OTTAWA — The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois are calling for an emergency parliamentary committee meeting to delve into how the federal government “squandered” $150 million on an unfulfilled COVID-19 contract and why it refuses to share any information about the loss.
In a letter to the chair of the House health committee published Thursday evening, four Conservative MPs — including health critic Stephen Ellis — and Bloc MP Luc Theriault called for an emergency committee meeting to address the “egregious abuse of taxpayer money.”
“Another $150 million in taxpayer waste appears to have vanished. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Minister of Health report to this committee and must be accountable,” reads the letter.
They were reacting to a report by National Post Thursday that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wrote off $150 million last fiscal year for an “unfulfilled contract by a vendor” with no expectation of recovering the money.
Pressed by this newspaper for information about any details on the unfulfilled contract, such as the identity of the vendor, the nature of the deal and the product or service that was not received, PHAC repeatedly refused to disclose any information.
On Tuesday, PHAC spokesperson Mark Johnson said confidentiality clauses in the contract with the unnamed vendor prevented the agency from revealing any of that information. Doing so could expose the government to legal action, he wrote in an email.
Multiple experts, including Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, said the response was “highly unusual” and that taxpayers deserved to know more about how PHAC lost $150 million.
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In an interview before the push for the emergency health committee was made public, NDP health critic Don Davies said it was “totally unacceptable” for the PHAC to withhold all information about the unfulfilled contract to Canadians. He said he also intended to bring up the issue in the House of Commons next week.
“I find it shocking. We’re talking about an eighth of a billion dollars. It’s bad enough that it was lost, and I think there are a lot of questions there. But it’s unacceptable for government to refuse to be transparent with Canadians. It’s Canadians’ money,” said NDP health critic Don Davies.
Conservative party ethics critic Michael Barrett accused the Liberal government of having “squandered” $150 million while the party’s national revenue critic Adam Chambers said taxpayers “deserve answers” and MPs need to get to the bottom of the reason for the loss.
Thursday, Health Minister Mark Holland’s press secretary Chris Aoun said in a brief statement the contract was for “COVID response” that was contracted under a “national security exemption.” Holland was not available for an interview Thursday afternoon.
The federal government invoked a blanket national security exemption for all COVID-19-related procurement at the onset of the pandemic, which allowed it to suspend some or all of its trade agreement obligations during a purchasing process in order to accelerate it or exclude foreign buyers.
In an interview, Davies said PHAC’s confidentiality argument was hogwash.
“I think that’s a weak excuse that is totally unconvincing,” he said. “We’re not asking for confidential details or commercial information about the contract. We’re asking for a transparent explanation of what the money was for and how we lost it.”
“The government can’t hide behind commercial transparency or commercial confidentiality to avoid being transparent with taxpayers in a democracy,” he added.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters Thursday that it was laughable that the government couldn’t disclose any information whatsoever and that taxpayers wouldn’t be duped.
He also called on the government to do everything possible to recoup the $150 million. PHAC has repeatedly declined to comment if it was taking any action to recover the lost funds from the unnamed vendor.
“If I go to the store, I buy a $150 coffee machine and when comes time to deliver it, they don’t deliver it, then I’ll demand to know what happened and that they reimburse me,” Blanchet said.
“I refuse to believe that a government can suddenly drop $150 million and say, ‘I won’t even explain to you what happened, I won’t tell you who, I won’t tell you when, I won’t tell you what it was for, and I won’t even tell you if we’ll try to recover it.’ It makes absolutely no sense,” he continued, adding that he was demanding the government disclose more information.
All three opposition parties lambasted the Liberals for their lack of transparency and derided the promises by Trudeau in 2015 that he would lead a government that was “open by default.”
“The more a party says it’s transparent, the less they usually are. The government says it won’t tell us what happened, we have a $150 million hole, and it’s none of your business. On top of that, it’s the health system,” which is starved for resources, Blanchet told reporters.
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