By Lee Berthiaume
THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA _ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’ll push the provinces to give workers 10 days of paid sick leave a year as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
That appears to meet a key demand from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in exchange for the New Democrats’ support for a motion to limit sittings and votes in the House of Commons through the summer.
Singh laid out the demands on Monday morning, shortly before a small number of members of Parliament returned to the House of Commons to begin debate over the future of parliamentary sittings for as long as several months.
The debate will revolve around a Liberal proposal to waive “normal” House of Commons sittings in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a sort of stand-in for the past month.
Because they hold only a minority of seats, the Liberals need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass this motion.
The Conservatives are expected to oppose the motion as they push for an end to the COVID-19 committee and the resumption of Commons sittings, albeit with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Jean-Yves Blanchet said Monday his party isn’t participating in negotiations around the return of Parliament.
The Bloc previously laid out a set of conditions it wanted met before it would engage in discussions around how Parliament could sit.
Those included more help for businesses to cover their fixed overhead costs and a straightforward plan for how the Liberals would follow through on a promise of financial support for seniors.
Blanchet said the Liberals have followed through on neither, and ensuring they do is his priority.
“Every time we spend five minutes talking about parliamentary rules, we’re spending five minutes less talking about what Quebecers require,” he said.
He said his party will likely go along with whatever consensus is arrived at to govern how the House of Commons sits for the next while. The Bloc won’t argue about who drives that bus or where it’s going, Blanchet said, but when it comes, the Bloc will probably get on board.
That leaves the NDP, with Singh said his party is willing to support Liberals’ motion for a price.
“We are continuing to make it clear that we need a commitment that the government is willing to provide paid sick leave for all Canadians,” Singh said during a news conference on Parliament Hill.
“We’re suggesting the government can use something like the (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) or employment insurance to deliver that program federally immediately. But we want to see something that is long term and that will require working with provinces and employers to deliver a long-term commitment so that forever in our country, everyone who needs paid sick leave will have access to it.”
Singh is also demanding the government make good on a promise to provide more support to Canadians with disabilities who are struggling during the pandemic.
“If the government does not deliver on paid sick leave for all Canadians and real support for Canadians with disabilities, then we will not be supporting the motion,” he said.
Trudeau said it makes sense to support paid leave for all workers if they’re ill, so that people who might be sick with COVID-19 don’t have to choose between going to work sick and sitting at home unpaid. He acknowledged that he’d had discussions with Singh on the issue on Sunday.
The battle over the future of Parliament in the age of COVID-19 has largely coalesced around the limitations and uncertainty associated with virtual House of Commons sittings as they butt up against demands for full parliamentary representation and accountability during the pandemic.
The Liberals on Saturday unveiled their proposed solution, which would see “normal” House of Commons sittings put aside in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee.
The motion proposes adding an additional day to the committee’s current schedule of one meeting a week in person, with fewer than three dozen MPs actually present, and twice a week virtually.
The Liberals are now proposing four meetings a week until June 17 with a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance that would see a small number of MPs in the Commons chamber and others participating via two large video screens set up on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
The motion also proposes four sittings of the House of Commons in July and August, each with a question period that would allow MPs the chance to ask cabinet ministers about issues unrelated to COVID-19 _ a key issue of contention for the Conservatives in recent weeks.
The Conservatives have nonetheless indicated they want to do away with the special COVID-19 committee and bring back House of Commons sittings, which includes opposition days, private members’ business and other activities that cannot occur with the committee format.
The key hangup for both sides of the debate appears to be around representation as the House of Commons’ administration works through the technical limitations on virtual attendance.
Those limitations were highlighted in a report by a Commons committee two weeks ago, including concerns about hacking when it comes to MP votes and procedural questions such as how to handle points of order and privilege.