Democracy is healthy, Trudeau says as debate over Parliament’s return continues

Democracy is healthy, Trudeau says as debate over Parliament’s return continues

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back Thursday against allegations levied by the opposition that he is afraid of resuming debate in Parliament.

Trudeau said Thursday 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.

“So we are in talks with the opposition parties to find a way to continue the important work that is being done by our democratic institutions.”

That Trudeau is afraid of a return to Parliament has been one of the political shots taken at the minority Liberals by the Conservatives in recent days, as the opposition appears to be escalating the rhetoric and demands around the federal response to COVID-19.

Conservative MP Dan Albas said things have changed in the last week as the party has been hearing increasingly from Canadians frustrated by that response, the ever-changing benefit programs and the challenges many people have had in accessing them.

It is those frustrations that are driving the demand for a return to regular opportunity for the opposition to grill the government, Albas said.

“This is a minority government, it needs to work with other parties and … we as Conservatives want to continue to get the best results,” he said.

“And part of that is to have regular meetings, in person.”

All parties are now in the midst of negotiating whether that is possible.

On Monday, the clock runs out on an agreement struck in mid-March to pause Parliament as part of nationwide efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The motion to adjourn included the requirement for all four parties to agree Parliament must remain adjourned, or else it would come back on April 20. That would affect not just the 338 members of the House of Commons, but the hundreds of support staff required for them to do their jobs.

Trudeau suggested a deal was imminent, and Albas said Thursday his party wasn’t deliberately trying to force the government’s hand to strike one.

“I don’t believe anyone wants to hold hostage anything,” he said.

“I think what Conservatives have been saying is that we can get better results by coming together, following the directives of public health officers at the same time ensuring that Canadians get the support that they need in this time of crisis.”

MPs are working on a study that would look at how a virtual Parliament could function but the Conservatives have argued some in-person debate is still required.

Two emergency sittings of Parliament, both required to pass aid legislation, showed that it can be done while practising physical distancing, Albas said.

On Thursday, Green party MP Elizabeth May told a House of Commons committee that wasn’t uniformly the case.

May said it was impossible to pass through the antechamber where opposition MPs gather during debate in the Commons and maintain physical distancing.

She chose simply not to enter it.

“We should be paying attention to public health officials and not having a physical session for the sake of having it,” she told the procedure and House affairs committee, which has been entrusted with studying how Parliament could go virtual for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee is to report its findings by mid-May.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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