#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report

Raquel Fletcher in Quebec City

Opposition parties cry foul over government’s plan to maintain discretionary powers over health care during election period

When MNAs returned to the National Assembly last week after a two-week recess, the mood was much different than it was after the return to work after the Christmas holidays.

For the first time in two years, all 125 elected officials were able to sit together in the Blue Room. Businesses are once again open, the vaccine passport is no longer required, mask mandates will soon be lifted and spring is in the air. It almost feels like a return to normal… almost.

COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations have fallen nationally, but countries in Europe and Asia have seen an uptick since the beginning of the month. The World Health Organization has reported an 8 per cent increase in case numbers globally.

Health Minister Christian Dubé explained the uptick in cases overseas is why he has tabled a bill to lift the public health state of emergency but maintain some discretionary powers until the end of the year.

“We need to be ready because the virus is still there,” he told reporters.

Exceptional powers

The government has renewed the state of emergency more than 100 times since it was first declared under the province’s Public Health Act in March 2020. It gives Quebec exceptional powers, notably the ability to sign contracts without the requirement that they first go to tender.

Opposition parties, which have been calling for an end to “governing by decree” for months, say the new bill is just the government’s way of trying to maintain special powers.

The health minister “can basically decide anything he wants, especially during an election period. So that is definitely a benefit to the CAQ, not a benefit to Quebecers,” said Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade.

Dubé staunchly refuted this claim and said he will offer a technical briefing to the opposition parties because, he maintained they do not understand the bill. To reporters, he explained discretionary powers are needed to allow the government to act quickly in the event of a potential sixth wave this fall.

Mass vaccination site

As an example, he said Montreal’s convention centre, the Palais des congrès, is rented until September for use as a mass vaccination site. “We don’t want to end up with no Palais des congrès in the middle of (another wave) of the pandemic, or in the middle of a vaccination period.”

He explained that if the new bill is passed, the government would have the right to extend the rental agreement, but only until the end of the year.

During question period, Premier François Legault explained that the new bill greatly reduces the government’s ability to enact emergency health measures. “Under the health emergency order, the government had the right to put in place a vaccine passport. With the bill that has just been tabled, we can no longer do that. Same thing for curfews. Same thing for school closures. Same thing for all the measures, except one. One remains in place and that’s masks in public transportation.”

Despite the tension between the government and the opposition parties, Dubé continues to seek their collaboration, not just on this bill, but on his upcoming and highly anticipated proposal to “rebuild” the health care system. It has not yet been tabled.

It’s an ambitious venture as only 10 weeks remain in the spring session before parties embark on the campaign trail. Chances are high the plan to overhaul health care will become a major item in the fall election.