Amidst the pandemic that has pushed Canada to implement sweeping emergency measures, how is the minority Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau co-operating with the other parties?
That depends on which leader you speak with. The Tyee talked to four — Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May.
While Scheer accused the Liberals of “backing away” from an early pledge to work more closely with the official Opposition in a “Team Canada approach” to the crisis, Singh and May were much more positive about how they and their parties have been heard in formulating new measures.
Singh cited times the NDP had pushed for stronger supports and these were folded into new Liberal policies.
May blasted the Conservatives for being “tone deaf” in demanding in-person sittings of the House, which she considers unsafe so far in the pandemic, and said “collaboration and co-operation is at an all-time high” within “a Parliament that is working better.”
Trudeau told The Tyee he and his ministers “have been in very close and ongoing conversations with opposition leaders.”
Scheer: Liberals ‘trying to relegate the role of Parliament to the sidelines’
The House of Commons resumed business on Monday after the official Opposition Conservatives refused to accept the Liberal government’s proposed hybrid approach of having a weekly in-person session for 32 members of Parliament on Wednesdays with a 90-minute virtual question period for all 338 MPs.
For the Tories, that fell short of their proposal for three weekly in-person sittings “to allow MPs to debate and vote on essential COVID-19 legislation,” and provide them with “two hours each day to question the prime minister and ministers on all aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic.”
In a statement sent to The Tyee on Friday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that “in order to ensure that Canadians get the real help they need, there must be oversight and accountability. Now more than ever, Parliament is an essential service.” (On Friday, Senate Speaker George Furey extended the adjournment of the red chamber until June 2 to help “mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”)
At Scheer’s Sunday news conference, The Tyee asked the official Opposition leader whether regular contact between him, the other opposition leaders and the prime minister, who holds weekly calls with the premiers, improve the dialogue with the government beyond the sittings of Parliament.
“Any time that you are engaging with opposition parties when you’re the prime minister will lead to better outcomes,” said Scheer. “So far, there have been some lines of communication. But we haven’t been able to get the daily access to the prime minister and ministers that we would normally get in the House of Commons.”
“A few weeks ago, the prime minister and his ministers talked about a Team Canada approach. Well, when we started to roll up our sleeves, help them approve their legislation and get better products for Canadians, all of sudden they started to back away from that idea. And again, we see them trying to relegate the role of Parliament off to the sidelines, and as a result, Canadians will not have as good a product as they could from this government if that’s allowed to be the case.”
Trudeau: ‘proposals on expanding, on filling gaps have come from MPs of all parties’
The Tyee asked Trudeau on Saturday during his daily briefing to reporters outside his residence at Rideau Cottage why he has not reached out to the opposition leaders as he has with the other first ministers — particularly in a minority Parliament that has not been convening regularly.
“We have been in very close and ongoing conversations with opposition leaders, both me directly and mostly through ministers and officials, and regular briefings that happen from Health Canada to keep people apprised on these issues,” the prime minister said.
“But you’re absolutely right that we do need to keep our institutions and our parliamentary principles strong, which is why we’ve proposed that Parliament could come back in a modified way every single week to ensure accountability, to ensure that we can move forward on legislation,” he said.
Trudeau added that was why his government sought all-party agreement to modified sittings “because the alternative would be returning to Ottawa on Monday morning with a full House of Commons and all the staff associated with, and I think we can all recognize that that would be a mistake at this point.”
Some of the changes his government has made to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for workers, the wage subsidy initiative for businesses, and last week’s recent revisions regarding emergency loans and commercial-rent assistance for small businesses, were proposed by the opposition parties.
The Tyee asked the prime minister whether he now thinks that looping in the leaders could save valuable time, and get programs and money out the door sooner.
“We have been looping in leaders and opposition members from the very beginning,” Trudeau said. “Indeed, the proposals on expanding, on filling gaps have come from MPs of all parties, including many, many Liberal MPs who’ve been passing the message through.”
“We know that Canadians are working together in unprecedented ways to fill gaps and to respond to these challenges and it is wonderful, quite frankly, to see so many suggestions coming forward, many of them that make it into tweaks and improvements and changes to programs that are designed to help as many Canadians as possible.”
The Tyee asked the Conservative leader a similar question.
“If the government would like to have more dynamic involvement with our party, we would certainly be willing to do that,” Scheer replied.
“When they first proposed some of these benefits and programs, we quickly heard from our constituents and we raised those concerns, and for weeks they were not addressed.”
