OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer refused Thursday to express confidence in Canada’s chief public health officer, arguing the need to question her decisions around the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the reasons Parliament must resume.
The four main parties in the House of Commons are locked in negotiations to determine if and how Parliament resumes on Monday, the deadline set for it to reconvene following its adjournment in mid-March.
If the four don’t all notify the Speaker that it should remain adjourned, it’s back to business as usual for the country’s MPs and senators despite physical distancing protocols and bans on non-essential travel in place across the country.
Scheer insisted his party does not want to flout those requirements. Two previous emergency sittings of the House of Commons are proof that in-person “accountability sessions” are possible with a reduced quorum, he said.
They’re also essential, he said, so the minority Liberal government can be grilled regularly on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That extends to decisions recommended by Tam, the chief public health officer.
“We do have important questions as to why certain directives were issued by the public health agency, and ultimately ministers are responsible for that,” Scheer said in response to the second of multiple questions about his confidence in Tam, which he declined to answer directly.
“Ministers are accountable for the decisions they make based on whichever advice they take.”
Tam has become a target of some conservatives in recent days as U.S. President Donald Trump has ratcheted up his rhetoric against the World Health Organization, accusing it of colluding with China and covering up the true potential damage of the novel coronavirus.
Tam and senior Liberal cabinet ministers repeatedly referenced WHO guidelines and information in the early days of the pandemic, as the UN agency began to increasingly raise concerns about the possible spread of the novel coronavirus and its impact.
Decisions made earlier this year to not initially restrict travel into Canada were linked to advice from the WHO that those measures were ineffective, as was early guidance on how and when masks should be worn.
Those decisions have changed over time and Canadians need to understand why and to what extent the government relies on the WHO, Scheer said.
“This government needs to be held accountable for its dependence on the WHO at this time,” he said.
Scheer and his MPs had called for the government to close borders and restrict travel long before the Liberals acted. But their calls for greater scrutiny of the WHO have been amplified by Trump’s move.
The Conservatives’ long-standing concerns about China are also being given new energy after The Associated Press reported that six days passed between when Chinese officials knew about the real dangers of the virus and when the public was warned, time that likely launched the global public health emergency.
Two candidates for the party’s leadership — Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay — have used the issue to draw attention to their campaigns, and added their names to an open letter signed by politicians and experts from around the world condemning the Chinese government’s actions.
Conservatives say their more aggressive tone reflects Canadians’ growing frustrations with the Liberals’ response.
“The government’s mistakes have caused confusion and delays and therefore additional hardship,” Scheer said, arguing that opposition efforts to improve emergency aid bills demonstrates the value of having Parliament sit.
“There’s too much at stake here to basically allow the government to run, to operate, to make these decisions, without any kind of accountability or transparency.”
He accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of seeking to “shut down” Parliament, though at the same time he acknowledged that negotiations continue among all parties about how it should resume.
The Conservatives want four days a week of in-person sittings, potentially supplemented by eventual virtual meetings. A House of Commons committee is currently tasked with figuring out how virtual sittings could work, but won’t report back until mid-May.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about confidential, behind-the-scenes negotiations, said the Liberals are offering to have a small number of MPs sit in person once each week until the logistics for virtual sittings can be worked out.
The Liberal offer includes having two or three hours devoted at each sitting to what’s called committee of the whole — which would allow time for longer questions and more thorough answers than the 35-seconds normally allowed each speaker during the daily 45-minute question period.
According to the official, the Bloc Quebecois and Greens, who are opposed to any in-person sittings, appear willing to go along with the Liberal proposal while the NDP is pushing for two sittings each week.
Earlier Thursday, Trudeau said he believes in the role of Parliament, now more than ever.
“Our democracy is healthy and I know that our institutions must continue to function not in spite of the crisis but because of the crisis,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press