OTTAWA - Federal plans to speedily approve legislation freeing up billions in aid to help Canadians weather the COVID-19 pandemic have been held up over Opposition objections that the Trudeau government is attempting a power grab.
An emergency sitting Tuesday of the House of Commons was suspended moments after it began as Conservatives balked at a provision that would give the government sweeping powers to unilaterally spend, borrow and change taxation levels without Parliament's approval.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said earlier that his party would support emergency efforts to get money to Canadians struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, but would oppose any "power grab" by the Liberal government.
His comment came a couple of hours before a small group of 32 MPs was supposed to debate and vote on legislation to deliver an $82-billion aid package proposed by the Liberal government to deal with COVID-19 and its ensuing economic damage.
However, the sitting had no sooner begun than government House leader Pablo Rodriguez asked that it be suspended so that the government could continue negotiating details of the legislation with opposition parties.
"Canadians need support to get through this. Fast," Rodriguez tweeted shortly after the sitting was suspended.
"The negotiations with other parties are still ongoing and the House will resume later today. We all need to come together and get this done. Canadians are counting on us."
The Liberals had said they would change the legislation before tabling it in the Commons but Scheer indicated during his morning news conference that the Conservatives had not seen a final draft.
"Today, Conservatives would like to focus on Canadians and passing the measures the prime minister announced last week," he said. "Any conversation about new government powers should not get in the way of passing this much-needed assistance. Canadians are counting on us."
Even as Scheer was speaking, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the legislation would be tabled "without clause 2," suggesting the bill would not contain the offending elements.
At the same time, Scheer sidestepped questions about whether the Tories would vote against the emergency-aid bill, the defeat of which would be a vote of no confidence for the minority Liberal government and possibly trigger an election.
"Justin Trudeau announced a number of measures last week and we're here to support them," he said.
"Our hope is that (the government) will stay focused on providing to Canadians, not focused on a power grab. Not focused on giving themselves unprecedented new powers. We can be here on 48 hours' notice to do exactly what we're doing today: to pass measures to provide that assistance to Canadians."
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the parliamentary budget officer has the bill and should be given the freedom by the government to immediately release an analysis, given the importance of the contents.
There may not be much time between the bill's publication and the vote to pass it, he added.
"The public is not going to know who to believe so let's free the parliamentary budget officer to tell everyone what's inside it, publicly before it gets passed."
Meanwhile, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec are ordering non-essential businesses to close their workplaces by midnight tonight, provinces are contemplating closing their borders to each other, and Trudeau has hinted that harsh measures might be used to keep people from gathering in groups.
The death toll in Canada reached 24 yesterday as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 passed 2,000.