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.