He said that regular sessions of the Commons, held multiple times a week, would “more quickly” facilitate that work and hold the government accountable for its “poor decisions of getting the call wrong early on” in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
“For example, saying that there was no need to close borders or impose travel restrictions. That was the wrong decision — [or] the fact that the stockpile of personal protective equipment was dumped, was thrown out just months before this crisis started without a plan to replenish it,” said Scheer. “We’ve seen poor decisions being made.”
But not all opposition assessments of the government’s performance are as harsh.
Singh: ‘We’ve been pushing and it seems to inform’ Liberal decisions
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in an interview that he has been chatting with the prime minister “throughout the crisis on a pretty regular basis.”
But he said his party’s primary focus has been on people, and that when the COVID outbreak began intensifying in early March, the first question he asked Trudeau in the Commons was on the government’s plan to get help to as many people as quickly as possible.
“At the time, the Liberals came back with some modification to EI — and I said that’s not good enough because it only applies to about 40 per cent of Canadians,” according to Singh, who said the Liberal government dropped its idea and came back with the CERB for people who lost their jobs because of the economic shutdown.
The NDP then pushed for a doubling of the monthly benefit from the Liberals originally proposed $1,000, and the government increased it to $2,000 a week later, said Singh, MP for the B.C. riding of Burnaby South.
Singh spoke to The Tyee last week from Mississauga, Ont., where he and his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, have been looking after his 70-year-old parents who both have health challenges that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
He said he also pressed the government to significantly increase the business wage subsidy from 10 per cent to 75 per cent, which he said in a phone call the prime minister originally resisted but within a week hiked the rate.
“Every step of the way we’ve been pushing — and it hasn’t been as much collaboration where they call us before they make a decision, but they call and ask for our input — and it seems to in some ways inform their decisions, albeit a week or two later,” explained Singh about his party’s relationship with the government.
During the emergency sitting of the Commons over the Easter weekend, the NDP obtained unanimous consent for its motion that called on the government to “implement measures without delay to address gaps in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or other programs, existing or proposed, to address the needs of seasonal workers, those who have exhausted their EI benefits, students, owners/operators, those who continue to receive a modest income from part-time work, royalties and honoraria, and that, in addition, the government work to ensure essential workers who receive low wages will receive additional income support during this time of crisis, and commit that those who have applied in good faith for and received benefits through CERB or other programs to support them through this crisis will not be unjustly penalized.”
Four days later, during his daily briefing outside his residence at Rideau Cottage, Trudeau announced that his government had expanded the CERB — which provides $2,000 in taxable income every four weeks for up to four months to those who have lost income because of the COVID-19 lockdown — “to include people making up to $1,000 a month, seasonal workers and people whose EI has recently run out.”
Singh said expanding the CERB has some personal resonance.
“I remember when I was in my early 20s and my dad had lost his job and times were really tough for us, I took my brother in to live with me when I was in third-year of university [in London, Ont.]. I was like his surrogate dad taking him to school,” he explained.
“I remember not being able to pay the bills — times where I wasn’t trying to work, earn money and we didn’t have enough for groceries. And it was my brother’s friend’s parents that would sometimes send food home with him knowing we were in a bit of a tough spot — and we wouldn’t have gotten by without that food,” said Singh. “I don’t want people to get to that point.”
In making his party’s pitch for COVID-relief programs to the government, Singh would support “formalized” contact with the prime minister, rather than the ad-hoc nature of their communication.
“It wouldn’t have to be with all the opposition leaders together. It could still be one-on-one, but just a regular check-in. Given a minority government, maybe it would make sense.”
“Going forward, we need to have a better way to hold the government to account or to be updated on what’s happening, so a conference call — great idea — using some form of virtual Parliament mixed with some in-person sittings in Ottawa are things we need to explore.”
Another option raised with Singh to bring him and the other opposition leaders into closer dialogue with the prime minister could be via the privy councillor route. Trudeau and Scheer, as opposition leader, are already privy councillors. But it’s doubtful that Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet would swear the oath to the Queen, leaving Singh and possibly May, as potential entrants into the elite group.
“It gives you more access to briefings and decision-making,” said Singh. “But my top asks are making sure we get money in people’s pockets; job protection; and keeping people in their homes.”
May: ‘Collaboration is at an all-time high. Our input has been accepted.’
Elizabeth May, the Green party House parliamentary leader — first elected the MP for the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands in 2011 — believes “the level of co-operation and collaboration is at an all-time high” and that “Parliament is working better, even though we’ve not been physically present.” “We have had a lot of access,” she said about the government’s reaching out to the Greens. “Everything is moving as fast as it can. Cabinet ministers have a mandate to make decisions.”
