Liberals rebuff Conservative push for documents on federal COVID-19 response

The Liberal government is pushing back against a Conservative demand for a wide-ranging investigation into the federal COVID-19 response — arguing that the opposition’s motion is so overly broad that it would hamstring the government as it responds to the pandemic’s second wave.

MPs are debating a motion from the Official Opposition that calls for a probe by the House of Commons health committee of a host of issues relating to the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said the investigation is necessary so that Parliamentarians can learn from the mistakes of the first wave, do a better job of dealing with the ongoing second wave and prepare for future outbreaks.

“The Liberals’ response to COVID-19 needs to be reviewed,” O’Toole told reporters this morning.

“We want to offer the government a chance to work with all parties, improve its approach and act with transparency.”

O’Toole said the Liberal government was slow to respond to early warnings about the risks of the novel coronavirus, was reluctant to close borders to travellers, relied too much on advice from the World Health Organization and took too long to roll out critical federal aid programs.

He also denounced the federal government’s decision to send a shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) to China in February, its lack of progress in approving rapid testing kits and the changes made to a critical public health intelligence tool.

Thursday’s motion would direct the health committee to scrutinize many of these issues. If passed, it also would direct the government to hand over a trove of documents, emails and other records from a range of departments, including the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Prime Minister’s Office.

It would order the government to release all records related to the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force and its subcommittees and its plans for distributing an eventual vaccine, and empower the committee to call several cabinet ministers as witnesses.

“The motion before the House today is probably the most important thing that Parliament could be dealing with right now, and that is how we as a country move forward to address the COVID-19 crisis,” Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner told the House of Commons during debate on the motion.

Motion would paralyze government: Liberals

The Liberals argue the demand for documents contained in the Conservative motion is so sweeping that the work it would take to produce them would distract civil servants from their work on the COVID-19 response.

“Our initial analysis of this motion indicates that the very officials that are working day and night on Canada’s response will be removed from their immediate tasks,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu in the Commons. 

“Instead of working together to protect Canadians during this difficult time, the member would prefer to divert their focus to an unnecessary task that does not in any way help Canadians manage the months to come.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government could face another showdown in Parliament over the disclosure of documents related to the federal COVID-19 response. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Thursday’s motion comes one day after the Liberal government survived a confidence vote on a separate Conservative motion that sought to set up a special committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption.

The government survived the subsequent confidence vote on that motion with the help of NDP, Green and Independent MPs who grudgingly joined the Liberals on Wednesday in defeating the motion. But all of the opposition parties blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for turning the issue into a confidence matter that threatened to plunge the country into an election.

“Mr. Trudeau is willing to put his own political fortunes [and] a continued coverup ahead of the health of Canadians,” said O’Toole.

Vote expected Monday

The Conservative motion will not be put to a vote until Monday. It’s not clear whether the government will opt to make this motion a confidence vote as well.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet signalled his party would vote for the motion regardless of whether it’s a confidence motion, but stressed the party hasn’t made a final decision.

“The fact that it is or not a vote of confidence will not be an issue being considered by us. We will vote for what’s on the paper or against what’s on the paper,” said Blanchet.

NDP health critic Don Davies said Wednesday his party supports the motion.

“COVID is the number one public health issue in the country, and we agree it needs to be the health committee’s priority focus,” Davies said in an emailed statement to CBC. 

“This motion allows us to delve into all the important areas without limitation. It provides fair witness allocation. And it has targeted production of documents in some key areas — PPE, vaccine development and distribution, Canada’s early warning system.” 

Demand for sensitive documents

The demand for documents concerning the purchase of PPE could be particularly sensitive for the government. It has used a national security exemption to keep some procurement contracts secret, arguing that the intense global competition for PPE makes it prudent to protect the names of suppliers of items that are particularly hard to come by, such as N95 respirators, gloves and swabs.

A national security exemption also allows the government to purchase supplies more quickly.

The Conservative motion makes some allowance for national security concerns, stipulating that any redactions to the demanded documents be made only by the parliamentary law clerk and only for national security or personal privacy reasons.

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