Trudeau government forced to provide documents on pandemic to health committee

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Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner. Image: Video screenshot

While the second wave of COVID-19 surges, Parliament has passed a motion instructing its health committee to look into the government's handling of the first wave.

It was Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner's motion, but all four opposition parties, and all independent MPs, including former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, supported it.

Just last week the Conservatives used one of their opposition days to present a motion proposing a special committee to investigate the WE charity affair and other related matters, but it didn't fly. 

Prime Minister Trudeau warned, at the time, that his government would consider such a motion a vote of non-confidence. He would call an election if it passed. The New Democrats sided with the Liberals on that one, and spared us all the experience of a coast-to-coast pandemic campaign. 

The government did not deem Rempel Garner's motion to be a matter of confidence. Although the Liberals fought mightily against it, the motion passed easily on Monday afternoon.

Liberals say sharing sensitive documents could jeopardize vaccine production

Now, the Commons health committee -- on which, because this is a minority Parliament, there are more opposition MPs than Liberals -- has a big job. 

The list of the issues it must consider is long. It stretches to 15 items, including: the way testing has been implemented, the development of a vaccine, protocols for long-term care, the adequacy of health transfers to the provinces, the advice the World Health Organization gave the government in early 2020, and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Trudeau government is hardly keen on having members of Parliament sift through the inner workings of its handling of a virus about which we knew precious little at the outset. Inevitably, a lot of the government's choices will look, today, to have been dubious and even, at times, unwise. We now have the power of hindsight.

But that is not what most rankles the Liberals. What really concerns them is the even longer list of documents and detailed information the government must now supply to the health committee. 

That list includes all of the government's memos, emails, notes and other documents related to the management of pandemic. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO), which co-ordinates the work of all government departments in conjunction with the PMO, will have to provide the material, as will the departments of Health, Procurement, and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Among the documents the government must now share are its exchanges with corporations that provide PPE, or are working on a vaccine or are dealing, in other ways, with the pandemic. That really bugs the private sector. There could be corporate secrets or proprietary information at stake, they say. 

On the eve of the vote on Rempel Garner's motion, Procurement Minister Anita Anand held a news conference to warn of its dangers.

"If this motion passes," she said, "the ability of the government to procure and purchase PPE, vaccines and rapid test kits will be jeopardized, period, both on a domestic and international level. The motion threatens our negotiations and contracts, as well as our government's top priority, which is to protect Canadians from COVID-19."

Anand related the grave concerns of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, which is a potential vaccine supplier, and, on a broader level, those of the Canadian Association of Manufacturers.  

Government MPs want to go back to 'old ways of not dealing with Parliament'

Opposition MPs were not impressed with those arguments -- even though Conservatives are usually highly sensitive to the concerns of the corporate sector. Nor were opposition MPs impressed with the Liberals' other main argument: that supplying all the documents required would be a burden on the public service at a time when its attention should be on dealing with the pandemic's second wave.

As Michelle Rempel Garner put it:

"The purpose of a parliamentary committee is to look at these issues and come up with recommendations on the best path forward. We need this information. It is a no-brainer. And this is something that should pull Parliament together. It will be unacceptable to Canadians for the government to give weak sauce excuses that a committee, the health committee, cannot study the pandemic during the pandemic."

NDP MP Charlie Angus harkened back to last spring, at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, when Parliament decided to reconstitute itself in a new way, and put aside all traces of partisanship to act collaboratively:

"When the pandemic hit, all of us were deeply uncertain," Angus told the House. "We had no idea what we were going into. There was a moment where I thought Parliament really rose to the occasion, when it moved to committee of the whole and members were able to ask thorough questions of ministers to get a better sense [and] in order to reassure people … The second wave now is much worse than the first … [but] I am sensing from government members that they have just gone back to the old ways of saying they do not want to deal with Parliament …"

As for the quite real concern on the part of the government that this massive exercise in disclosure will jeopardize relationships with key industrial and medical actors, there is a safety valve in the way parliamentary committees work. 

The health committee has a large margin of manoeuvre in the way it discharges its mandate. It could hold in-camera sessions, for instance, to consider sensitive information. 

As well, as Anand herself explained at her press conference, there is a built-in filter through which all documents will have to pass before they get to the committee -- in the form of the law clerk of the House of Commons. That senior official will review all material and recommend to the committee how to treat it. 

The Liberals would prefer that officials of the PCO do the reviewing and filtering. However, those officials report to cabinet and the prime minister, not Parliament. Law clerks are officers of the House. They serve all MPs, not just government members.

In the end, the committee process should have enough built-in safeguards to protect the interests of industry and the scientific community. 

In a democracy, elected members of Parliament are supposed to be more than mere rubber stamps for the government. It should be possible for MPs to do their job while the crucial work to fight the pandemic continues unimpeded.

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

Image: Video screenshot​

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