Stop delaying – bring on the Skeleton Parliament

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Parliament is being recalled on the Saturday of the Easter weekend to pass more emergency legislation, this time in relation to the wage subsidy, which will largely be about amending the Income Tax Act– something that requires the consent of parliament per the Constitution.  This could have been done days ago, but a dispute arose between the governing Liberals and the Conservatives when it came to bringing back parliament on a more ongoing basis, while the Liberals insisted on trying to bring back a more “virtual” parliament, and prime minister Justin Trudeau himself was using some fairly lame excuses for why he wanted a virtual meeting than a Skeleton Parliament.

“When we do gather in smaller numbers, it still requires a significant number of support staff to come to work to be there while Parliament is functioning, so that puts them at risk as well,” Trudeau said at his Thursday morning presser.  “It’s also something that doesn’t allow for Members of Parliament that live in further-off parts of the country to be weighing in and being sure that their communities are being heard.  That’s why we are so interested in virtual ways of gathering the House, and we’re going to work on that.”

There are so many problems with these assertions.  First of all, I’m not convinced by the “significant” support staff assertion given that the West Block is already largely staffed, with cleaners, interpreters, and the people who make the daily press briefings there happen – even the cafeteria remains open.  There may need to be some additional tweaks made around interpretation booths such as setting up temporary additional ones in the lobby space behind the Chamber to allow the interpreters some additional distance, but that shouldn’t be too onerous a task.  Would MPs need to have their full office complement to sit?  Unlikely, and they should be able to carry on most of their work electronically.

I’m also not sold on the notion that a Skeleton Parliament leaves voices of MPs not from near the Ottawa region unrepresented for two reasons.  One is that when they draw up the roster of MPs who plan to sit in said Skeleton Parliament, they can make arrangements for MPs from other regions to be represented under the caveat that they will need to be in Ottawa for the duration – you know, like how Ottawa used to operate back in the days before cheap flights.  After all, Trudeau arranged for Andrew Scheer, Candice Bergen, and Don Plett to be flown to Ottawa for the last emergency bill, and they flew right home after, so this would be a one-way trip.  Will that be a hardship for some of those MPs?  Probably, but this is a time of crisis.  Many members of Cabinet are staying in Ottawa for the duration, so asking a handful of MPs to do the same should not be balked at.

Additionally, this notion that other MPs from their parties are somehow not weighing in is preposterous because they can caucus virtually, with fewer problems than there would be to attempt a “virtual sitting” of Parliament (not to mention you wouldn’t have the added complications of Section 48 of the Constitution Act, 1867, require the presence of the Mace, or deal with the sticky issue of parliamentary privilege).  MPs who aren’t in Ottawa could still pass along their concerns to the MPs who are sitting, and it would be literally the easiest thing for one of the sitting MPs to say “My colleague from [insert riding] is concerned about [insert issue].”  They already are used to reading from scripts, why is this any different?

There would likely need to be modified sitting hours – there won’t be a lot of government legislation, and private members’ business would have to be suspended for the duration, but it would allow greater debate on any future measures the government may require – and they will almost certainly require future measures.  The Conservatives are particularly concerned with holding Question Period during this period, which is fair and necessary for their role in holding the government to account.  This could give them some flexibility in arrangements – perhaps 20 minutes a day instead of 45, and perhaps they can theme questions to one minister in particular so that they can conserve resources, and ensure that the other ministers can still be working on their files.  This could even give us a chance to break away from the 35-second clock which has become stifling, and let them ask more free-flowing questions and we would get a better sense of debate than the scripted puppet theatre that we normally get in QP.  If there is a time for such measures, this would be it.

It’s especially important that we start having this conversation about how to keep Parliament going – in person and not virtually – because every iteration of bringing back Parliament for more emergency legislation is untenable.  Bill C-12 was passed at all stages with no debate, and wasn’t even publicly viewable until after it received Royal Assent.  Bill C-13 was renegotiated behind closed doors for 14 hours, and what passed for debate happened at 3 AM for three hours.  Robust accountability this was not.  The plan for this Saturday looks to be for another three hours to pass the bill at all stages, given that the Commons is slated to start up at 12:30 and the Senate at 4.  This is not debate, scrutiny, or accountability.  Backroom deals are not on the public record.

Trudeau says that he agrees that Parliament matters and that it shouldn’t be cast aside in times like this, and yet that is what he keeps doing, time and again.  Attempts at creating a virtual parliament are also backdoor ways of the Liberals looking to change the Standing Orders to allow these kinds of remote attendance that have been rejected several times already, and I don’t trust that these measures would be just “temporary.”  Parliament is an essential service, and it matters, so it’s time that Trudeau starts living up to his words, and ensure that the Skeleton Parliament sits for the duration of this crisis.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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