This isn’t the virtual parliament you’re looking for

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There was a great deal of excitement among MPs over Twitter on Monday as they all posted images of the trial run of the first “virtual sitting” of the House of Commons, pronouncing how very historic this all was.  The problem of course is that while there may be a certain amount of novelty to it, and while it may be historic from the sense that it may be the largest “virtual” gathering of MPs in a formal, parliamentary setting, it is not in fact a sitting of the House of Commons, and this needs to be reiterated.

What wound up being agreed to by the government motion bullied through on Monday, April 20th, was for in-person sittings on Wednesdays, and “virtual” sittings on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  None of these are actually sittings, but rather special committee meetings.  As a particular fudge of parliamentary procedure, the government proposed that a Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic be created, and that it would be comprised of every sitting MP and chaired by the Speaker.  More confusingly, the “virtual” sittings are special committee meetings whereby the Speaker will be in a specially outfitted committee room within the West Block that has a slight resemblance to NASA’s Mission Control.  While this actually reinforces that this is not an actual sitting of the Commons, what confounds that understanding is the fact that the Wednesday in-person sittings are still actually considered meetings of this special committee, only they’re being held in the Commons Chamber in a quasi-Committee of the Whole situation, which is what one would imagine that these “accountability sessions” could actually have been procedurally had they all been held in-person and not in the Commons.

But wait – it gets even more convoluted, because when the in-person special committee sessions end at 2:30 PM, they have the option of then having an emergency sitting of the Commons to consider legislation that has been agreed to by the opposition parties – and that’s exactly what’s going to happen on this Wednesday, because there will be new emergency legislation presented that revolves around the measures developed for students as part of the pandemic response plan.  Under the terms of the motion, that special emergency sitting will last for no longer than four hours for “debate” of said bill, which means it’s pretty much going to be a series of canned speeches from each of the parties that if we judge by the previous emergency legislation, these speeches will have very little to do with the actual bill itself, but will be the parties giving their general and accumulated concerns and grievances about how the government has been handling the pandemic response, and how the government haven’t listened or acted on the “brilliant” suggestions (read: implausible or impossible, like universal payments without a magic database or “send money now” button on the CRA’s computers), or back-patting for supposedly being the first to suggest measures that were eventually adopted (like the eventual decision to close the borders).  And it will still be a bill negotiated and amended in the back rooms and then passed at all stages without a proper transparent legislative process, like they could have had if they had actually had the three skeletal sittings a week.

In other words, despite the boasts of certain MPs, there will not actually be any virtual sitting of the Commons.  These special committee sessions will allow members to question the prime minister and other ministers, but one suspects that it will happen more in a committee format, meaning seven-minute rounds, followed by five-minute rounds, and around and around we will go until the clock has expired.  (While the virtual meetings are supposed to last two hours each, as would most committees, it looks like this Tuesday it will be a four-hour meeting with no Thursday meeting this week, but two-hours each next week).  If anyone has observed Commons committees before, backbench questions will largely consist of “Tell me how great our government is doing on this file,” while most opposition questions will consist of five-minute speeches followed by a rhetorical question with little time for the person being questioned to answer, or conversely an attempt to get the witness to badmouth the government.  Given that it’s ministers on the proverbial hot seat, I suspect we’ll get a lot of the former, sprinkled with some of Pierre Poilievre’s smarmy attempt at a Matlock impression as he tries to get a witness box confession.

The other reason why the committee fudge is a workaround for the moment is because it avoids a few of the trickier aspects of parliamentary privilege, which is designed to ensure that MPs can speak unencumbered.  As of Monday’s trial run, only about 250 of the 338 MPs were able to join, given technology and connectivity limitations.  Because this is a committee and not a proper sitting of the Commons, it likely heads off some of the privilege questions by those MPs who aren’t able to join in, because it’s not a true sitting of the Commons.

The more important aspect of the committee fudge, however, is that it is the last bulwark from creating an actual virtual sitting, which would be the death knell of our parliament.  So long as these virtual meetings are relegated to committee status and not actual Commons sittings, it makes it easier to compartmentalize them for when this pandemic is over and they can be treated as an emergency measure.  As I’ve stated before, the real danger here is of social contagion – that MPs will demand that because they sat virtually during this crisis, that they should be able to do so on a regular basis, and because the Liberals have been pushing for this kind of thing before under the rubric of being “family friendly,” (and were shot down more than once), it is all too conceivable that they will use this as an excuse to push through the back door what they weren’t able to through the front.  If they do that, Parliament will very quickly depopulate as MPs prefer to stay in their ridings, and it will become a hollow shell.  Let’s hope this bulwark lasts, and that these virtual meetings remain an emergency committee.

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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