The ability of the federal government to procure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 rapid tests and vaccines would be jeopardized if a Conservative motion calling for a sweeping investigation into the government’s pandemic response passes, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said today.
Anand said the extensive disclosure of documents requested by the Official Opposition — particularly those related to the purchase of PPE, medical devices and pharmaceuticals — could cause businesses to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect their sensitive trade information.
“As we are in the middle of the second wave and the number of COVID cases continues to increase, this is not the time for this motion to be passed,” Anand told reporters.
“This is not the time to threaten and weaken our relationships with our suppliers, on whom Canadians’ health and safety depends.”
The comments come as the Liberal government urges MPs to reject the motion, which would direct the House of Commons health committee to probe the federal government’s COVID-19 response.
A final vote will take place in the Commons this afternoon around 3 p.m. ET.
If passed, the motion would empower the committee to call several cabinet ministers as witnesses and direct the government to hand over a trove of documents, emails and other records from a handful of departments.
It’s expected to pass with support from the NDP and Bloc Québécois despite public concerns raised by a variety of industry groups, companies and other experts that such a wide-ranging investigation could hamper the civil service as it manages the response to the pandemic’s second wave.
Part of the dispute comes down to who would get to choose what information to redact from the documents. The motion includes language providing for the withholding of any information that would interfere with “contractual or other negotiations between the Government of Canada and a third party.”
But it’s the House of Commons law clerk who would be making the decision of what particular information meets that threshold.
Anand warns that the House of Commons law clerk does not have the expertise in procurement to properly redact records that would surface through the probe. She said the Liberals proposed amending the language of the motion so that the Privy Council Office would make those decisions, but the Conservatives rejected that suggestion.
The Privy Council Office co-ordinates the actions of the government across departments and serves as the bureaucracy for the Prime Minister’s Office.
Opposition from health experts, industry
Dr. David Naylor, co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force, also has concerns about the motion. Naylor told The Canadian Press in an email that the proposed study is too expansive and will ultimately create more work and distractions for the federal public service at a time when it is already working full out.
Last week, a major industry association said releasing confidential documents detailing the federal government’s business deals with suppliers of personal protective equipment and testing devices could hurt Canadian manufacturers and sully Canada’s global business reputation.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Canada is the latest to express concerns about the probe. In a letter to Health Canada, Pfizer says it wants to know how its commercial secrets will be protected.
Opposition parties have insisted there is sufficient protection for industry while accusing the Liberals of stirring fears.
The vote comes one week after the Liberal government survived a confidence vote on a separate Conservative motion that sought a special committee investigation into the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption.
The government has said today’s vote won’t be considered a matter of confidence.