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Trudeau says sweeping coronavirus bill powers needed given ‘exceptional situation’

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau addresses sweeping new powers proposed in COVID-19 bill
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says proposed sweeping new powers to let the government spend money without parliamentary approval are needed because the coronavirus pandemic presents an “exceptional situation.”

Update as of Tuesday evening 9:45 p.m. ET: The House of Commons remains suspended as negotiations continue over the legislation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says proposed sweeping new powers to let the government spend money without parliamentary approval are needed because the coronavirus pandemic presents an “exceptional situation.”

Parliament suspends emergency session, delaying COVID-19 aid
Parliament suspends emergency session, delaying COVID-19 aid

Speaking with reporters in his daily briefing outside Rideau Cottage, where he is in self-isolation, Trudeau was questioned on proposals that Global News first reported were contained in a draft version of the coronavirus support bill set to be tabled on Tuesday in the House of Commons.

Coronavirus outbreak: Scheer calls on federal government to separate relief bill from other measures
Coronavirus outbreak: Scheer calls on federal government to separate relief bill from other measures

Those include broad new powers to authorize the federal cabinet to spend money until December 2021, and in some cases without any time limits at all, without having to put their proposals to a vote in the House of Commons.

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“We recognize that this pandemic is moving extremely quickly and it is an exception situation that requires extreme flexibility and rapidity,” Trudeau said when asked why he proposed giving the government those new powers.

He insisted the bill will respect democratic values.

Parliament adjourned on March 13 until at least April 20 as part of a countrywide effort to curb the spread of the virus.

It was recalled Tuesday to deal with the emergency aid package, with only about one in every 10 MPs present in the Commons, seated at least two metres apart.

READ MORE: Liberals say changes coming to emergency coronavirus funding bill after criticism

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said the Conservatives plan to support the $82-billion aid package proposed by the Liberal government to deal with the pandemic and the ensuing economic damage.

But he suggests Tories are not prepared to give the federal cabinet extraordinary power over taxes and spending, which was contained in draft legislation revealed on Monday night.

The contents of that draft quickly sparked criticism from Conservatives and questions from parliamentary experts about whether the proposals to allow spending without parliamentary approval go too far.

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Trudeau announces $5B lending capacity increase through Farm Credit Canada

On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that one part of the proposed legislation would be removed.

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That section would have granted extraordinary power to the finance minister to change tax rules without having to get parliamentary approval. However, Trudeau did not indicate whether other measures that would grant further extraordinary spending powers to the federal cabinet will also be removed.

The draft version of the legislation seen by Global News 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.

The proposals are highly unusual because the power to tax and spend are powers belonging to the Parliament of Canada. By removing the need for parliamentary approval, the proposed measures would eliminate the ability of MPs in a minority government to vote for or against them.

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Coronavirus around the world: March 24, 2020
Coronavirus around the world: March 24, 2020

It would also have the effect of significant reducing the number of confidence votes the government faces, because all bills dealing with money are votes the government must win or else risk falling.

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Scheer says the Conservatives are prepared to come back to Ottawa on short notice should the government require more money or other measures to help Canadians.

But he says Canadians are looking for help and not a “power grab” or partisan politics.

READ MORE: CBSA ‘looking into circumstances’ of traveller who died of COVID-19 hours after landing in Toronto

“We have been negotiating with the government in good faith and have been clear that we would act quickly to pass the measures that the prime minister has announced publicly,” Scheer said in a statement issued after Trudeau spoke on Tuesday.

“However, there are several aspects of the government’s legislation that are undemocratic – removing one does not solve the problem.”

He continued, saying that the focus of the legislation should be “getting help to Canadians, not granting the government unprecedented powers.”

“There is a simple solution: if the government tables a bill focused on the relief the prime minister has announced to date Conservatives are ready to pass it quickly.”

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The House of Commons had been slated to resume at noon on Tuesday.

Immediately after the sitting opened though, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez stood to ask that is be suspended again until later in the day.

He said negotiations with the other parties continue.

Those negotiations continued into Tuesday evening as the House remained suspended.

In an evening interview with Global News, Scheer said talks continue as the parties try to find “a way to move forward.”

“We continue to believe that if the government just separates the financial measures, we can pass that immediately,” he said.

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The Conservatives are not prepared to “give the government unlimited power without the proper parliamentary oversight.”

“I am optimistic that we’re going to find a solution,” Scheer said.

— With files by The Canadian Press, Global News reporter Maryam Shah