No confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

OTTAWA — The Liberals will not turn a Conservative motion into a test of confidence in their minority government — despite arguing the motion is so broad and its demand for documents so massive that it could get in the way of running the country.

However, they are warning there is no way they can produce all the documents demanded by the deadline stipulated in the motion, which calls for a sweeping probe by the House of Commons health committee into a host of issues relating to the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, told the Commons the government will do everything it can to respond if the motion passes.

"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," he said Thursday at the start of the debate.

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP.

A spokesman for government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said later Thursday that the government will not consider the vote to be a confidence matter.

The government did declare another Conservative motion earlier this week to be a confidence matter, in part because Liberals argued it would paralyze the government.

The government survived a confidence vote Wednesday on that motion, which would have created a special committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption. NDP, Green and Independent MPs grudgingly joining with the Liberals to defeat the motion.

But all opposition parties blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for turning the issue into a confidence matter that threatened to plunge the country into an election.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole insisted Thursday that the point of the health committee motion is to get the answers that will improve upon Canada's response to the pandemic, not force an election.

Still, during question period in the Commons, O'Toole made it clear the motion is intended to bolster the Conservative contention that the government has mishandled the pandemic by, among other things, its failure to quickly approve rapid tests, closure of the early pandemic warning system and funnelling contracts to Liberal friends.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland objected to his "insinuation."

"The suggestion that our government, in those dark days in the spring, when we came together as a country to fight this novel global pandemic, was focused on anything other than protecting the health and safety of Canadians working closely with the provinces, territories and municipalities is simply untrue," she said.

"I am inclined to believe the deputy prime minister," O'Toole shot back. "But when the Liberals do things like continuously cover up, prorogue Parliament, when her colleague, (former finance minister) Mr. Morneau, resigned, when they delay committees, and when they threaten elections, pardon me if I do not believe her sincerity."

The new motion was introduced by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner at the health committee several weeks ago. But it was stalled by Liberal members who objected to the massive scope of the motion and the effort it would take to amass all the documents demanded.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu took up that argument Thursday, contending the motion is overly broad and would bog down public servants when they should be focused on helping Canadians through the second wave of COVID-19.

The move is "intentionally meant to overwhelm the department," Hajdu told the House of Commons.

"You don't do the post-battle review in the middle of the fight," she added.

Rempel Garner repeatedly pressed Hajdu to explain how long the government needs to produce all the documents but got no direct answer. Hajdu said that's something that should be negotiated among committee members, a response Rempel Garner said was typical of Hajdu and the government's "overall response to COVID, which has been slow, incompetent and costly to Canadian lives."

Hajdu took "umbrage" with Rempel Garner's characterization of political staff and public servants, "who have been working day and night around the clock, as slow and incompetent."

"I think we all can rise above that kind of language, and appreciate just how hard everyone in government and opposition are working to make sure that Canadians have a response that protects them."

Among other things, the 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.

And it would order the government to turn over all memorandums, emails, notes and other records from the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office, various ministers' offices and departments, and the Public Health Agency of Canada on a raft of issues, including the government's preparations for the pandemic and the purchase of personal protective equipment and testing products.

The demand for documents concerning the purchase of PPE is particularly sensitive for the government. It has used a national security exemption to keep some procurement contracts secret, arguing the intense global competition for PPE makes it prudent to protect the names of suppliers.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand told CBC's Power and Politics later Thursday she is "very concerned" that releasing details of the contracts "will undermine our supplier relationships" just as global demand for PPE is once again peaking.

Anand said she's not reassured by a provision in the motion, which stipulates that any redactions to the demanded documents be made only by the parliamentary law clerk and only for national security or personal privacy reasons.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated Liberal MP Darren Fisher said something in the House of Commons on Thursday, Oct. 22, when he said it at health committee earlier this month.

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