Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out swinging against Conservatives Thursday over his minority government’s failure to quickly pass emergency legislation to send financial aid to Canadians living with disabilities.
“The Conservatives’ choice to put politics ahead of helping people will have caused extra hardship for Canadians,” he said during a press conference at an Ottawa-area small business.
Trudeau was reacting to how opposition parties refused to give unanimous consent Wednesday to debate and vote on a bill to, among other things, provide a one-time, tax-free payment of up to $600 for Canadians living with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch: Bill on benefits fraud will hit racialized people, Singh says
Conservatives would not help fast-track the legislation, as the party has done with other bills during the crisis, because they are demanding a full return of Parliament, albeit with a reduced number of MPs in the House of Commons.
For weeks, MPs have sat on a special COVID-19 committee that meets both virtually and in the Commons. Outgoing Tory Leader Andrew Scheer has said the arrangement is insufficient for scrutinizing billions in new spending and holding the government to account, particularly on matters that aren’t directly related to the pandemic.
The Bloc Quebecois likewise said it wouldn’t support the bill without firm Liberal commitments to release a fiscal update this month. The separatist party also wants political parties barred from tapping into the wage subsidy program, and for Liberals to call a first ministers’ conference this summer on health-care transfers to provinces.
New Democrats similarly wouldn’t budge because of provisions in the bill that would see hefty fines or jail time for Canadians who fraudulently claimed the $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh warned such measures will punish vulnerable groups and racialized Canadians. The NDP also said the proposed disability benefit would only apply to about 40 per cent of Canadians with disabilities, and wanted a government commitment to extend the CERB for at least another four months.
Though Liberals attempted Wednesday to break the legislation in two so the proposed disability benefit could be dealt with separately from other contentious measures, the Tories — who have repeatedly charged that Trudeau has “shut down Parliament” — blocked them in their tracks.
Instead, Scheer moved a motion to have the House resume its work later in the day— in the same way it would before the COVID-19 pandemic. It was shot down by the Liberals.
“The Conservatives refused to even allow the House to even debate this legislation, nevermind voting for or against it,” Trudeau said Thursday, adding it was “only the Conservatives” who stood in the way of that compromise.
Though the prime minister occasionally blamed all opposition parties for his government’s setback, most of his criticisms were directed squarely at the Tories, who, he pointedly charged, “decided that political advantages and political concerns were more important than getting an extra $600 to Canadians living with disabilities.”
Trudeau suggested the incident clashed with the spirit of cooperation Canadians have shown throughout the pandemic. The prime minister said he didn’t believe a single member of Parliament was opposed to seeing Canadians with disabilities get help, suggesting more than once that the Tories were simply playing political games.
“Despite the unity that Canadians have shown, despite business and individuals being there for each other, politics got in the way of actually helping Canadians. And I think we need to reflect on that.”
Yet Trudeau was also pressed on whether he shares responsibility for the failure to get the benefit out the door by not agreeing to bring back Parliament as it normally functions. The prime minister said that in a minority Parliament, that is not his call alone.
Scheer: PM ‘shamefully misleading Canadians’
Just more than two weeks ago, the NDP and Green MPs voted with Liberals to suspend normal House proceedings for another four months. The NDP support came after Trudeau agreed to a key demand from Singh to work with the provinces and territories to provide at least 10 paid sick days during the pandemic.
“Conservatives didn’t like that. They wanted something else, but they didn’t get their way,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister pledged to keep working to ensure that those living with a disability get the help they deserve. “We will not give up. We’re not going to let you be left behind,” he said.
The benefit could come up when the Commons meets again next Wednesday.
Later, during a meeting of the special COVID-19 committee in the House, Scheer said the prime minister is “shamefully misleading Canadians” and accused him of trying to shirk responsibility for his own failure.
“He is the one who waited months before bringing proposals forward to help people with disabilities. And then yesterday, when Conservatives proposed a motion to have Parliament meet to debate this legislation, it was Liberals who said no,” Scheer said, referencing his failed motion.
Scheer said Liberals were “disgustingly” playing politics on the backs of Canadians with disabilities. “That’s shameful… and Canadians won’t forget it,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland responded that MPs were offered a clear opportunity to vote “specifically and narrowly” on the benefits issue.
What is shameful is to “allow partisan politics and procedural manoeuvring” to stop Canadians with disabilities who are facing additional challenges because of coronavirus from getting help, Freeland said. “What is shameful, and indeed disgusting, is preventing those Canadians from getting that $600.”
Freeland said Liberals would be very prepared to have a vote to get the benefit out the door and move on to fighting about other issues.
“Conservatives stand ready. The second she wants to recall Parliament, we will be here to get the help Canadians expect,” Scheer shot back.
With files from The Canadian Press