Hybrid Parliament ready to launch, House officials say in previously confidential report

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Politics, Words: 733

Hybrid Parliament ready to launch, House officials say in previously confidential report

Report comes as Liberals and opposition debate whether to extend the current suspension of Parliament

by: Bill Curry

The House of Commons administration says it is ready and able to implement a U.K.-style "hybrid" Parliament that allows regular in-person sittings to resume with some MPs participating by video on screens placed inside the Chamber.

In a previously confidential report that has since been made public, the public servants responsible for running the House of Commons say weeks of research and testing have allowed them to reproduce a version of the British Parliament's temporary system.

"The House of Commons Administration is positioned to enable fully virtual sittings of the Chamber, as well as hybrid sittings (where some Members are physically present and others participate remotely), as of May 11, 2020," the report says.

In conclusion, it states: "The Administration is confident it can deliver."

The officials proposed a plan they say is the result of "intensive collaboration" with other parliaments as well as consultations with industry leaders and international security experts, plus simulations and technical tests.

The report adds a new dynamic to the behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place this week ahead of Monday's return to Parliament, when MPs will decide whether to resume regular sittings.

Canada's House of Commons suspended all regular sittings on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic. That suspension was renewed on April 20 until May 25, over the objections of Conservative MPs. Since then, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and government ministers have answered opposition questions by video on Tuesdays and Thursdays and in-person on the floor of the House of Commons each Wednesday. The government calls this a "virtual Parliament," but in fact they are meetings of a special committee on COVID-19 and are not official sitting days.

Two official sitting days did occur during this time to pass government bills.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Tuesday that he supports a U.K.-style "hybrid" Parliament and is calling for the current arrangement to end.

The temporary arrangement expires on Monday, meaning the government must reach an agreement with the other parties in the minority Parliament if it wishes to extend the suspension of regular sittings.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Mr. Scheer said that businesses across Canada are starting to reopen and the House of Commons should be no exception.

"We believe that we could have been sitting more regularly with a smaller number of MPs as far back in April 20th. Today, with more and more provinces lifting health restrictions, we believe that the justification for not sitting is even weaker," he said. "If I can take my dog to an animal groomer here in Ontario, certainly members of Parliament should be able to show up for work and provide much needed oversight and accountability on this government."

Mr. Trudeau said the temporary rules have worked well and he wants to ensure MPs who represent ridings far from Ottawa are still able to participate.

"We've put forward proposals that combine both virtual sittings and in-person sittings to continue the approach we have right now," he said. "We look to good conversations with other parties on figuring out that right balance as we move forward safely in upholding the importance of our democracy."

MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee have held online meetings to hear from legal and procedural experts on options for more in-depth virtual sittings. The committee released a separate report on Friday that included summaries of how other Parliaments and legislatures are managing their work during pandemic restrictions.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said he supports the proposal for hybrid sittings as outlined in the previously confidential report from officials, which has been presented to MPs by House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota.

"That is the kind of approach that provides for participation from MPs across the country who can't travel," said Mr. Julian, who predicted the parties will be able to reach an agreement by Monday. "I see goodwill from all sides," he said.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet issued a statement Tuesday outlining what his party will be seeking when the current suspension ends. The Bloc is calling on the government to produce a fiscal update before the end of June and to reschedule sitting days lost due to the suspension.

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

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