Dale Smith is a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action (Dundurn, 2017).
The novel coronavirus has required workarounds to some of the most fundamental aspects of our life. For instance, in this new reality of physical distancing, we cannot meet any more, so work conferences and religious gatherings have occurred online.
But that’s not a good solution for every workplace. And indeed, it will not work for Canada’s Parliament in any shape or form – not constitutionally, and not practically.
Parliament was suspended on March 13, but it has already been recalled once to pass emergency legislation, and will soon be recalled a second time on Saturday to pass even more measures. Both on the eve of the suspension and during the emergency sitting, bills were rushed through at all stages with little or no debate; Bill C-12 was not even publicly viewable until after it received royal assent, and all amendments to Bill C-13 were done in closed-door negotiations, leaving gaps in the public record.
Additionally, it takes 48 hours’ notice to recall Parliament to again pass more emergency legislation, and the government has already gone out of its way to ensure that the leader of the opposition, and his House and Senate leaders, were all flown to Ottawa for the single-day sittings in each chamber. That they were flown back home again, rather than having them stay in Ottawa for the duration, represents a giant waste of resources, considering that more legislation is inevitable.
There are other, more practical reasons why we can’t simply shift these emergency sittings to a virtual space. One of them is constitutional: Section 48 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stipulates that “The Presence of at least Twenty Members of the House of Commons shall be necessary to constitute a Meeting of the House for the Exercise of its Powers.” Presence is the key term here – they need to be in the Chamber. There is also the issue that each Chamber cannot proceed without the presence of their Mace, which is the symbol that shows the authority of the Crown being exercised by the Legislature. It’s not a silly affectation – it’s the fundamental basis of our constitutional monarchy. There is also a live question as to how we would extend parliamentary privilege to a virtual space, assuring MPs that they can speak unimpeded – an even bigger burden when technology buffers and lags.
There are particular technical constraints to attempting a “virtual” sitting, as our Commons committees are now experiencing as they sit through the crisis. There have been issues around providing simultaneous interpretation in both official languages, which is extremely complicated if you’re attempting to Skype in your speech or debate; bad signal and audio makes transcription and the eventual permanent record of these proceedings difficult and at times impossible. Needing to suspend proceedings numerous times to allow participants to reconnect is not viable in the course of a legislative debate, even if they had access to proper, secure technology – let alone the added constraints of working from home when there are others around.
The other lasting impact of why we shouldn’t allow virtual sittings is the social contagion: that is, the threat that MPs will argue that once the lockdowns are lifted, MPs – particularly those MPs who live far across the country, or who are trying to spend more time with family – would advocate for more virtual sittings. As sympathetic as we may be to their challenges, it would lead to the depopulation of Parliament, making it easier for Ottawa to become a catch-all bogeyman, allowing populist MPs to proudly proclaim how little time they spend there. Parliament happens face-to-face, and the most important conversations and connections happen on the sidelines and not on the record. That would be lost, just as we lost collegiality when we ended evening sittings and MPs stopped eating dinner together.
But bills must be passed during this crisis, and Parliament has to provide oversight throughout. So what should we do instead? Keep the skeleton parliament of 20 to 30 MPs in a reasonable proportion to seat count going for the duration, with modified rules to allow for added flexibility. That way we would get needed oversight and a faster response when new measures need to be legislated.
Parliament, after all, is an essential service. It can’t be cast aside, no matter the crisis.
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