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Liberals will not view second Conservative committee motion as confidence vote

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The prospect of a second confidence vote on the government within the span of a week is now averted.

That comes after the Liberals survived a confidence vote on Wednesday over a Conservative motion to create a special committee probing pandemic spending. They had left questions largely up in the air throughout Thursday as to whether they would treat a second motion the same way.

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“We won’t be regarding it as a confidence vote on Monday,” said Mark Kennedy, spokesperson for Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez.

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Read more: Liberals survive confidence vote, avert imminent election with NDP help

Kevin Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez, had appeared to hint earlier in the day that the government would comply with parts of the motion if it passes.

“If the motion passes, the government will do everything it can to respond,” Lamoureux said during debate on the motion on Thursday.

“However, I would like to point out that the 15-day timeline outlined in the motion will be physically impossible for the government to meet, and I wanted to make the House aware of this fact at this time.“

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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had said earlier in the day the motion, which proposes a health committee review on rapid testing and the public health response to the crisis, should not be considered a confidence motion.

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“Mr. Trudeau is being cavalier with the health of Canadians,” O’Toole said of the decision by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday to turn the vote on a previous Conservative motion to create a special committee on pandemic spending into a confidence vote.

“This is not a confidence motion. If Mr. Trudeau does that again, we’ll know he continues to put politics ahead of the health of Canadians.”

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The Conservatives had put forward their first motion on Tuesday proposing to create a special committee focused on “anti-corruption” to probe government pandemic spending.

While the party agreed to change the name of the motion on Wednesday, the government said at the time it still considered the wording of the motion to imply a lack of confidence, and declared it would make the vote into a test of confidence in the government.

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Although confidence votes are normally things like throne speeches and budgets, the government also has the prerogative to make any vote a test of confidence, which is what happened in that case.

The Liberals ultimately survived that confidence vote with the support of the NDP and the Green Party.

However, the broad scope of the motion put forward by Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner raised questions about whether the government would take the same approach and force a second confidence vote within one week.

The NDP, Greens and Independent MPs that propped up the government in the Wednesday confidence vote had noted that they did so begrudgingly, with Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould calling the government’s willingness to risk sending Canadians back to the polls amid the pandemic “shameful.”

With opposition resentment over the handling of that motion still fresh, the government now has to decide whether to play the same card again on the second Conservative motion.

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Thursday’s motion was actually introduced by Rempel Garner at the health committee several weeks ago, where it appeared to have the support of Bloc Quebecois and NDP members. But Liberal members argued strenuously at that time that they needed more time to digest such a massive motion.

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Using an argument that’s likely to be repeated by government members Thursday, Liberal MP Darren Fisher told the committee that “the motion asks public health officials basically to stop what they’re doing to protect Canadians and sift through emails and documents instead.”

The motion will be debated on Thursday but won’t be put to a vote until Monday.

Read more: Taking down the government, how a confidence vote works in Canada

Rempel Garner said Canadians deserve more clear answers about whether the government has acted quickly enough in implementing recommendations for things like wearing masks, and why it has taken so long to secure orders for rapid testing for the coronavirus.

“The motion in front of Parliament today is non-partisan in language and ask questions at the heart of the biggest public policy challenge Canada is facing right now,” she said, adding the questions it poses are ones that are important in order to reassure Canadians the government is taking fulsome action.

She spoke in the House of Commons on Thursday morning to explain the intent of the motion.

“We are in the middle of a time when we’re seeing increases in cases across the country,” Rempel Garner said in her opening speech.

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“We need to figure out how to move forward given the uncertainty of a vaccine, we don’t know when it’s coming. We need a better plan forward… that is what this motion is designed to do.”

She also repeatedly pressed the government to make a counteroffer on the 15-day time period laid out in her motion for the production of documents, asking for a clear date when the government thinks bureaucrats would be able to provide the information.

She says there has been no response.

Among other things, Thursday’s motion would direct the health committee to scrutinize the government’s slow progress in approving rapid COVID-19 testing, the impact of the government’s reliance on World Health Organization recommendations that delayed travel restrictions and wearing of face masks, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s communications strategy, the partial shutdown of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network early warning system and the adequacy of federal health transfer payments to the provinces.

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And it would order the government to turn over all memorandums, emails, documents, notes or other records from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, various ministers’ offices and departments, and the Public Health Agency of Canada related to:

  • Plans and preparations for the pandemic;
  • communications with the World Health Organization concerning preparations for the pandemic;
  • purchasing of personal protective equipment; and
  • purchasing of testing products including tests, reagents, swabs, laboratory equipment and other material related to tests used in the diagnosis of COVID-19.

It would also order the government to release all records related to the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force and its subcommittees and its plans for distributing an eventual vaccine.

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The demand for documents concerning the purchase of personal protective equipment could be particularly sensitive for the government. It has used a national security exemption to keep some procurement contracts secret, arguing that the intense global competition for PPE makes it prudent to protect the names of suppliers of items that are particularly hard to come by, such as N95 respirators, gloves and swabs.

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A national security exemption also allows the government to purchase supplies more quickly.

The Conservative motion makes some allowance for national security concerns, stipulating that any redactions to the demanded documents be made only by the parliamentary law clerk and only for national security or personal privacy reasons.

With files from The Canadian Press.