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It was inevitable that hybrid sessions would be returning to the House of Commons after the Liberals and NDP both decided that they were necessary, but in trying to justify the decision, there was a combination of telling on themselves, as well as creating a new and impossible standard that they will one day come to regret. On top of that, they are continuing to set a precedent for ways in which ministers can avoid accountability both from the Commons itself as well as the media, which makes this government’s promises about openness and transparency even more hollow than they already were.

For starters, part of MPs telling on themselves is the fact that this decision is decisive proof that they do not care about the health and safety of the interpretation staff. MPs have been told repeatedly that seventy percent of interpreters have suffered either acoustic or cognitive injuries as a result of the hybrid sittings, and that they are being asked to put their health and safety on the line so that MPs can stay home. They have also been told that the finite number of freelancer interpreters in the country, who have been filling in for those interpreters who are unable to work, have not been afforded the same sick benefits that the full-time interpreters have been, meaning that they are even more at risk because they can’t take the time off when they suffer the same injuries. And MPs have proven that they do not care, and that these interpreters are essentially furniture to them.

The other way that MPs told on themselves was in some of the ways they tried to justify this move as being more than just for the pandemic. NDP MP Laurel Collins took her infant into the Chamber with her, and held her during her speech so that she could demonstrate why she needs hybrid sittings for instances where she can’t travel because of her daughter. Numerous other MPs, past and present, lined up over social media to praise Collins and to insist that this was about work-life balance for young parents – no matter that MPs already can design whatever accommodations they see fit to help them, unlike any other workplace in the country (which is fair, because Parliament is not like any other workplace) – but it proves that this is not about the pandemic. Liberals were trying to institute these hybrid sittings ever since 2015, and were being rebuffed by other parties, and they didn’t let the pandemic go to waste in proving the need for this change. They mean for these changes to be permanent, and that is deleterious to the health of our Parliament going forward.

But aside from this particular bout of telegraphing motives, the overt framing that the Liberals used was to try to kick at the Conservatives for the unknown number of MPs in their caucus who allegedly have “vaccine exemptions” of dubious merit given how statistically improbably any more than one exemption would be, and the fact that at least one MP who has claimed such an exemption – Dean Allison – has also been touting the benefits of ivermectin and has invited any “scientists” who want to dispute the merits of vaccination onto his local call-in show. The most irritating part of this, however, is that the Liberals kept trying to frame this as MPs feeling “unsafe” in the House of Commons as a result. They seem to have picked up this particular rhetorical device from certain segments of the online population who use the term of feeling “unsafe” in order to shut down any content they disagree with, and clearly that was what they were hoping to achieve.

Most concerning out of all of this was the fact that MPs have now set up an impossible standard of perfect attendance that never existed before, and which should not exist. There has been so much hyperbolic rhetoric about MPs not being able to raise the concerns of their constituents in debate or in being able to vote that they have literally just made their lives hell. Yes, representation matters, but there are other avenues than simply name-checking one’s riding during a prepared twenty-minute speech based on directions given to them by the House Leader’s office. Often that input is more seen and felt in the caucus room, which is behind closed doors but sometimes that’s where important work gets done without the need for public performance around it. There are more substantive ways to represent concerns than in giving speeches, which is why the concern is so overblown.

By creating this impossible standard around attendance, MPs have just ensured that their jobs, which are already essentially 24/7, even more demanding so that they can no longer take sick days or a leave of absence if it becomes necessary, as the expectation has been set that they must either attend virtually, or vote remotely. This is neither healthy nor responsible, and it also screws future parliaments because there are sometimes tactical absences necessary to prevent the government from falling on confidence votes when there is a much narrower divide in seats in a hung parliament, where one or two votes can make that difference. Those tactical absences are going to become impossible with this standard set, which could make for far more uncomfortable situations down the road.

