Singh blocks Liberal plan to link support for disabled to CERB penalties

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Late in April, the Trudeau government announced that it would provide support for Canadians living with disabilities to deal with the added challenges of COVID-19. The Liberals made that promise, at least in part, at the urging of the NDP.

More than two weeks later, in mid-May, the New Democrats were still waiting for the government to announce specific measures, and were growing impatient. 

The NDP's critic for disability inclusion, Winnipeg MP Daniel Blaikie, publicly called out the Liberals for failing to deliver on their promise.

"People living on provincial and federal disability payments were already struggling financially ​before the pandemic and these added costs are causing real hardship," Blaikie said. "The government may understand the problem, but they are failing to do anything about it."

The other shoe finally dropped last weekend. 

The government showed opposition parties the text of a bill that includes a one-time payment of up to $600 for Canadians who possess the certificate that entitles them to the federal disability tax credit. The bill also pledges investments of more than $16 million in employment-related services for disabled Canadians. 

Most of that $16 million would go to a new National Workplace Accessibility Stream, the purpose of which would be to respond to the extra challenges of COVID-19 and improve access to jobs for disabled people. 

Through this program the government seeks to help employers set up accessible and work-from-home arrangements. The accessibility stream would also connect people with disabilities who work from home to potential employers.

The proposed bill has other relatively non-contentious measures, such as an extension and enhancement of the government's wage subsidy program. 

The idea behind that subsidy is to maintain the connection between employer and employee during the pandemic shutdown. But too few employers have taken up the government's offer. The Liberals hope that by sweetening the program they will get greater buy-in.

Criminal sanctions are a no-go for Jagmeet Singh

There is, however, another provision in the proposed legislation that one opposition party, the NDP, considers to be totally out of the question. And offending the NDP, at this time, is particularly awkward for the Liberals. New Democrats have been the Trudeau team's main dance partner in the minority Parliament, especially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Liberals have been able to count on NDP support not only for their many spending measures to deal with the current crisis, but also for their plans for a different kind of pandemic Parliament. 

The House of Commons currently meets four days a week, in hybrid form, with a small number of MPs present, in person, and the vast majority online.

These meetings are not normal House sessions. They are constituted as what is called a committee of the whole. Their purpose, like that of all parliamentary committee meetings, is to discuss issues of national importance and examine proposed new laws. Since they are committee meetings, and not formal House sessions, they cannot hold votes on bills or resolutions, or entertain motions. There is, however, a daily question period, twice as long as the usual one.

The Conservatives want a return to a fully operational Parliament. The Bloc Québécois is on the fence, but not too enthusiastic about the special COVID-19 parliamentary arrangement. 

Only the New Democrats have been willing to go along with the Liberals' pandemic plan, and their votes, alone, have been enough to put the government over the top. 

As the price for their support, the New Democrats have succeeded in gaining concessions from the Liberals, such as a significant increase in the wage subsidy (from 10 per cent to 75 per cent, up to $847 per week) and support for tenants and seniors. 

It seems the Liberals pushed the New Democrats too far this time. 

The bill that would provide help to the disabled also contains measures to tighten and limit access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and penalties for those who have illegitimately claimed it. Notably the bill would impose criminal sanctions -- fines and possible jail time -- on people found guilty of fraudulently claiming the CERB.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh worries these punitive measures could have unintended consequences. The measures are notionally intended to catch true, criminal fraudsters; but, Singh says, they could easily sweep up people who simply applied for the CERB in error. 

Singh points to a hard reality we are all dealing with now: the fact that a good many police officers treat people of colour and Indigenous people more aggressively and harshly than they do white people. The same could easily happen with enforcement of criminal sanctions related to the CERB, he says.

If the government needs to collect moneys improperly claimed, it can use the tax system, Singh argues. He adds that for those who have committed genuine fraud there are existing provisions in the criminal law, and the authorities could easily use those. 

Plan to split the bill did not work

The NDP was also disappointed that the government did not use this occasion to announce a plan to extend the CERB beyond the current July 4 cut-off. Singh wants the Liberals to add another four months, which would bring the CERB to the end of October. 

But that latter concern would not be the sticking point for New Democrats that the proposed criminal sanctions are. 

The Liberals sought to save the day by offering to hive off the disability provisions and present them as a separate bill. The NDP accepted that, although Singh thinks the Liberals could improve the measure by making the $600 payment available to disabled people who do not file taxes. The NDP leader points out that the proposed cash benefit would only go to about 40 per cent of severely disabled Canadians.

The Bloc -- which has other demands, such as a First Ministers' conference, and a fiscal update (in lieu of a federal budget) by July -- would also agree to support the disability provisions on their own. 

The Conservatives, however, are adamant. For them, it is a return to full House sittings or no deal -- on anything. 

To quickly push the disability provisions through Parliament, the government would have to drastically foreshorten the normal legislative process, which could last many weeks as a bill goes through all the stages, including committee hearings and full debate in the House and Senate. 

The government obtained unanimous consent of all MPs to do just that for such measures as the CERB and the wage subsidy, and would need the same for the disability measures. 

The Conservatives gave their consent to fast track government legislation a number of times, earlier in the pandemic crisis. Lately, however, they seem to have lost their taste for acting co-operatively and collaboratively. They are back in a more partisan mode.

Now, the ball is in the Trudeau Liberals' court. We'll see how they play it over the coming weeks. 

Editor's note, June 11, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Parliament currently only meets once a week in person, with a minimum number of MPs present, and meets online for the rest of the time. In fact, the House of Commons currently meets four days a week, in hybrid form, with a small number of MPs present, in person, and the vast majority online. The story has been corrected.

The story has also been updated to clarify that there is a daily question period, twice as long as the usual one.

The story has also been updated to note that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pointed out that the proposed $600 cash benefit for disabled Canadians who do not file taxes would only go to about 40 per cent of severely disabled Canadians.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: jagmeetsingh/Instagram/Screenshot

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