The news this week that both Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole have had to self-isolate because of close contact with those infected with COVID-19 has given the Liberals, and prime minister Justin Trudeau in particular, new cause to implore that the rest of the House of Commons agree to adopt remote voting and hybrid sittings for the duration of the current parliament, citing that it’s too dangerous to have all 338 MPs “converge” on Parliament Hill at the same time. This is patent nonsense, and Trudeau pleading with MPs to throw open the Pandora’s box that is this proposal, and it’s utterly irresponsible.
There is a constant canard being cited every time this issue arises – that it’s not safe to have all 338 MPs in the Chamber at once. This carefully ignores the reality of how the House of Commons operates, which is that for nearly the entire day, the Chamber itself is virtually empty, with maybe 25 MPs on “House duty” to give their required speeches as to the topic of the day, be it a bill, or opposition motion. The Chamber does fill up for Question Period, but again, this is not a requirement, particularly in this day and age where what gets asked is determined by the House Leaders’ speaking lists beforehand. This means that QP could effectively be run in a pandemic with a smaller crowd and that MPs will simply have to forgo trying to fill the camera shot around their leader or whoever else is speaking. This is not onerous or a hardship.
The only other time when the Chamber would fill up on a day would be for votes, which generally only happened three days a week regardless (in order to accommodate MPs who have to travel). This again does not need to happen in this way – a very simple change to the standing orders could be made to allow voting to be done either in “batches” of MPs who can safely be in the chamber at one time, or by employing “lobby voting” like they use in the UK and which Queen’s Park is currently experimenting with – where the vote is called and MPs pass through the lobbies on either side of the Chamber, one side for aye, the other for nay. This can make for proper distancing, and properly recorded votes that are within the Westminster tradition.
There would be a few additional challenges in the Senate because they are less bound to the same kinds of speaking lists that have become the norm in the Commons, though Independent Senators Group leader Yuen Pau Woo and others have been trying to institute a business committee that would develop speaking lists as part of regimenting the day’s activities (an outcome that should be firmly opposed). It is often the case that most senators will be present in the chamber at some point during debates, because they have the ability to speak to any item on the Order Paper – though the sittings in the Senate chamber are usually much shorter than they are in the Commons because they are more devoted to time spent in committee, and the Senate doesn’t have the resources or capacity to run the chamber and all of its committees at the same time. Again, though, this is not insurmountable and effective communication between senators and their caucus representatives during daily Scroll meetings can ensure a quasi-speaking list be drawn up between them daily so that those who wish to debate an item on the Order Paper that day have the opportunity to do so without filling the whole chamber.
The greater danger of allowing hybrid sittings and remote voting in either chamber is that it sets the expectation that this can become normalized once the pandemic is over – no matter how much they may insist that this is only for emergencies. The Liberals have been trying to push this for years under the guise that it’s good for parental leave and MPs with work-life balance issues, and that’s exactly why this should be resisted – because when the leader is looking to ensure that more of his MPs remain isolated from one another, it becomes another tool of central control.
It’s not only that Parliament is something that needs to happen face-to-face – indeed, the most important work happens on the sidelines, in the corridors and lobbies, and in the relationships struck in that direct contact. But it’s also that the chance for real dialogue in those liminal spaces are where MPs and senators can be persuaded as to the merits of causes or legislation outside of the centralizing influence of their leaders’ offices. If you start to encourage a system where MPs are no longer able to have those contacts – and make no mistake that normalizing hybrid sittings and remote voting will turn Parliament Hill into a homeroom where MPs and senators will visit once in a blue moon – then you make it much easier for the leaders’ offices to be doing the central managing of information flowing to their MPs and senators, and with no one on the sidelines who can pull them aside and push back.
The flip-side in ensuring that we maintain in-person parliamentary sittings in the pandemic is the question of travel – that MPs and senators would have to stay in Ottawa for several weeks at a time in order to reduce the anxieties of travel as a potential vector for transmission of COVID. The problem is that this isn’t being discussed (though, credit to the Conservatives, it was included in their dissenting Procedure and House Affairs report on hybrid/remote voting), and is in fact being actively discouraged by the rules in place – especially in the Senate, where senators would have to pay out of pocket to stay in Ottawa over weekends rather than travel. You would think that their Internal Economy committee might realize that this rule change could be temporarily amended as a way of discouraging senators who don’t already have apartments or condos in town from travelling, but this hasn’t happened. In fact, it would make sense for both the Commons and Senate to rent out several floors in the Chateau Laurier so that MPs and senators can be encouraged to stay in Ottawa and not travel. This is easily done, and isn’t going to create problems down the road for Parliament.
There may be a pandemic, but we can adapt rather than gin up concerns as a pretext to open Pandora’s Box and corrode our parliament over the long term.
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