When comparing Westminster parliaments, consider Canada’s unique challenges

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The ways in which some various Westminster parliaments have been handling the global pandemic and the emergency legislation related to it has been the subject of some emerging study – as well as some fairly facile comparisons between countries.  The advent of “hybrid” sittings in Westminster itself this past week has prompted a number of online loudmouths to declare that if they can do it, so can Canada, without necessarily understanding some of the unique capacity challenges that Canada faces – or even looking at the fine print of what is actually happening in Westminster and why it’s not what they think it is.  If we’re going to actually do some comparison, then we should also examine some of the capacity challenges that may be unique to each country’s parliament.

The Samara Centre for Democracy released a new report this past week which compares the emergency responses of the four main Westminster parliaments – the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, both in terms of how they enacted any pandemic-related emergency legislation, but how they have tried to ensure any kind of ongoing oversight whether in person or by some sort of “virtual” means.  Unfortunately, as is not unexpected with a Samara report, most of the findings are surface-level observations without actually looking into some of the substantive differences, or reasons in which countries may be reacting in different ways – particularly when it comes to the advent of “virtual” sittings.  It’s also a bit galling that they simply accept the notion of virtual sittings as “Use 2020 technology” rather than questioning any of the underlying assumptions or even desirability of them – just because we can (maybe) do a thing, it doesn’t mean we should do a thing.

For example, with the UK, which has been the most robust with its emergency legislation procedures, and sitting longer than other parliaments (while making adjustments and precautions to do so as safely as possible), has some particular differences with how some of its comparators operate, in particular because it’s already used to not being able to fit all 650 of its MPs in their tiny chamber at any particular time, and they have their lobby voting system rather than standing votes.  When looking at how different parliaments are adapting, this starting point is worth noting.  As well, with the “hybrid” sittings that they have begun, whereby the key government and opposition figures are in the Chamber with the Speaker and the Mace, and other MPs have dialled in by video, it’s also important to remember that this has not been extended to all 650 MPs, but a mere 120.  They also have specific – and different – accountability measures that Canada doesn’t employ, like Urgent Questions, and these virtual sittings won’t be regular legislative debate or votes.

While Australia had a more robust debate that included amendments from the floor on their emergency legislation, they have suspended until August and have no ongoing scrutiny measures, in-person or virtual, planned for the duration.  Australia has vast geographic distances like Canada, but the Samara report mentions nothing about their regional considerations should they have any kind of parliamentary sittings during the interim period.

New Zealand has followed the same kind of process that Canada has with their emergency legislation where it has been negotiated and amended behind closed doors before being voted on at all stages, but they have been using committees over Zoom, including an Epidemic Response Committee led by the Leader of the Opposition.  But New Zealand, unlike Canada, has a relatively tiny unicameral parliament, and they don’t appear to have simultaneous interpretation of their proceedings (it does seem that an attempt was made in 2011, but I don’t see evidence that it has carried forward, though apparently one can address their Speaker in Maori).

And this brings us to Canada, where our capacity challenges are unique compared to some of the other comparators, when it comes to our geography, the need for our proceedings to carry on in two official languages with simultaneous interpretation, and the fact that if we want to hold virtual sittings (and we don’t really), then we have to be cognisant of the fact that a great many parts of the country have spotty internet connections that make it difficult to do video conferencing – particularly at a time when broadband connections are already being taxed by everyone being at home streaming and doing their own video conferences.  If we are so concerned that all 338 MPs be able to participate remotely – which is more than the UK has been able to do with their reportedly faster and better internet connections – this limitation matters.

This said, I do find the Samara fixation with the regional representation during our skeleton sittings to be frustrating, because these MPs are not debating or voting based on their regional concerns – all of the negotiation for our emergency legislation was done beforehand and behind closed doors, so all MPs simply allowed the bills to sail through stages with unanimous consent.  As well, we also need to repeat what has been stated at the Procedure and House Affairs committee’s hearings on “virtual” sittings this week, that the technical and staff capacity of our parliament is that they can only handle about ten virtual committee meetings per week, for both the Commons and the Senate.

This having been said, we in Canada find ourselves in a position where the government on Monday bullied through a motion in the Commons with the support of the Bloc, and the NDP, to hold once-a-week sittings on Wednesdays with the promise of “virtual” sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays – but knowing that the Clerk has stated that they won’t actually be able to set these up until mid-May at the earliest.  This while the Conservatives had a perfectly reasonable proposal of thrice-weekly in-person sittings that would have allowed for these “accountability sessions” to actually carry on, and any future emergency legislation (possibly relating to the new student measures) could actually have proper legislative debate rather than the need to be passed at all stages in order to sit as briefly as possible.  Parliamentary scrutiny matters, and for the government to have evaded it based on a disingenuous premise of virtual sittings that they knew weren’t going to happen, it shows that they don’t quite live up to their insistence that parliament matters.

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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