The Liberals are pushing to see the hybrid House of Commons sitting model continue for up to a year despite what appears to be an improving public health situation, and amid concerns about accountability and the impact on parliamentary interpreters.
On Monday, in a press conference reflecting on the soon-ending spring sitting, Government House Leader Mark Holland announced that he is planning to bring forward a motion proposing that the virtual elements of the House of Commons and committees be extended through 2023.
Holland said he’s spoken with the opposition parties’ House leaders about the proposal, which he intends to put on notice overnight and then spend Wednesday and Thursday debating and voting on, before rising for the summer. The current motion allowing for hybrid sittings expires on Thursday.
The government’s lead on House business and their legislative agenda said, while many Canadian workplaces are in the process of readjusting to in-person work, he thinks it’s important to continue the hybrid model for MPs to allow those who are sick, to still participate.
“We are still in a pandemic reality, and… we need the tools to ensure that members of Parliament participate fully in the proceedings of Parliament,” Holland said.
Not all parties agree on this.
The current rules allow MPs to virtually participate, from their homes or constituency offices, in House debates and committee meetings. The House has also set up an application that lets MPs vote remotely from anywhere in Canada.
While some MPs, including among the NDP, have expressed a desire to see the hybrid provisions continue long-term due to the flexibility it provides for doing their work as an MP, the Conservatives are strongly against the virtual elements of parliament continuing any longer, saying elected officials should show up in Ottawa to do their jobs.
‘UNJUSTIFIED AND UNNECESSARY’
The Official Opposition’s case for calling it quits on hybrid sittings includes citing the improving public health situation — a metric cited by the Liberals in recently lifting federal vaccine mandates — as well as the impact the virtual structure has had on translators, and what they see as to decrease in government accountability.
“Rather than using the time to address the cost of living crisis that Canadians are facing, the Liberals are going to set up a Parliament in a way that suits them. And when the Liberals talk about a hybrid Parliament, what they’re really talking about about is setting up a Parliament where they can be less accountable,” Conservative House Leader John Brassard said in a press conference on Monday rejecting the Liberal’s proposal as “unjustified and unnecessary.”
Brassard said there is no reason he can see for why this motion is coming up now, rather than in the fall depending on the state of the pandemic, suggesting the Conservatives would be open to considering a return to hybrid sittings if the COVID-19 situation was considerably worse this autumn.
“The government should be signaling to Canadians that we are going to get back to some sense of normalcy… We’ve seen over the course of the last several months legislatures in provinces and territories getting back to normal… So there’s no reason why we’ re not returning back to normal here,” he said. “It’s time for these hybrid tools to be put back in the box.”
The Conservatives are planning to propose amendments to the coming hybrid motion, suggesting there are current provisions in the Standing Orders—the rules of the House—that would allow for MPs who cannot be present, to still represent their constituents if they are absent for health or family reasons.
While the House of Commons administration worked expeditiously to find innovative and historic new ways for MPs to adapt to the COVID-19 reality while keeping up with their work of debating and passing legislation, the provisions were not meant to be permanent.
Over the nearly two years of its use, there have been several snafus and more serious transgressions associated with the hybrid-sitting model.
From poor audio and video quality and connectivity issues, to MPs having to apologize for taking the debate into the toilet with them. There have also been accusations of ministers dodging in-person questioning by Zooming-in from Ottawa rather than showing up in the Chamber, in-person.
Further, as Brassard noted, using virtual tools with sometimes sub-optimal audio quality for debates and meetings has resulted in an increase in reported work-related injuries such as hearing loss and tinnitus, among the interpreters who translate all proceedings in real-time.
COMMITTEE TO STUDY HYBRID
Holland said the government is asking the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to study the utilization of the hybrid model and the voting app to see what worked, or didn’t. There’s no timeline attached to this suggestion though, with Holland saying that the committee needs to spend time seriously contemplating the future use or ending of virtual parliament.
If the MPs on this committee come forward in less time, or if the pandemic seems to be over within the next year, Holland said they aren’t bound to upholding hybrid provisions for the full year.
The Government House Leader also pledged, with one caveat, that ministers will answer all questions in-person during the fall sitting.
“With the exception of a health circumstance that would otherwise prevent it or general deterioration of health circumstances for example, a new variant of COVID-19 emerging,” Holland said of the possible exception.
In defending the move to continue with hybrid House provisions, Holland said the Liberals intend to have as much in-person participation as possible, but that “this pandemic continues, and so does need to have flexibility.”
“What I’m concerned about is ensuring that we have a stable and predictable process, where parliamentarians and Canadians can know, despite whatever’s going to happen out in the world, that they’re going to have a functioning parliament,” Holland said.
NDP BACKING MOTION
Citing concerns about a potential new COVID-19 variant circulating in the fall, NDP House Leader Peter Julian told reporters on Monday that his caucus will be backing the Liberal motion.
“The idea that we would go back to just being a Parliament where you have to be present in the House—and obviously can’t be if you catch COVID or if for another reason you are urgently required in your constitution— the idea that you would lose for all those constituents, their voice and their vote does not make sense,” Julian said. “And so this is a common sense measure that allows us to work through the fall.”
The NDP’s support will give the minority government the votes needed to see this motion pass later this week.
ACCUSATIONS OF OBSTRUCTION
In looking back on the 44th Parliament so far, Holland accused the Conservatives of engaging in excess efforts to obstruct the government’s legislative agenda, calling the Official Opposition “the biggest challenge inside of Parliament.”
“They absolutely have a right to vote against things, they absolutely have a right to criticize the government and, on occasion where appropriate, to obstruct, but… They don’t have the right to shut down democracy. And that has profoundly been my greatest frustration,” he said, citing examples of dilatory motions moved and bills that he said the Conservatives tried to hold up, prompting the use of scheduling tools like time allocation to see the legislative impasse broken.
“I would also state that, you know, in a minority government, we have not had the ability to do any of this unilaterally. We always need another partner. So we’ve made sure, I think, at each stage with every bill , that there was appropriate time for debate and we had to do that with the support of another party in all instances,” Holland said of government motions to expedite the study or debate on certain items. “It isn’t my preference, and I do look to fall hoping for something different.”
Responding to Holland’s claims, Brassard called out the Liberals for what he said was the “ultimate” delay tactic of calling the “unnecessary” 2021 federal election.
“Trudeau received a minority government, he didn’t receive a majority government. Canadians sent him here to be held accountable… In fact, the Conservative Party as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been using every tool that we can to make sure that the government is held to account.”
Brassard also called out the NDP confidence-and-supply deal as giving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “coalition” government, seeing the New Democrats vote with the Liberals 95 per cent of the time.
“I’m not going to apologize for doing our job as an opposition. I know the prime minister would have liked an audience in the opposition, but what we’re doing was making sure that he had an opposition, even if the NDP wasn’t going to fulfill their obligations,” said the Conservative House leader.