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Finance minister can access ‘all money required’ without consulting Parliament

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Finance minister can access ‘all money required’ without consulting Parliament

It was nice while it lasted. No, not the pandemic, that can end anytime. What was nice, was the way political leaders across the country put aside partisan differences and spoke with a common purpose and understanding of the grave decisions they were making.

That ended Monday night when it was revealed that the Trudeau government was considering legislation to circumvent our fundamental democratic values. In short, the minority Liberal government wanted to use the pandemic to obtain 21 months of unfettered power to tax, spend and borrow without parliamentary approval or oversight.

As Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said to the Globe and Mail, “The draft legislation would provide powers that go well beyond the initial response to COVID-19 announced last week… It seeks to circumvent Parliament, for both spending and tax, by granting extraordinary powers to cabinet and individual ministers.”

After a day of backroom negotiations led by the Tories, the minority Liberal government relented on the plan to itself special cabinet powers until 2022. Ostensibly, this was to allow the government to proceed with its previously announced $82 billion plan for spending and tax deferral.

While the revised legislation has a sunset clause for Sep 30, 2020, there remain some concerns regarding Bill C-13, “An Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19.”

Under Part 3 of the omnibus act, “Public Health Event of National Concern,” the finance minister is able to access “all money required to do anything in relation to that public health event of national concern.” He need not consult Parliament to access this money. The only trigger is if the federal minister of health, or a similar minister in any of the provinces, deems it appropriate in the circumstances. In other words, for the next six months, Finance Minister Bill Morneau will have limited parliamentary oversight on the public finances including spending and borrowing, which are simply taxes deferred to the future.

To their credit, the Opposition also left open the ability to recall Parliament if any abuses are noted in regular reports to the appropriate committees. However, according to details of the actual bill, some of the accountability and reporting measures lauded by the Opposition parties may not actually be in the bill itself.

This episode has demonstrated the vital importance of a robust Opposition in important matters of policy. It also demonstrates how important it is to have different perspectives at the table.

Although the intention to invoke emergency powers may be noble, in that the government can have the mechanism to deal with an unprecedented threat, it’s even more imperative that the government be held in check. From the start, we see that those in power do not have any special knowledge or ability to deal with this crisis. They, along with the provincial governments, are doing their best to make the right decisions, but all governments have made numerous mistakes along the way.

Despite repeated claims that the government was using evidence-based policy decisions, the inconsistencies and mixed messages have multiplied almost as quickly as the virus has spread. Just look, for instance, at how poorly the government regulated international travel.

When Canadians learned that the first cases in Canada were from overseas flights, no measures were put in place to screen passengers from infected areas. Even when Canadians were told to come back to Canada while there was still time, nothing was being done to ensure the safety of those who were flooding the airports. The screening consisted of passengers going to a public touch screen and answering questions on how they felt. Temperatures were not being taken, no one was assessed on their health. Canadians travelling from infected areas were only advised that they self-isolate. We’re now hearing of reports from travellers admitting to masking their symptoms so they can get on planes home. Others are blatantly ignoring the requests to self-isolate when do arrive back in Canada.

It’s very worrying that a minority government (and the Opposition parties) would even contemplate, let alone actually approve, the kind of powers the governing Liberals have secured—the ability to spend and borrow for six months without parliamentary oversight.

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