But the Greens have “access to all of cabinet, all of government” that is not “in any way unresponsive to the opposition parties,” said May, who acknowledged that among the opposition leaders, she has a “better” working relationship with Blanchet (whom The Tyee unsuccessfully attempted to reach for this story) than she does with Scheer or Singh, and that she enjoys “excellent” contact with MPs from all parties.
“The less partisanship, the better right now — and I found Andrew Scheer’s demands that the House meet in person sooner than later to be tone-deaf to the public-health situation in which we find ourselves,” she said.
May said there was not social distancing when MPs were hanging out in the opposition lobby when the Commons sat on April 11. Wearing a facemask, she stayed away “because it was too crowded.”
Every afternoon, seven days a week, May participates in a conference call for all MPs and senators, hosted by Health Canada that runs for between 45 and 60 minutes and fields at least a dozen questions daily from multiple departments — a virtual forum May said “serves as a way of getting suggestions into the mix.” (Thirteen governmental officials participated in the call she hopped onto after speaking to The Tyee.)
“At least for us, as a Green caucus, many of our ideas are being adopted — and unlike the NDP or the Conservatives, we’re not trying to claim credit every time we see one of our ideas adopted, because we don’t know how many other people are making the same proposals,” she said, noting the Greens pushed for the government to increase the wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent for small and medium-sized businesses — which the NDP and the Tories also supported — and that the Greens identified gaps in the CERB.
“I do feel as though our input has been accepted,” said May, who offered that she has regular access to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Finance Minister Bill Morneau — “virtually all of the ministers, who are available and accessible, either by email or by phone seven days a week — pretty much at all hours of the day — a lot more than usual.”
“The way in which Parliament functions has been a bit flattened; there’s less hierarchy. I’m also observing that Liberal backbenchers say things in the daily calls and push an agenda,” said the former federal Green party leader. “My sense of it at the moment is that we’re functioning well as parliamentarians, and that our ideas are being accepted.”
“It’s been a very impressive, all-hands-on-deck effort.”
“A lot of MPs, across party lines, believe that Parliament works better when partisanship is reduced and when we are all aware that our job as MPs is to work for Canada and not try to score political points,” said May, who was elected chair of the all-party democracy caucus in the Commons before Parliament was suspended for five weeks last month as part of the pandemic lockdown.
When asked whether a weekly conference call with the prime minister and the other opposition leaders would be helpful, May said that “it wouldn’t hurt — but I’m not pushing for it because I feel the level of access and engagement with key ministers who are working on the COVID-19 response committee has also been flattened.”
She said that the Commons could hold question period at least four times a week in a virtual setting, such as on the Zoom platform, to bolster government accountability.
May added that when she spoke to Trudeau at the Saturday, Easter long-weekend sitting of the Commons — “keeping six feet distance,” May underlined — the thought of asking him for a regular virtual meeting never crossed her mind.
Still, she acknowledged that a “more personal, direct” call from the prime minister would “be helpful” and “private,” allowing for candour away from media scrutiny. But May believes that if she reached out to Trudeau on a matter, he would get back to her.
The global health crisis regarding COVID-19 is real, said May, by phone from her home in Sidney, B.C., where she is self-isolating following her Good Friday government Challenger flight with the Scheer family to Ottawa.
May recalled the attention the federal Greens drew to the climate emergency facing the planet in their “Mission: Possible” election platform last year. She and the party called for a “wartime approach of all hands-on-deck” at the time.
“It was hard for voters to understand what I was saying because they’ve never seen their government act like that. Now we do,” said May.
“Now we see government acting in an all-hands-on-deck way — and it’s what Chrystia Freeland says all of the time. And the fact that Chrystia Freeland and [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford talk to each other every day is outside the normal realm of experience and much more like the kind of effort you have in wartime,” said May, who was heartened to see the emergence of Second World War-like victory gardens being planted in her onetime home province of Nova Scotia, which, she said, also highlights the importance of raising the issue of food security during the COVID crisis.
And when this war winds down? Co-operation among parties may be tested in new ways. NDP Leader Singh said when Canada shifts into the recovery phase, his party will release its vision of how it should proceed. It will, he emphasized, ensure that there is no repeat of the post-recession corporate bailouts from the previous decade that saw a flurry of executive bonuses and share buybacks.
“I am going to be very fiercely adamant about making sure any subsidies or investments have to be tied to workers and have penalties and strings attached.”