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Bloc will support multiple in-person Commons sittings if demands not met


OTTAWA — The Bloc Quebecois is threatening to support a resumption of in-person sittings of the House of Commons five days a week if the Trudeau government doesn't agree to a number of demands — including delivering an economic update next month and holding modified sittings for at least four weeks during the summer.

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet issued the ultimatum Tuesday as the Liberals and opposition parties engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations ahead of the Commons' scheduled return on May 25.

The House adjourned March 13 to help limit the spread of COVID-19 but has resumed partial operations. The latest agreement among a majority of MPs on how to do business expires Monday. Without a new one, parliamentary work resumes with, in theory, 338 MPs in the chamber in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that the Liberal government would prefer to continue with the emergency proceedings that have been adopted for the past three weeks — two virtual sittings and one in-person sitting each week of a special COVID-19 committee, on which all MPs are members. He left the door open to additional weekly virtual sittings.

But for that to happen, the minority Liberals will need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer reiterated Tuesday his party's position that more in-person sittings are necessary, along with a restoration of some of Parliament's powers.

He said the existing thrice-weekly meetings of the modified Commons and the smattering of other committees meeting virtually aren't enough. Among other things, he said the current setup doesn't allow MPs to compel the government to produce documents or to get witnesses to testify. 

"This is not a partisan issue, this is about whether or not a democratic country like Canada should have a functional Parliament," Scheer said. 

"If members of the Bloc, or the NDP, or the Liberal backbench don't believe that Parliament is an essential service, they should consider why they ran for office in the first place."

In April, the parties agreed to adjourn again until May 25, with the Bloc, NDP and Greens siding with the Liberals in foiling the Conservatives' attempt to force more in-person sittings.

However, Blanchet said this time the Bloc is prepared to support a return to five-day-a-week sittings, with a limited number of MPs physically in the chamber, if the Liberals don't agree to his party's demands.

Among other things, Blanchet said the government has reneged on a promise to introduce measures that would give incentives to recipients of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and student emergency aid to take available jobs. And it hasn't done enough to deliver on a promise to provide non-repayable financial assistance to help small businesses cover their fixed costs.

While the Bloc would prefer to carry on with the current thrice-weekly proceedings, Blanchet said it won't support that unless the government honours its commitments on both matters. 

"If you don't respect your own word, what's the point of going on with special powers for the government?" he said in an interview.

"This government is coming back to its old habits of not respecting its own promises."

In addition, Blanchet said the Commons is losing about 40 sitting days due to the pandemic. He wants that made up by having the modified Commons sit for at least four weeks during the summer, most likely in August.

He also wants the government to set a date in June for delivering an economic update.

And he wants more clarity on last week's announcement of an increase in old age security benefits and the guaranteed income supplement for seniors, including its duration and when the cheques will start to flow.

"Those are not very hard conditions to meet. A little good faith would fix it," Blanchet said.

Trudeau said he believes the current thrice-weekly proceedings are working well. He reiterated his objection to more in-person sittings, arguing that they preclude participation of MPs from far-flung parts of the country who may be unwilling or unable to travel to Ottawa. 

"We've put forward proposals that combine both virtual sittings and in-person sittings to continue the approach we have right now. We look to good conversations with other parties on figuring out that right balance as we move forward safely in upholding the importance of our democracy," he said.

NDP House leader Peter Julian said a return to normal parliamentary proceedings is not in the cards.

"The reality is, we can't have 338 MPs flying to Ottawa next Monday. That would not make sense," he said in an interview.

"What it does is it increases the chances that we're vectors of the virus and we're a long way from being out of the woods in terms of COVID-19."

The NDP believes it has won some major improvements to emergency aid legislation through the current proceedings and intends to keep pushing to close some of the gaps that have left some Canadians without aid, Julian said.

He wants to see the Commons transition over the next few weeks to becoming fully functional using a hybrid model, in which some MPs are in the chamber and others participate virtually. But that will first require working out how to allow MPs to vote electronically, something Julian suggested could be done by June 21.

In the meantime, he said the NDP is open to discussing additional weekly hybrid versions of the special COVID-19 committee.

The Commons' procedure and House affairs committee, which had been tasked with exploring how to make the move to a fully virtual Commons, recommended last week that the Commons do so for all regular House of Commons business, including voting.

In the interim, it suggested the possibility of employing a hybrid model.

Scheer said that's the way he'd like to see things go.

"The bottom line is that virtual committee meetings are not a replacement for Parliament," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2020.

Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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