MPs clash over pandemic response as Parliament resumes Monday

·4 min read

Members of Parliament continue to clash over the federal government's COVID-19 response as the House of Commons is set to reconvene on Monday for the first time this year.

In a panel interview on CBC Radio's The House, Conservative MP Michael Chong and Liberal MP Arif Virani offered duelling analogies to describe Canada's pandemic response, days before deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to drop dramatically over the next four weeks.

"It's like saying that I have negotiated a contract with six fire departments to respond to my fire, but they won't respond for six hours when I do have a fire. And my neighbour has negotiated one contract with a single fire department to respond in five minutes," Chong told host Chris Hall.

"Personally, I'll take the single contract with the fire department that responds in five minutes because that is going to save my house. We are the country that's negotiated the contract with six fire departments ... that's the problem here."

Canada has signed agreements to receive the vaccine from seven companies, including Pfizer and Moderna. Candidates from the remaining suppliers have yet to receive the regulatory green light from Health Canada, though Virani said the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson products are "on the precipice of hopeful approvals."

"A different analogy would be, with respect to firefighting, about ... how much water do you use on the fire? And we've been criticized, including by [Chong's] party, for putting too much water on the fires in terms of the spending that we've been doing," Virani said.

"But our position is clear. We will remain constant in having Canadians' backs for as long as it takes to weather this pandemic, including running deficits to do so."

Looking ahead to federal budget

In December, the House of Commons rose for a six-week break without deciding how Parliament should safely resume in the new year. It remains to be seen whether MPs will meet virtually with no members physically present in the Commons or whether they'll continue to follow the hybrid model put in place last year.

"We have been having discussions with the other parties about the return of Parliament on Monday. Those discussions have been constructive," read a statement from the office of Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez.

But when Parliament does resume, it also comes as Ottawa prepares for its first federal budget in two years.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

"We need to see some action from this government," NDP deputy House leader Heather McPherson told The House in the same interview. "I mean, we have seen things like child care, we have seen things like pharmacare, over and over and over again in these Liberal throne speeches. But we haven't seen the action taken."

McPherson said a child-care strategy will be critical for economic recovery from the pandemic, on top of additional support for small businesses. When Parliament returns, she said the NDP will also be pushing the Liberal government on ending clawbacks of the Canada emergency response benefit and calling for expanded access to paid sick leave.

"If [the Liberals] continue to help deliver for Canadians, then we'll continue to work with them," she said.

Conservatives, Liberals lay out priorities

Chong said that the Opposition will be zeroing in on vaccine procurement and improving the pace of Canada's rollout, among other priorities.

"We're looking for two measures in the upcoming budget that we believe are really important, one of which the government has indicated it's supportive of, and that is the changes to the Canada Child Benefit that would help Canadian families, particularly working women and single mothers," the Conservative foreign affairs critic said.

The party is also looking for additional measures to help small businesses buffeted by a second wave of pandemic restrictions.

Virani said he was "keen" to hear the ideas proposed by his colleagues and laid out some priorities of his own, including immediately working to close a loophole in the federal sickness benefit that allows Canadians quarantining after personal travel to claim sick pay.

Virani, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said the new Biden administration in the United States also changes what's on the government's to-do list.

"We've now got a co-operative administration that understands the importance of greening the planet," Virani said, "as well as working on issues that are germane to both of our nations."

That includes a rise in systemic discrimination and online hate — the latter of which Virani says he's been tackling with Justice Minister David Lametti.

"We're looking for progress on a number of files, but it starts with the pandemic and addressing the pandemic," he said.