Challenges to virtual sittings insurmountable, say MPs, experts, but reforms should reflect House's diversity

Hill Times

'When you prioritize representation by party, you often reduce the extent of diversity by other factors,' says Paul Thomas of the Samara Centre for Democracy. MPs should be able to 'put their names' forward to participate in a virtual sitting, without having to go through the 'gatekeeping of the party.'

In the absence of daily televised parliamentary sittings, many MPs have been consigned to the sidelines of the pandemic, operating largely behind the scenes as they tend to constituency issues and keep tabs on the federal government's evolving and unprecedented response to the coronavirus. But the looming prospect of convening the House virtually holds the promise of bringing greater scrutiny, say experts and current and former MPs, though there's much to debate over which aspects could-and should-be swiftly adapted to the digital age.

Canadian parliamentary tradition does not include a precedent for holding House sittings purely online, but MPs are imbued with the power to revamp and interpret the House rules in response to a given situation, said Thomas Hall, a retired House of Commons procedural clerk.

Under current rules, a quorum of 20 MPs is required for the House to sit in person, but the House has the latitude to reinterpret or amend that prerequisite to allow MPs to dial in instead, whether through a motion or changes to the Parliament of Canada Act.

"If they amended , they might make it a limited amendment to respond to COVID-19," Mr. Hall said, noting that, while unlikely, a motion might invite a challenge to the legality of those terms.

In a letter on April 5, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) enlisted Speaker Anthony Rota's (Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont.) help in exploring how the House administration could "support and facilitate virtual sittings" of the Commons, "where it could conduct its regular business."

Mr. Rodriguez tweeted a letter on April 8 from Mr. Rota, which said that the House administration is working towards a four-week timeline for holding virtual sittings. That timeframe suggested that it's increasingly unlikely that all 338 MPs will assemble on the Hill on April 20, the date MPs originally settled on before they suspended March 13. The Speaker has also enlisted the support of the administration's digital services team to find potential public and private contractors that can supply the technical infrastructure needed to facilitate the process of modernizing Parliament.

"The Speaker answered my letter about virtual sittings of the House. His team is looking into the possibility of doing it within four weeks. Thanks to he Speaker and his team for helping MPs do their work during this difficult time. Parliamentary accountability is crucial," Mr. Rodriguez tweeted on April 8.

After decades of fits and starts of considering reforms, with numerous committees assigned to looking at whether votes can ever be held remotely or electronically or to dispense with stand-up votes, these proposals may finally be tested. The House Finance and Health committees broke new ground, holding the first remote meetings-though not without technical issues-about two weeks ago.

Donald Savoie, a professor at the Université de Moncton, said, though he is a traditionalist, the Constitution itself, an import from Britain, has largely been shaped by precedent, and there's "no question" that the House should sit, even if it means bending the rules for "extraordinary" circumstances.

"Parliament is the only institution that can speak to all Canadians in all communities," Prof. Savoie said. "Our Constitution was built by precedent, so we shouldn't be afraid of that. In a time of crisis, it's a legitimate question to ask if Parliament can sit virtually."

Mr. Rodriguez's request was made as other parliaments, including in the U.K. and Australia, have either begun actively exploring shifting legislative activities online or are already meeting virtually.

House leadership teams have been quietly negotiating behind the scenes to address the myriad concerns that are likely to crop up.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.), parliamentary secretary to Mr. Rodriguez, said in a phone interview that convening a pared-down version of the House regularly would afford a "manageable" number of MPs the opportunity to hold a rotating cast of cabinet ministers-and bureaucrats-to account.

"If you are a member of the House, you should have the right to get access to information on a daily basis, at least six, if not seven, days a week," Mr. Lamoureux said.

He said the resumption of Parliament should also allow for MPs to regularly submit Order Paper questions, with reasonable timeframes for responding to those queries, depending on the complexity of the issue. As it stands, he said, there are technical briefings and emails being exchanged that MPs rely on to relay information and inform their response to constituents, but it's a "very informal" process.

Deepening inequities

NDP House Leader Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.) said there are technical constraints to virtual meetings, as laid bare by the issues encountered during those first online committee meetings, and that Canada still has to overcome those constraints before it can implement a switch to teleconferencing, adding that it has to "up its game."

"We're certainly very open to ways of ensuring accountability during this crisis," he said, noting that the Maldives and Latvia are making the transition. "I've been disappointed by our technical abilities thus far. ... We're talking about small committees, and they've been fraught with a lot of technical problems."

The Health and Finance committees have 12 members.Technical issues aside, Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) said expanding the number of committees overseeing the COVID-19 spending drives would provide a vehicle for examining the policy gaps. "I think that committees can actually do useful work, it's largely dependent on the members themselves," he said. "If they choose to do so-and I'm not always confident they will choose to do useful work."

Joe Jordan, former Liberal MP and senior associate at Bluesky Strategy Group, said he can envision the House adopting a "hybrid" form of a virtual Parliament. "I don't think we're anywhere close to flipping the switch and doing it all from home," he said. "MPs have every right to wade into these discussions, and to somehow suggest that it can all be done from home is absolutely minimizing the role of Parliament."

Paul Thomas, a senior research associate at Samara, said legislatures in places such as the Isle of Man and Wales have tested the waters, but are comparatively smaller than Canada's, and have limited participation to a fraction of representatives, while others tune in.

In an email to The Hill Times on March 8, Heather Bradley, director of communications to the House Speaker's Office, said, there have been "consultations with other parliaments who are considering similar arrangements."

"Before proceeding with alternate sitting arrangements, all parties would need to be in agreement and discussions are continuing to this effect. Procedural and legal implications would need to be considered in the selection of any approach," she wrote.

Mr. Thomas raised concerns about how participation in those sittings would be hashed out by the parties' power brokers, noting that it could deepen inequities that some MPs already feel about their ability to influence the legislative process.

Citing the in-person emergency sitting on March 24, which saw around 33 MPs take their seat, Mr. Thomas said, in selecting which MPs were able to represent the party, some preference was given to those located in close proximity to Parliament, but in some instances, other MPs were flown in. (The numbers were based on a party's standings in the House.)

"One of the concerns coming out of the emergency sessions is when you prioritize representation by party, you often reduce the extent of diversity by other factors," he said. "We saw there were no MPs or Senators from Nova Scotia, P.E.I., or the North. ... Not all MPs felt the rationale used by parties to explain which members were selected to attend ."

He noted that not all MPs based in Ottawa were called in, suggesting that the party whips may have made those decisions based on preference. Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) defied his whip's order to stay home in a bid at the time to withhold unanimous consent for passing the feds' emergency bill.

Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who represented the far-flung riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C., said MPs who live close to the capital have a "logistical advantage," which can be frustrating for those out West.

"It's a long-standing grievance of the West, where travel is much more difficult, everything from witnesses and who gets to testify, those things end up mattering at the end," Mr. Cullen said.

Mr. Thomas said there should be an effort to ensure that, even if there is a Speaker's list, MPs are able to "put themselves forward" to participate in the virtual sittings, without having to go through the "gatekeeping of the party."

Still, Mr. Cullen suggested, a virtual sitting, particularly in a minority Parliament, can't fully compensate for the discussions that happen outside the theatrics of Question Period.

"In my experience, there's value in what happens in camera, not on camera," he said. "I found a lot more about what's happening in the hallways. The government's ability to build support, especially in a minority, is enhanced by that contact, which is difficult in a pandemic."

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