Prime Minister Trudeau has been pressed by reporters about the COVID-19 “nuclear option” – invoking the federal Emergencies Act.
PM: “At this time we do not see the federal emergencies act as an essential tool today, but we are continuing to look at the situation and will make decisions based on the best recommendations of science.” (Saturday, March 21)
Provinces and territories are closing their borders to inter-provincial travel and shutting down all but essential industries. A COVID-19 positive woman was arrested in Quebec City for taking a walk while quarantined. As the financial and emotional costs of self-isolation mount, is there still no emergency? And what comes next?
Apparently, what comes next arrived yesterday (March 25) : Bill C-13, enacted by Parliament in the early hours of the morning. It grants emergency spending powers without a declaration of emergency. Why does it matter?
Parliamentary control over government spending is an important protection for your wallet. Spending without control results in overspending, often on the wrong things. Overspending today results in having less money to spend when we need it tomorrow, and higher taxes to recover the overspending.
There seems to be little awareness that Parliament can give the government some key emergency powers without invoking the Emergencies Act or declaring an emergency.
The Emergencies Act is not an all or nothing law. It provides Ottawa with a menu of emergency powers to choose from, but they don’t all have to be used; only those necessary to the particular emergency can be used. However, the Emergencies Act has two political disadvantages for the government. First, having to work with an all-party Parliamentary Committee; second, a mandatory inquiry after the emergency. These inconveniences can result in public criticism of the government, as seen in the Justice Committee hearings on the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
Some of the the clever people in Ottawa found a way to get a key political benefit of the Emergencies Act – the blank cheque on spending – without the political burdens. This is called Bill C-13, passed by Parliament yesterday (March 25).
The government’s clever strategy was to ask for legislated authority to tax and spend without parliamentary approval, for an amazing 18 months. When confronted with the foreseeable objections, the government backed down, to get what it really wanted. The government’s said it was asking for this power to have the necessary flexibility to protect the public. If encountering too much resistance, the government could accuse the opposition of dangerous indifference to the pandemic’s risks and costs. “Just pass the damn Bill”, someone wrote on Twitter.
After the foreseeable objections from opposition leaders Scheer and Singh, there was a night of protracted multi-party negotiation and a foreseeable backing down by the government. By the early morning of Wednesday, March 25, the government got what it really wanted in C-13 : a blank cheque on spending for six months, potentially renewable if necessary.
Clever. Got the key Emergencies Act benefit without the political burdens. And can do it again in October if still necessary. All with no mud on their shoes.
Here is the relevant text of C-13:
[If] the Minister of Health determines that
there is a public health event of national concern, then
there may be paid out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund,
on the requisition of a federal minister and with the concurrence
of the Minister of Finance and the Minister of
Health, all money required to do anything in relation to
that public health event of national concern.
The words “all money required to do anything” means all money that two ministers consider required to do anything, without having to go to Parliament for approval. To the best of my knowledge this delegation of control over spending public money is unprecedented in Canada in peacetime.
The Emergencies Act replaced the War Measures Act. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared the War Measures Act in the October Crisis of 1970. He was subsequently criticized as having overreacted in the book Rumours of War . When COVID – 19 is over historians and economists will analyze the government’s response to it. Will Justin Trudeau be praised or criticized for C – 13 and the measures taken under it? We will have to wait and see whether history repeats itself.