Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant is a professor of political studies and director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at Queen’s University.
For nearly two years, the Canadian House of Commons has used a hybrid model, meaning parliamentarians can attend in-person or by video teleconferencing for House sittings and voting. This arrangement was born of necessity during the pandemic when public-health measures advised against travel and large in-person gatherings to control the spread of COVID-19.
But hybrid arrangements in the House of Commons are set to expire on June 23, with the end of the current session of Parliament. The federal government should extend the hybrid model for the hub of our democracy – and work with other political parties to ensure that it is here to stay.
Permanent hybrid models for parliamentary business can promote diversity in representation by increasing flexibility for those many Canadians combining work and care responsibilities, such as those looking after young children, elders or ailing family members. Women and racialized minorities with strong intergenerational family settings may benefit most from such an arrangement.
A hybrid House of Commons also diminishes the need for burdensome back-and-forth travel to MPs’ constituencies, particularly for those representing Canada’s rural, remote and Northern regions.
Extension of the arrangements would be consistent with the Liberal government’s efforts to enhance representativeness in Parliament, such as appointing gender-parity cabinets, the first female Finance Minister and the first gender-equal Senate.
The good news is that the idea already has support in the House. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has publicly supported the idea of permanent hybrid arrangements in a bid to improve accessibility to politics. With the Liberal and NDP’s confidence-and-supply agreement, the government has the votes to make this happen.
Canada wouldn’t be alone in revising the deliberative process in politics in the wake of what we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parallel debates are occurring in other countries, such as Britain and Australia, as well as in international organizations, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women. As Canadian Senator and IPU member Salma Ataullahjan put it, “the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink processes and priorities in parliaments. The chance to build more gender-inclusive legal reforms and gender-responsive institutions must be seized.”
Indeed, an IPU survey of parliaments worldwide found that 24 per cent of parliaments plan to keep all their remote arrangements postpandemic; 52 per cent plan to keep at least some.
Should the hybrid House of Commons continue, several key matters will require attention to ensure it is truly diversity-sensitive.
First, the greater convenience of hybridity should not be used to increase productivity expectations in legislative work. Recently, the Liberal government introduced a motion that would allow extension of House sittings to midnight for the rest of the current session, from the current 6:30 p.m. adjournment time, on any sitting day.
Night sittings have long been criticized as family-unfriendly, and the danger is that such moves could become more common if MPs do not have to attend the House in person.
Indeed, broader debates in many white-collar workplaces about returning to the office after an extended period of work from home during the pandemic have raised concerns about the blurring of work and home life. Some employees say they have found it harder to “switch off” while working from home.
Another concern about hybrid work arrangements is the ways in which virtual workers feel the need to be visible. In-person workers may be seen as more “present” or as harder workers, while virtual workers are “out of sight, out of mind.” Indeed, it has been worrisome to see the rise of new forms of “presenteeism” to try to offset this, in which people work virtually even while they’re sick, on maternity or parental leave, or on other types of leaves. The Conservative Party’s critique of the hybrid House of Commons has been infused with some of these sentiments, accusing the Liberals of “hybrid hibernation,” or using virtual sittings to avoid scrutiny and accountability.
Likewise, there could be harmful results if permanent hybridization is framed solely as a diversity issue. This could open under-represented groups up to accusations of slacking, or simply render them less visible. Attitudes toward female MPs might be diminished among voters and among political gatekeepers who are essential to backbenchers’ career progression.
Let’s take the innovations that were forced upon us during the pandemic as an opportunity to pursue positive permanent change. The hybrid House of Commons is worth preserving – but only if its postpandemic future is carefully designed and implemented.
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