OTTAWA – Canadians across the country who wondered why federal politicians couldn’t come to an agreement on how, when and where they should meet found a spokesperson in an unlikely place Monday: the leader of the Bloc Québécois.
Yves-François Blanchet, the sophomore leader of the separatist party, showed up at his press conference Monday morning, delivering some of the real talk folks outside Ottawa may have been craving.
It was clear to anyone watching that Blanchet wasn’t much impressed with the all-party negotiations that dragged through the weekend, leading to no resolution and an unexpected sitting of the House on Monday.
“It sends the message that we are a little bit disconnected,” he said in French.
Earlier: Leaders make arguments for how Commons should sit
The back and forth of the compromise motions among the Liberals, the NDP and the Conservatives looked very similar to what the Bloc had proposed to “settle the matter quickly” and move on to “real matters,” he said.
“The use and the taking as hostages of parliamentary institutions for partisan reasons with what seems like a great insensibility towards, in particular, what Quebecers are living through,” Blanchet charged, “this is certainly not what is going to enthuse people about our institutions and the people who work in them.”
The Bloc is focused on being worthy of people’s confidence, he said. When people hear their Bloc MP speaking, Blanchet said, he wants them to know that their interests are being represented, the people’s interests rather than the MP’s partisan interests.
If anyone wondered whom the Bloc leader was talking about, they need not guess for long. He soon pointed the finger in one direction, concerned, he said, that without an agreement on a set schedule of House meetings, the parties would continue to be victims of “blackmail sessions and hostage-taking by the Conservatives.”
There was too much “tataouinage,” Blanchet suggested, using a French expression that describes something that could have been done in a shorter and more comprehensive way.
“Political games, partisan games, are quite often tataouinage,” he told journalists.
Are the Conservatives responsible for the “tataouinage”? CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen asked.
“I would say that they have quite an expertise,” he replied.
In a break with most federal parties, the Bloc leader told reporters he didn’t see why MPs needed to be in Ottawa at all unless it was to vote — something the rules currently don’t allow members to do remotely. Most sectors of the economy can function virtually, he said, noting that some, such as agriculture and construction, obviously can’t. But even if you believe that parliamentarism is an essential service, which Blanchet said he did, he insisted one does not need to be in Ottawa to practice it.
He showed up Monday, he said, for one reason only: “to make use of this stage.” He wanted to talk about the urgent needs of Quebec’s seniors and to call for more investments in research and science, and assistance for students, many of whom have been left out of the Liberal government’s aid package.
“The only reason why we came here is to serve the people,” he said. “… and I do not intend to spend that much time in some obscure negotiations in the corner of some rooms to save face when one cannot stand to its own threats.”
While the Bloc, NDP and the Liberals came to an agreement on sitting one day a week in person and holding two additional virtual sittings, the Conservatives insisted the House should meet at least twice a week in person. Their amendment was defeated in the Commons 22 to 15.
Before he walked into the chamber, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer held his own press conference accusing the separatist leader of not being part of “team Canada.”
Instead of acting “as a team” with the Conservatives and working to prevent the Liberals from obtaining too much power during this crisis, Scheer said, “Mr. Blanchet left the negotiations to go have supper.”
Scheer repeated the accusation in the House, but Blanchet did not look the least bit troubled by the slight.
In fact, the Bloc leader upped the ante, saying clearly he was not interested in who was going to speak more or less, which party was going to have three more questions on Wednesday or Tuesday afternoon, or if there could be 2½ days of sittings rather than just two days. The Conservatives just wanted to negotiate to get on TV and “feed their electoral base,” he said.
“This is damn nonsense.”
Motion clear breach of MPs’ rights, Greens say
When the House of Commons’ first non-emergency proceeding since March 13 kicked off Monday, Green Party MP Paul Manly suggested that the meeting was improper, as many MPs could not attend, and that it should not be held at all.
He called on the Speaker of the House, Anthony Rota, to scrap the whole thing and adjourn immediately.
“The rights and privileges of many members are prima facie violated by any motion to proceed with regular sittings of the House in which they cannot participate,” he said.
Colleagues in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador are unable to attend sittings in Ottawa without having to legally quarantine themselves for 14 days upon returning to their constituencies, he said. Quebecers have also been asked by their provincial government not to travel, Manly noted.
“Parliament is not a debating club for the benefits of large organized political groups or parties,” the Green MP noted. “... All MPs are equal.”