This is just one more example of how fetishizing technology intended to solve certain problems only winds up creating other, more serious problems down the road. It’s not like they weren’t warned, or that some of the more forward-looking MPs could see this coming. It’s not like there aren’t voices who are telling them that this will only lead to MPs becoming further siloed, where they won’t be able to interact outside of the Chamber and see each other as human beings, who know that this will only further suffocate collegiality and decorum. MPs will come to regret this move before too long, but by then it will be too late, and all for the sake of trying to score points against the Conservatives.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Last week, the Chief Electoral Officer submitted his report on the planned increases to the number of federal ridings based on the current legislated formula, and deduced, based on the census data and estimates of population growth, that there should be four new seats added, which will bring the total to 342 seats by somewhere around 2024. The plan is to give Alberta three new seats, British Columbia one, Ontario one, and more controversially, to reduce Quebec by one seat – something that hasn’t happened since 1966. This will start a fight in the House of Commons – the Bloc are adamant that Quebec cannot lose a seat, and one imagines that the Liberals will be sympathetic to the argument – and it leads us to ask whether four new seats is really enough, or if we should add more? A lot more.

A decade ago, the Liberals argued that the Commons didn’t need any more politicians, and proposed instead to keep the number capped at 308 – the way that the American House of Representatives is capped at 435 members, and that they simply redistribute some of those seats – but not taking any away from Quebec, or from the constitutionally-protected floor that the Atlantic provinces have. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were trying to implement a new formula for seat distribution that would explicitly screw Ontario out of seats that it deserved based on its population growth, and in the end, after much pushback, they settled for a formula that gave Ontario some additional seats, but far fewer than their population merited.

In spite of the populist pandering that all parties engage in around wanting fewer politicians, the simple fact is that there is a need for more bodies in the House of Commons. There aren’t enough MPs to go around in order to fill spots on committees without also having parliamentary secretaries on those committees, and even more to the point, that they are not on them as voting members. When we last had a government with a majority of the seats, they agreed to reduce committees from twelve members to ten, and parliamentary secretaries that attended were non-voting, but in a hung parliament, committees were back up to twelve members apiece in order to have a better balance of members based on their standing in the Chamber, and lo, parliamentary secretaries were not only back, but as voting members. This is a very bad thing for the independence of committees (and indeed, during the Harper years, this kind of stacking of committees had turned some of them into branch plants of ministers’ offices). The solution is more MPs.

Experience from places like Westminster, with its 650 MPs, shows that more backbenchers makes for a stronger, more independent backbench, because there are fewer opportunities for advancement, whether to Cabinet or as a parliamentary secretary (or your local equivalent). Currently, too many backbenchers feel that they are but one ministerial screw-up away from a seat on the front bench, which makes too many of them overly compliant and deferential to the leader and his or her office, creating a fear-or-favour system that is toxic to how our parliament should be operating. I’m not saying that we need to go the full 650 MP route – but we could increase the number we do have by a lot more than four. And given that the plan for the renovated House of Commons in the Centre Block will move away from desks in favour of benches, that takes away another excuse for not expanding the number of MPs more than we are.

Another reason to substantially increase the number of MPs we have is that it will move us toward a more equitable distribution of riding weight than what currently exists, where riding populations can deviate by as much as 25 percent (the territories and PEI excluded). If you remove those four from consideration, the average population differences remain huge – from an average of 130,672 population in Alberta to 74,365 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Having more seats would allow us to better narrow some of those gaps so the discrepancies wouldn’t be quite so huge – and hopefully, reduce the geographic size of rural and northern ridings, some of which are larger than France.

Of course, this will require some balancing, because there will be complaints that Ontario will get a lot more seats, and remain a juggernaut in the House of Commons electorally. It will mean more urban seats, and once could imagine that Conservatives will complain that it will disadvantage them, as they do better in rural ridings (though one could argue that the answer is not to maintain the status quo for their benefit, but rather that they need policies that will better appeal to urban voters). But the exercise of doing some of this balancing of interests shouldn’t be a barrier to the work necessary that would give us more MPs, and the benefits to how Parliament functions that would result from that increase.

When the debate over these changes breaks out – and it will, because the Bloc will see to it – it should behove MPs, and most especially the government, to propose a larger increase than just those four MPs. The Liberals should admit that they were wrong in 2011 to suggest a hard cap of 308 MPs, and they should work toward increasing that number under the rubric of better and fairer representation, where we get much closer to the ideal of one-person-one-vote in terms of the equitable distribution of that single vote’s power in the grand scheme of the House of Commons. Yes, it would mean a lot more work for the electoral boundaries commissions in each of the ten provinces once they are struck, and a lot more conversations about what defines a community to be drawn up on a map (without resorting to American-style gerrymandering), but in the end, the benefits of a stronger House with more independent backbenchers would be a net gain for Canada, and we should not pass up this opportunity for that change.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.