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Third Reading - Bill C-9, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy)

Honourable senators, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to Bill C-9. I would like to start by thanking Senator Duncan, Senator Smith and Senator Klyne for their comments on the bill, and also Senator Mockler for his comments on the committee report.

My comments will be brief. Bill C-9 amends two COVID-19 programs: the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy program. The wage subsidy program was initially established for a 12-week period starting March 15, providing a subsidy of 75% of eligible remuneration up to a maximum of $847 per week, per employee. The program has been extended and amended, most notably in July by Bill C-20. This bill, Bill C-9, further extends and amends the wage subsidy program.

Both Senator Duncan and Senator Smith spoke extensively on the bill, so I will not repeat the details of those two programs. Their comments speak for themselves, and the report of the Senate Finance Committee — tabled in the chamber on Tuesday — provides details on the bill and the testimony of witnesses.

Specifically, Bill C-9 provides for the extension of the wage subsidy program to June 2021 and also defines the formula by which the subsidy will be calculated. The previous bill, Bill C-20, which we approved in July, extended the wage subsidy program and prescribed the formula to be used over a number of months up to December 21.

While Bill C-20 was prescriptive, the bill provides the formula for calculating the subsidy for the periods up to December 19 only, which is only four weeks away. The formula for the periods from December 20 to June 2021 will be prescribed by regulation. In other words, unlike Bill C-20, parliamentarians will not have an opportunity to debate the details of the wage subsidy program, which will apply from December 20 onward.

Witnesses appearing before our Finance Committee last week were concerned that the government has not provided any details on the wage subsidy program which will take effect after December 19. They indicated that uncertainty is one of the biggest problems they face right now, and the absence of details about the wage subsidy program after December 20 is adding to that uncertainty.

In addition, the original wage subsidy program provided a maximum subsidy of 75% if there was a 30% reduction in revenues. However, the new wage subsidy program will now max out at 65% if there is a 70% reduction in revenues. In other words, witnesses were of the opinion that the maximum benefit of the original program was more generous than the program now being outlined in Bill C-9.

Witnesses appearing before our Finance Committee also outlined a number of other concerns and, as I previously mentioned, these were identified by Senator Smith when he spoke yesterday. The report of the Senate Finance Committee also highlights the concerns brought forward by witnesses.

The other program established by Bill C-9 is the rental subsidy program. This program replaces the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, or CECRA, as we called it. CECRA was administered by CMHC. Landlords had to apply for the old CECRA program, and many businesses complained about the program saying it was too complicated, too reliant on landlords to administer and the all-or-nothing threshold of a 70% revenue reduction left many hard-hit businesses without assistance.

Bill C-9 proposes a rental subsidy program for the periods between September 27 and December 19. Again, while the bill provides for the program up to June 30, 2021, no details on the formula for calculating the subsidy after December 19 are provided. The bill provides for these details to be prescribed by regulation, similar to the wage subsidy program.

The new program, now called the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, will be administered by the Canada Revenue Agency rather than CMHC. I see this change as positive with regard to obtaining current information about the program. Unlike the Canada Revenue Agency, which provides current financial and program information on the wage subsidy program on an ongoing basis, CMHC provided very little information on CECRA. There’s a brief reference in their quarterly financial statements, but no current, ongoing information was provided. The Canada Revenue Agency, in their appearance before our National Finance Committee last week, assured us that they will be publicly reporting financial and program information on the new rental program on an ongoing basis.

Honourable senators, Bill C-9 does not include any mandatory reporting, program or financial information on the wage subsidy program or the rent subsidy program, and that brings me to my biggest concern.

During the pandemic, there has been very little program and financial information available to parliamentarians or to any Canadian interested in government’s COVID-19 spending. Most of the information is dated, and in many cases there is no information. If you look at the Department of Finance website, you’ll see these documents: financial statements of the government for the year ended March 31, 2019. The financial statements for the year ended March 31, 2020, have yet to be released. I understand they may be released next week, but again that is nine months after the fiscal year-end.

Budget 2019, dated March 19, 2019: We have not had a budget for 20 months. The economic and fiscal update 2019, that was dated last December 16, 2019; The Fiscal Monitor, the most recent being the one for August 2020; and the fiscal snapshot is dated July of 2020. All of this information is dated. Since the pandemic, access to financial and program information is practically non-existent. Government was releasing a biweekly report on COVID-19 spending prior to proroguing but has not provided any since then, so the last report on COVID-19 spending is dated August 6, over three months ago.

You may recall that I asked the Minister of Finance on Tuesday if she would reinstate this report, but she was noncommittal, which means we will not be receiving it.

The Canada Revenue Agency is voluntarily releasing current financial and program information on the wage subsidy program, but this could be discontinued at any time, like the biweekly COVID-19 reports.

The Canada Revenue Agency was also releasing current financial and program information on CERB until that program was transferred to the EI program in October, so that information is no longer available.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, or CMHC, which delivered the former rent subsidy program, provided very little information on that program. Their quarterly financial report for June indicated that $196 million of the $3 billion program budget had been disbursed, and the COVID-19 August report indicated $644 million had been spent. In November, there was a press release indicating $2 billion of the $3 billion had been disbursed, but I saw no financial or program information between August and November on that program.

The government’s most recent projected deficit figure was released in early July as part of the fiscal snapshot at $343 billion. We have had no update since then, although COVID-19 programs have been expanded and amended.

In addition, there’s so little program and financial information being released that it is not possible for us to even estimate a revised deficit number.

Honourable senators, it is literally impossible to track the COVID-19 spending. Anyone interested in this information has to review numerous documents on numerous websites, and that will only provide a partial picture. Despite the government claiming to be transparent, it is not.

Honourable senators, when we released our report earlier this week on the COVID-19 spending, there is a recommendation in that report relating to financial transparency. Here, directly from the report, is what it says:

Your committee also believes in the transparency of government spending. Prior to August 6, the government was providing a bi-weekly report on COVID-19 spending. The government should reinstate the publication of this report and publish timely monthly updates on all of its COVID-19 program spending.

I would like to give other examples of the difficulty encountered in trying to find information on government’s COVID-19 spending. Added to this government’s previous statements that there is no limit to what it is willing to spend during the pandemic emergency phase, last week the Prime Minister said, “. . .resources are not infinite. . ..” The Minister of Finance said the identical wording. She said that resources aren’t infinite. It seems like the government has done a 180-degree turn, which leads me to wonder what has changed. Has the government finally looked at the numbers?

Honourable senators, it is time for government to tell Canadians what impact COVID-19 has had on the government’s treasury. After all, it is these same Canadians who will have to foot the bill. Thank you, honourable senators.

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