Although Manly didn’t stress the point, MPs’ rights have been usurped by the leadership of political parties, who have arranged, since the House first rose on March 13, when meetings happen and how they happen. The leadership of the NDP, the Bloc and the Conservatives have been given access to bills before all MPs have seen the government’s proposed legislation. The motion presented Monday appears to continue that breach by giving only the House leader of the recognized parties embargoed copies four days before debates on measures the government plans to propose to the House.
Although political parties are not mentioned in Canada’s constitution — something Manly noted — few members of Parliament have made a fuss about their rights being impeded during the pandemic.
Rota later ruled there was no prima facie breach of privilege.
The question and answer period
Perhaps it was because the horrific tragedy in Nova Scotia hung in the air and reminded MPs of more sober and serious affairs, or perhaps the politicians realized they had spent two days negotiating over matters likely viewed as trivial by Canadians grappling with death, disease and financial insecurity that Monday’s meeting of the House was a remarkably responsible affair.
“There has been far too much sadness and grief in our nation over the last month,” Scheer said. Nineteen people died over the weekend from one gunman’s murderous rampage. More than 1,600 Canadians have now died from COVID-19.
Scheer had tried to make the case for days that in-person questioning of the government was necessary, saying ministers needed to answer how many ventilators were being bought and why personal protective equipment had been destroyed and not replaced. On Monday, he got answers.
In question period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Scheer the federal government had sent 400 ventilators to the provinces and territories and said it has contracts with three companies to supply 30,000 more starting in May.
Later, during a prolonged debate on the response to the pandemic, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told the chamber that if the curve keeps flattening, the number of ventilators that Canada “currently has might meet our needs.”
Trudeau also told Scheer that the government is reviewing protocols to ensure that it uses its stockpiles of equipment before it reaches the end of their life cycle, and that it replaces necessary items.
“Obviously that did not happen, and we need to make sure we have better protocols going forward so we do not find ourselves in a situation like this,” Trudeau said.
Of course, there were also the usual non-answers that left questioners and spectators frustrated by ministerial sidestepping, and the lob from the government backbencher asking a cabinet minister to trumpet the Liberals’ record, once more for Hansard.
But there was no pointless clapping, no heckling or jeering.
Monday’s extended format allowed the political parties to highlight issues for constituencies that were most important to them.
The Bloc wanted to know why the government would not increase Old Age Security by $110 a month, saying more needs to be done for the country’s most respected citizens.
The NDP wanted to know why students who didn’t have $5,000 worth of income last year and can’t find a job this summer are being shut out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
The Tories asked several times why small business owners who pay themselves through dividends (a way of avoiding paying a higher income tax rate) are excluded from wage subsidies or the CERB.
Through it all, the Tories tried to poke other opposition members by asking them how important they felt Parliament is and how they felt about the value of holding in-person sittings.
Conservative MP John Brassard, for example, congratulated Bloc freshman Andréanne Larouche on her speech urging more help for those over 65, not only through direct assistance but through the expansion of rural internet access, the suspension of forced withdrawals of retirement plans, and the protection of company pension plans from creditors.
“This is not the kind of thing that we can bring up on Twitter,” the Ontario MP said, full of flattery. “Just how important does my honourable colleague think this institution is?”
Larouche had spoken to a near empty chamber. Only two Liberals sat across from her as she spoke.
“I think there are all kinds of ways to move forward files like those involving seniors,” she said, noting that the other parties were all in agreement for one in-person sitting and two virtual ones a week.
Obvious to anyone watching the chamber and its mostly 37 members interacting on the floor was how difficult it was, even with so few MPs, to practice social distancing.
At one point, Conservative Edmonton MP Garnett Genuis arrived in the chamber, walked over to Ontario colleague Leona Alleslev, and leaned inches away to speak with her, a winter scarf around his face to prevent any moist talking.
The Liberals were no better at keeping a two-metre distance. The prime minister practically spoke over House Leader Pablo Rodriguez as he answered questions in the House. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland couldn’t maintain a metre distance as she stopped to speak to MP Marie-France Lalonde on her way out of the House.
After a moment of silence and tribute to the victims of Nova Scotia’s senseless tragedy, the motion to suspend the House’s regular sittings until May 25 was adopted.
Next week, MPs will meet Tuesday in a virtual format to question ministers through what’s being called a Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, in a looser format allowing for more free-flowing questions and answers.
A small group of MPs will meet again in-person on Wednesday. And every week thereafter, MPs will meet virtually on Tuesdays and Thursdays and in-person on Wednesday.
What will it really look like? No one seems to know.
Hopefully, it will lead to more than tataouinage.