COVID Spending Must Have On-going Parliamentary OversightMarch 19, 2020
Yesterday, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez announced that the House of Commons will be recalled to authorize the largest spending package in Canadian history, and that he’d like Parliament to do so by means of an expedited process, in which all of the normal procedural protections are stripped away. Normally any draft legislation can expect to go through the following oversight process:
- First Reading, at which it is introduced, and following which MPs and others can review it at leisure (usually accompanied by an informal ministerial presentation and question-and-answer session for MPs who are interested, at a meeting-room somewhere on Parliament Hill);
- Second Reading, at which the bill is debated in principle, and—among other things—the presenting minister is subjected to questions on the floor of the House;
- Committee hearings, at which witnesses are brought in to identify which groups in society will be impacted in what manner, and experts offer their insights;
- A section-by-section review of the bill, at which amendments are frequently proposed by the Opposition to deal with what non-government MPs see as significant flaws in the proposed law, and government MPs typically suggest minor tweaks to catch drafting errors and technical issues that emerged during witness testimony;
- Approval or rejection in the House of any amendments that were made in committee, as well as the potential for major amendments in the House to deal with any amendments that it was not procedurally possible to make in committee; and
- Final approval of the amended bill (“Third Reading”).
Then the same process is repeated in the Senate.
Moreover, if the amended versions of the bill, as they emerge from both chambers, are not identical in every respect, the bill doesn’t become law until the versions are reconciled, which requires further votes in the Commons and/or the Senate.
Next week, all of this is to be laid aside, and we will be expected to enact this massively important legislation, possibly in a single motion, or a small number of motions, and with very little time for review and questions. This fills me with concern. There is a good reason why, under Canada’s parliamentary system, we take so much time to enact even the most mundane-seeming laws.
One can only imagine the unintended consequences of a vast and all-encompassing piece of emergency legislation, commandeering tens of billions of dollars and, necessarily, giving ministers and bureaucrats vast discretionary powers as to how they will be spent—or perhaps, in some cases, limiting this discretion by means of formulae that are sure to have unintended consequences that will turn out to be unexpectedly unfair when examined from a regional, gendered, or other equity-based perspective.
Oversight is needed—and if, as Mr. Rodriguez tells us, it cannot be given by the House of Commons in advance—then it needs to be given by a committee of the House of Commons, after the fact (and starting immediately).
Setting up an oversight committee—call it the House of Commons COVID-19 Emergency Response Measures Special Committee—could easily be done, by means of a special order of the Commons. I suggest that the committee have the following features:
- The COVID committee should be capable of calling any minister to provide testimony, and should expect daily briefings from ministers. This would serve as an acceptable alternative to Question Period, during a time when safety / social distancing considerations make it impossible for the House of Commons to meet and hold the government to account in the normal manner;
- The COVID committee should be able to accept witness testimony (including that of ministers) by means of videoconference or telephone link (this is already possible, but up to now, it has been the practice at all committees for ministers to politely attend committee meetings in person);
- The COVID committee should utilize the largest-available committee room on Parliament Hill, so that members (and staff) can sit at least two meters from each other. There are some pretty big committee rooms on the Hill, so this would be easily achievable (in fact, three-meter distancing should be achieved with ease. Special measures might prove necessary for the interpreters, who normally share a single, small booth;
- The COVID committee should live-stream its proceedings (as committees already do, but the Special Order establishing the committee should prohibit members of the public from physically attending committee hearings until it is safe to do so;
- The COVID committee should have the ability to issue reports on its findings to the House (as committees are always empowered to do), and the House should have the ability to debate and adopt the recommendations of the committee (as the House can already do, with respect to any report of any committee). This will allow the House to move quickly on any urgent issues identified by the COVID committee.
- In all other respects, I recommend that the COVID committee be modeled on the special committee, set up last December, to study the Canada-China relationship. I have recopied those rules below, with the changes necessary to make them work for the COVID committee (for example, the power to travel outside Canada has been removed).
The proposed Special Order below is identical, in every respect, to the motion for the Canada-China Committee, except where I have indicated a difference by underlining the text:
That, in light of the unexpected challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the House appoint a special committee with the mandate to conduct hearings to examine and review all aspects of the epidemic and the policy and legislative response to the epidemic, including, but not limited to, legal, diplomatic, transportation, health, fiscal, taxation, and unemployment-benefit and sickness-benefit policies:
- that the committee be composed of 12 members, of which six shall be government members, four shall be from the official opposition, one shall be from the Bloc Québécois and one from the New Democratic Party;
- that changes in the membership of the committee shall be effective immediately after notification by the whip has been filed with the Clerk of the House;
- that membership substitutions be permitted, if required, in the manner provided for in Standing Order 114(2);
- that the members shall be named by their respective whip by depositing with the Clerk of the House the list of their members to serve on the committee no later than March 27, 2020;
- that the Clerk of the House shall convene an organization meeting of the said committee for no later than March 29, 2020;
- that the committee be chaired by a member of the government party;
- that notwithstanding Standing Order 106(2), in addition to the Chair, there be one vice-chair from the official opposition, one vice-chair from the Bloc Québécois and one vice-chair from the New Democratic Party;
- that quorum of the committee be as provided for in Standing Order 118 and that the Chair be authorized to hold meetings to receive evidence and to have that evidence printed when a quorum is not present, provided that at least four members are present, including one member of the opposition and one member of the government;
- that the committee be granted all of the powers of a standing committee, as provided in the Standing Orders, but not the power to travel, accompanied by the necessary staff, inside and outside of Canada;
- that the committee have the power to authorize video and audio broadcasting of any or all of its proceedings; and
- that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Public Safety, and the Minister of Health, as well as any other Minister,be ordered to appear as witnesses from time to time as the committee sees fit, provided that attendance by video or audio link shall be deemed to be sufficient for compliance with this provision.
To enact its emergency legislation on a single sitting-day next week, the Government will need the unanimous consent of all MPs who are present in the Commons. My recommendation, to the leadership of all Opposition parties, is to refuse to give that consent, unless some kind of oversight committee, similar to the one that I have proposed above, is established as a part of the same Special Order that passes the proposed relief legislation.
To do otherwise would be a gross abdication of responsibility.