The debate over the fate of Canada’s hybrid Parliament — and the ability of MPs to work from home — is unfolding as a battle between traditionalists and progressives.
Conservative House Leader John Brassard says remote work gives the Liberal government new avenues to duck accountability. Mute button blunders, headset problems and connectivity issues have disrupted the rhythm of chamber and committee proceedings, he added.
“It’s contributed to a decline in our democracy,” said Brassard. “It’s contributed to challenges in holding the government to account.”
There are many MPs who firmly don’t agree. Politicians on all sides, the ones with more progressive streaks, argue it’s about damn time Parliament embraced elements of modernity to reflect contemporary society.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wants hybrid Parliament to be permanent. He argues it will make federal politics more attractive to women and people with caregiving responsibilities.
Hybrid sittings expire June 23, parallel with when the House is set to adjourn for summer. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took advantage of the House’s hybrid flexibility this week, joining via Zoom after testing positive for Covid-19 for the second time.
Trudeau isn’t the only one. As public health restrictions have lifted, some MPs and senators have continued to exercise their remote work options. Even MPs who travel to Ottawa seem to enjoy the flexibility of a new hybrid Parliament, choosing to attend debates in person during the day and participate in votes remotely in the evening, from a lake or even the bathroom.
“I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t preferences within our caucus to continue with the voting app,” Brassard said. “But the fact is that we need to get back to where people are taking their seats, rightfully, in the House of Commons.”
Zoom and the creation of a voting app are new pandemic-era technologies that allow MPs and senators to do their jobs outside the parliamentary precinct. These tools didn’t exist at the beginning of 2020. To have your vote counted, you had to be in Ottawa, be inside the chamber and stand in your seat.
But Brassard is a self-described traditionalist. Members of Parliament should stand to be counted for votes, he said — that means being in the capital, taking your seat in the chamber.
His lament is similar to the tenor of complaints raised by members of the parliamentary press gallery, concerned about restricted access to the people in power being everlasting.
“There used to be a time in this place when every minister would show up, if they obviously were in the country, would show up to the House of Commons during question period or to engage in debate,” Brassard said.
It was a unanimous consent motion in January that extended Parliament’s hybrid arrangement to late June. The topic was only briefly discussed at this week’s meeting of House leaders. Government House Leader Mark Holland’s office said talks are ongoing.
Brassard expects Parliament to go back to in-person sittings for the fall session, but it’s not a guarantee. Health experts are predicting another Covid wave is “almost baked in” for the fall — circumstances that could pull support for another extension.
Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith is a father of two young children. He’s a fan of the electronic voting system introduced in 2020 that allows members to vote remotely. During the first year of the pandemic, he once voted while reading a bedtime story to his kid in his Toronto home — a first.
Erskine-Smith told the House in a speech on June 2 that hybrid’s remote flexibility has allowed him to be a better father. “I am also a better parliamentarian and certainly a better husband,” he added.
Grueling travel schedules during sitting weeks doesn’t make Parliamentarian life attractive to MPs or senators with young families, caregiving responsibilities, or those who represent far-flung remote communities.
It has also pared down committee expenses in both the House and Senate, with nil to low hospitality costs for every witness who joins by videoconference. There are some upshots.
A report released by the Parliamentary Budget Officer last year found a hybrid system, with 50 percent virtual participation in the House and Senate could lead to an annual 2,972 metric ton cut in greenhouse gas emissions related to travel — and save C$6.2 million annually.
But the shift to hybrid, at the committee level, has also led to a spike in auditory injuries reported by interpreters whose ears have been harmed because of “toxic sound” quality from videoconferences.
Snapping back to in-person sittings would be a regressive move, the NDP argue — especially after all the money poured into the new tech tools and translators.
It cost C$1.9 million in set up costs to outfit Parliament for hybrid functionality. The expenses include voting app development and new displays for clerks on the floor to monitor MPs and senators joining virtually, according to the federal budget watchdog.
Annual costs, including covering members’ internet bills and supporting expanded translation bureau services, is estimated to be roughly C$4.7 million.
NDP MP Laurel Collins is quarantined at home this week after testing positive for Covid. Her symptoms are mild enough for her to continue to do her job, despite not being physically present in the precinct.
“It is really surprising to me that while we are in this pandemic, while MPs still have to isolate, that there are members of parliament who would oppose this really sensible policy,” she said.
When WEBICNEWS spoke to Collins on Monday, she had already attended an environment committee meeting, was able to vote, participate in debate and join question period.
“Without hybrid parliament, I would not be able to do this work,” she said. The hybrid rules have been necessary to respect public health guidance while also allowing members to represent their constituents, she said.
“It should be a no-brainer to continue.”
Brassard’s argument that hybrid Parliament has undermined accountability in the House has a Bill Morneau-sized hole in it. The former finance minister resigned in August 2020 under the weight of the WE Charity scandal, a controversy that unfolded while the House and committees sat virtually.
The Conservative House leader acknowledges there are “exceptional” circumstances where the voting app can have continued utility. Situations such as a member dealing with a serious medical condition or bereavement leave are some scenarios he listed as acceptable for remote voting.
“We want to make sure that all members of parliament are able to participate in the roles that they’ve been elected to do,” Brassard said, adding he isn’t against a member voting by proxy or through the voting app as options — but not for everyone.