said:

Section 10 comes into force on September 30, 2020.

Section 10 repealed the Act, but section 11 determined that section 10 would not come into force until the end of September.

This was the sunsetting portion of the bill that was written into the legislation after the Liberals got caught trying to give themselves unilateral power to tax and spend without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.

I have no idea when the government realized that they were missing an important deadline, but at some point someone must have flipped the siren on and the government woke up.

You see, the problem was that despite their enthusiasm about spending taxpayers’ money, the government was not going to get it all out of the door before the deadline. There was still $17.14 billion that needed to be dispersed. Now, even I am shocked that, when given six months to spend $325 billion, the big-spending Liberals could not pull it off and needed more time to write the cheques. Be that as it may, section 11 of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act posed a problem for the Liberals. On September 30, it was going to activate the coming-into-force of section 10, which would repeal the entire act, leaving the remaining $17 billion unspent because the government would now be without parliamentary spending authority.

The legislative summary for Bill C-4 provided by the government says:

A failure to extend the legislation would disrupt these payments, with harmful consequences for people’s lives, families and businesses.

Specifically:

  • Payments for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit would no longer reach Canadians;
  • Payments for critical orders of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be put at risk; and
  • Safe Restart Agreement funding for provinces and territories to support testing, contact tracing, and PPE would be delayed.

Obviously, this little oversight had to be addressed, so Part 3 of Bill C-2 — now Bill C-4 — was drafted to include clause 12, which reads as follows:

Section 11 of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act is replaced by the following: 11 Section 10 comes into force on December 31, 2020.

This clause would postpone the existing repeal date and give the government what it needed to keep spending the money allocated, provided Bill C-4 received Royal Assent prior to September 30.

Now, the problem was that because the government had dithered so long with a completely unnecessary prorogation, they didn’t know if they could get the bill passed to postpone the repeal before the clock ran out.

They needed a plan B just in case they needed the September 30 deadline because, if they did miss the deadline, then by the time Bill C-4 was being passed the Payments Act would have already been repealed.

In the event that happened, they needed to figure out how to un-repeal the repeal without endangering the postponement of their original repeal, just in case the bill actually did not pass before September 30 and the repeal was already postponed.

Does your head hurt yet? That’s not COVID. That’s what happens when this government is asleep at the wheel.

I’m not sure if I should send kudos or sympathies to the government lawyers who worked on Part 3 of this bill, but the government’s inability to do something right the first time, and their inability to do it on time the second time, meant their lawyers had to perform legislative acrobatics to get the job done and cover off the various possibilities.

In case they missed the September deadline, they added subclause 13(2) which reads as follows:

If this Act receives Royal Assent after September 30, 2020, then

(a) the headings before section 10 of this Act and sections 10 to 12 of this Act are replaced by the following:

Colleagues, I’m not going to take time to wade through everything that follows that subclause because, first of all, it will make your head explode, and, secondly, you have the bill in front of you. But what happens next is that the act goes on to provide new text that will replace the old text on the previous page of the same act in the event that the date of the repeal has come and gone before this bill is passed.

In other words, because of this government’s incompetence they had to introduce legislation to amend legislation that included an amendment to amend the proposed amendment, even before it is amended.

This is what happens when you don’t show up for work. Things get complicated.

Colleagues, it was not just the payment authority provided by the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act that was repealed on September 30. There is a long list of amendments that were made by Bill C-13 that was automatically repealed at the end of September. They’ve already happened.

For example, Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act, amended the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation Act to allow the Minister of Finance to increase the deposit insurance coverage limit. This amendment was repealed on September 30.

Bill C-13 also amended the Export Development Act to permit the Minister of Finance to determine the amount of EDC’s authorized capital, as well as certain limits applicable to EDC. This amendment was repealed on September 30.

The amendment to the Financial Administration Act, which authorized the Minister of Finance to borrow money for certain payments without the authorization of the Governor-in-Council, was repealed.

The commissioner’s ability under the Patent Act to:

. . . authorize the Government of Canada and any person specified in a patent application to make, construct, use and sell a patented invention to the extent necessary to respond to the public health emergency . . .

— was also repealed.

The amendments to the Canada Student Loans Act and the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act and the Apprentice Loans Act, which provided that no interest was payable on student loans and no amounts on the principal or interest was to be required by the borrower, were also repealed, and the temporary ability of the minister to make interim orders was repealed.

Colleagues, I have no idea if the government intended to allow all of these amendments to be repealed or not. Because when you keep seeing the speeding car go by with no one at the wheel, you begin to lose confidence that there is actually someone paying attention.

We will know soon enough what the government missed, however, by what “emergency” legislation they rush into Parliament next in order to paper over their latest lack of oversight and planning. Based on this government’s track record of incompetence and disdain for Parliament, I would not be surprised if that legislation arrives sooner rather than later.

Colleagues, the incompetence of this government concerns me greatly. When you factor in that it is doing deals with the NDP in order to stay in power, my concern is amplified.

We already have a government that has no regard for deficits, debt or budgets. It has no understanding that every penny it spends must come from taxpayers sooner or later, that government debt is everyone’s debt, and that jobs are created by businesses not government. It doesn’t understand the difference between an investment and an expenditure. It is economically illiterate, and it thinks that it can spend with impunity.

This government appears willing to let Jagmeet Singh be the prime minister any time it is necessary to keep the government in office for a little while longer.

Colleagues, the Liberal governments were bad enough when they were governing from the centre. This government has moved so far to the left that they are now driving on the wrong side of the road. The only thing worse than a driver who is asleep behind the wheel is one that is asleep and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Today we will be voting on a bill that will add more than $41 billion to our national debt, and yet the government has not provided us with either a budget or a fiscal plan. The only snapshot we received was released 87 days ago by the Finance Minister, who has since been fired. Today we will be voting on a bill that will release $17 billion in assistance for Canadians who need this money; spending that was previously approved by Parliament but left stranded because of this government’s disdain for Parliament. These things concern many of us.

In spite of them, today the Conservatives will be allowing — in answer to Senator Harder’s comments — this bill to pass because it contains benefits that are vital to Canadians, but we have concerns, colleagues. As Senator Martin pointed out, passing something on division does not mean we are opposed to the principle of what we have to do. Canadians need this money. However, I will answer Senator Harder’s questions, and yes, we will be passing this on division, clearly.

The government ran out the clock before this bill even arrived in this chamber. In the last two days, not a single penny of COVID-19 emergency spending authorized under the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act has moved due to the mismanagement of this government. Not a single penny can flow under the new benefits until this bill receives Royal Assent. We, the Conservatives, will not stand in the way of this. We will help get this out the door.

Honourable senators, one thing is clear: This pandemic is bad enough in itself, but its impact on Canadians has been multiplied by the incompetence and disdain for Parliament demonstrated by this Liberal government. That, colleagues, is truly regrettable. Thank you.

Senator Plett's speech on this issue can also be found here. 

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