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Liberal bill on coronavirus would give feds power to spend, tax without parliamentary approval

Feds tabling legislation for economic aid without parliament approval
WATCH: Parliament will be holding an emergency session on Tuesday to pass urgent legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. David Akin and Mercedes Stephenson explain how the Liberal government will table a bill aimed at giving it new, special powers.

UPDATE: Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez tweeted Monday night the bill would be amended. Read the update here.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal Liberals are poised to table a bill granting them sweeping new powers to spend money and raise taxes without having to get the approval of Parliament.

Global News has seen a copy of the legislation set to be tabled Tuesday when a small number of MPs from all parties return to Ottawa to pass a multibillion-dollar coronavirus support package.

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The legislation grants Finance Minister Bill Morneau extraordinary new powers to spend, borrow and tax without having to get the approval of opposition MPs until December 2021.

READ MORE: ‘Enough is enough,’ Trudeau warns Canadians flouting coronavirus social distancing

The Canadian Constitution enshrines taxation as a power of the parliamentary branch.

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Because of that, granting those powers to the federal cabinet alone is highly unusual – even the Emergencies Act does not do so.

Effectively, the proposals would allow the government to spend money and change tax rules related to its coronavirus response without having to get the approval of the House of Commons each time they want to do so.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Rodríguez says all parties united in decision to suspend parliament

It also means many of the measures carried out under those new powers could take place without parliamentary debate and without the elected representatives of Canadians getting a chance to vote for or against the measures.

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In a minority Parliament where each money bill that comes before the House of Commons is a confidence vote — meaning the government could fall if it fails — it also raises the prospect that the government will avoid votes of confidence on proposed new spending and taxation.

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All opposition parties were surprised at the content of the bill and all singled out the extensive section which gives Morneau new powers.

A senior government source told Global News this is draft legislation, subject to the input of opposition parties.

An opposition source said that they have been working closely with the government and did not see this bill coming. They felt it has caused damage to cross-party goodwill, they said.

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It is unclear though if one or any party will vote against the package or will lead an attempt to amend the legislation. The opposition will have the votes to amend but only if all of them unite to overwhelm the government side.

A spokesperson for Morneau would not comment on why those provisions were in the copy of the legislation seen by Global News because the bill hasn’t yet been tabled, adding that all of the federal parties will want to make sure Canadians have the resources they need.

READ MORE: Trudeau says House of Commons to reconvene Tuesday to pass COVID-19 legislation

In an effort to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spread, federal political parties agreed to suspend Parliament on March 13 for five weeks but there’s no guarantee it will actually return to regular sittings at that time.

In the current minority Parliament, the government will need the support of at least one opposition party in order to pass the bill, which also includes promised measures like extending eligibility for Employment Insurance and providing wage subsidies and loans to businesses.

The legislation includes 20 sections, one of which will create a new Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act that would allow any cabinet minister with the approval of the finance minister to dispense “all money required to do anything” in the event of a public health emergency.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in a statement Monday night that his party will “not give the government unlimited power to raise taxes without a parliamentary vote.”

“We will authorize whatever spending measures are justified to respond to the situation, but we will not sign a blank cheque,” he said.

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The bill will also let the federal government ignore patent restrictions when the patent applies to a device deemed necessary to respond to a public health emergency.

That would be defined as the spread of an infectious disease posing a public health risk to Canadians and requiring a coordinated response.

The House of Commons is set to resume at noon on Tuesday.