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Conservatives hold worst attendance record at House of Commons COVID-19 committee

Globe and Mail.com

The low turnout is prompting charges of hypocrisy from the NDP

by: Marieke Walsh

Despite calls from Andrew Scheer for more parliamentary oversight during the coronavirus pandemic, the Conservatives have the worst attendance record of all five political parties at the House of Commons COVID-19 committee meetings.

Of the 21 special sessions, in which all MPs could participate, records show the Tories averaged a 47-per-cent attendance rate, placing them well behind the other parties.

The low turnout is prompting charges of hypocrisy from the NDP, whom the Conservatives criticized for agreeing with the Liberals to suspend regular sittings of the House of Commons in favour of the special committee meetings, which limited opposition powers.

"Canada's democratic institutions should never be treated as an inconvenience," Mr. Scheer said during a May 25 debate on extending the suspension of regular sittings. "The House is an essential service to the country and we, its members, are essential workers."

The Green Party had the best attendance, with its caucus averaging appearances 95 per cent of the time over the 21 meetings. They were followed by Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould at 86 per cent, the NDP at 85 per cent, the Liberals at 76 per cent and the Bloc Québécois at 73 per cent.

The committee meetings started with all MPs able to participate through a Zoom call and moved to a hybrid format where some MPs attended in person, in the House of Commons, while others participated through teleconference.

The Greens' Leader in the House, Elizabeth May, had the best attendance of the leaders, at 91 per cent.

"I'm on Zoom feeling like my head is going to blow up, but I do it because there are opportunities to put forward points that should be made and it's my job to show up," Ms. May said in an interview.

The NDP's Jagmeet Singh had the second highest attendance of any leader, 86 per cent, followed by Mr. Scheer (67 per cent), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (62 per cent), and the Bloc's Yves-François Blanchet (52 per cent).

Spokesperson Joanie Riopel said the Bloc is "satisfied with the participation of our elected officials."

The creation of the COVID-19 committee restricted MPs' powers to hold the government to account, but allowed opposition MPs to question the Prime Minister and ministers.

The meetings ran from April 28 to June 18. The Globe and Mail received three weeks of partial attendance records from the NDP, independently verified the information and collected the remaining data. The Globe did not include in its calculation meetings where a limited number of MPs from each party met in person.

Despite their frequent calls for more, not less, Parliament, the Conservatives dismissed questions about their low attendance.

"I wouldn't read anything into the log-in records, as they only indicate which MP watched the proceedings on their computer, not whether they watch on their TV or without logging in," the Conservative Whip, B.C. MP Mark Strahl, said in a statement.

Mr. Scheer was not available for an interview to explain why on average more than half of his caucus missed the committee meetings.

His spokesperson, Kelsie Chiasson, did not provide information about how many Conservative MPs watched the meeting on TV or online, and declined to comment when asked why Conservative attendance dropped over the course of the meetings.

Eighty-eight per cent of the Conservative caucus participated in the first one, on April 28, and that dropped to 33 per cent on June 18.

Ms. May disputed that watching a committee meeting is equivalent to joining. She noted that members of Parliament not scheduled to ask a question could still engage through points of order.

"That's not participating, that's observing, and we have no way of knowing if they really did," Ms. May said of the Conservatives' explanation. She said the Greens ensured they didn't miss "the opportunity to hold government to account."

The Conservatives' worst weeks of attendance at the House of Commons committee coincided with their strongest attacks on the Liberals and NDP for limiting the opposition powers. The suspended Parliament has no opposition days, and MPs can't debate legislation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has "stripped us, the opposition, of our privileges and our powers," Conservative MP Rachael Harder, who had a 62-per-cent attendance record, said during the committee meeting on June 16. She did not respond to a request for comment about her attendance.

"It's real hypocrisy to say we want to present our private members bills and we want an opposition day but we're not willing to show up to work," NDP House Leader Peter Julian said.

The Liberals said their MPs' 76-per-cent attendance showed a high rate of participation.

2020 All material Copyright (c) The Globe and Mail Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

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