OTTAWA - An emergency federal bill to inject billions of dollars of aid into the Canadian economy for workers, families and businesses hit hard by COVID-19 has passed the Senate and now awaits royal assent.
The Senate passed the bill after two hours of discussion and debate Wednesday morning, including an hour of senators' peppering Finance Minister Bill Morneau with questions.
The bill includes a major change to government programs to support people who can't work because of COVID-19, offering $2,000 a month in direct support through the Canada Revenue Agency. The change will increase the cost of the aid package from $27 billion in direct support to $52 billion. Another $55 billion is on the table in deferred tax payments for business and individuals.
The bill is expected to get royal assent this afternoon. Morneau said the benefits for workers would come as early as the first week of April, while top-ups for child benefits and GST cheques will flow in May.
Morneau acknowledged there is a need for cash to move as soon as possible but warned the government is not set up to deliver funds any faster.
"The capacity is not there," said Morneau, answering questions in the Senate Wednesday morning as it deliberated on the emergency legislation.
The House of Commons passed the bill in the wee hours of the morning after lengthy negotiations among the governing Liberals and opposition parties about the extent of extraordinary spending powers the government was requesting.
Conservatives raised objections Tuesday to what they dubbed a Liberal "power grab," balking at provisions in a draft of the legislation that would have given the government sweeping powers to unilaterally spend, borrow and change taxation levels without Parliament's approval for the next 21 months.
The government backed down on most of those issues allowing the bill to be debated and passed around 4 a.m. Eastern time.
The bill injects cash on a number of fronts to help Canadians weather the COVID-19 crisis, including the employment benefits, student loan deferrals, and funds for the health care system, homeless and women's shelters, and Indigenous communities.
Morneau said more than 2,000 CRA workers are being redeployed to help get the employment benefits flowing. Workers who can't work for almost any reason related to COVID-19, including staying home to look after others, the need to quarantine or self-isolate, or also because their employer has closed or reduced business and can't offer them as many or any shifts.
A $300 top-up for each child under the Canada Child Benefit and an increase in GST rebates can't go out until May, Morneau said.
"There aren't faster ways to get money into Canadians hands," he told the Senate, when queried about why the government wasn't getting money to people quicker.
Morneau said many times this bill is really just the first step to keep Canadians and the economy as healthy as possible in the midst of a crisis nobody has ever seen before. He said everyone wants to know the depth of the economic hurt, how long it will last and whether it will come in waves.
"We don't know any of these things," he said. "There is nothing regular about what we are facing."
Conservative Sen. Don Plett said Conservative senators would support the bill but still believe the government's response is slow and clumsy.
Parliament adjourned on March 13 until at least April 20 as part of a countrywide effort to curb the spread of the virus. But it was recalled Tuesday to deal with the emergency aid package.
The bill also gives the federal ministers of health and finance the power to approve spending "all money required to do anything" to deal with a public health emergency.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday the government was trying to balance the need to act quickly to help Canadians with the need to remain accountable to Parliament.
"It is an exceptional situation that requires extreme flexibility and rapidity of response by governments to be able to help Canadians and react to a situation that we've seen is moving quickly every single day," he said.
"So saying, we have a Parliament that works, we have an Opposition that is doing its job of making sure that we are taking the right steps the right way."
The bill only needed one party's support to pass the Commons eventually but it needed the support of every MP present to be put through on the one-day schedule the Liberals wanted.
Wednesday morning, after the bill passed, Scheer released a statement highlighting oversight measures included in the final draft, including shortening the period during which the federal cabinet has special spending powers to keep the government moving and requiring regular reports on spending to House of Commons committees.
This is what an "effective Opposition" looks like, he said.
The Conservative position on the bill was complicated by one of its own MPs, Scott Reid, who threatened on his website Tuesday to show up in the Commons, despite not being one of the designated 11 Tories who were supposed to be present, and deny the unanimous consent needed to expedite the bill's passage.
He later amended his post to say he had no objection to same-day passage of the relief measures provided MPs had enough time to read and understand the bill.