OTTAWA – The fate of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government hangs in the balance as Parliament resumes all normal operations today for the first time in six months.
Opposition parties will give their official responses to Wednesday’s speech from the throne but they’ve already signalled that Trudeau can’t count on support from any of them to survive the eventual confidence vote and avoid plunging the country into an election in the midst of a second wave of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
The Conservatives were unequivocal: they will not support the throne speech.
The Bloc Québécois was almost as categorical: Bloc MPs 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 when it introduces promised legislation 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.
Government officials say the legislation authorizing the EI reforms and the new benefits will be introduced very soon. They also hint that the details are subject to negotiation with opposition parties – giving it a chance to expand the proposed benefits to ensure it meets the NDP’s conditions for supporting the throne speech.
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 childcare 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.
The government must allow for six days of debate on the throne speech but they don’t have to be consecutive days. Blanchet said he and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, both of whom are currently in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, are to join the debate on Tuesday.
No date has yet been set for the vote but, when it comes, the government will need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to avoid being defeated.
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.