Some politicians just can’t help themselves. Here we are in the middle of the greatest crisis to face Canada in 75 years, and in Ottawa the Liberal minority government and the Conservative Party opposition spent the weekend arguing over how often the House of Commons can sit without violating physical-distancing guidelines.
The Liberals were for fewer sittings, the Conservatives were for more.
On Monday, the Liberals won. The New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois sided with them to pass a motion under which a skeleton crew of members will sit in person one day a week, and which also allows for MPs to question ministers via video on two other days. The Conservatives had been holding out for three in-person sittings a week.
All things considered, the Conservatives had it right.
Across the country, Canadians are united over the need to endure the personal and financial sacrifices brought by the shutdown of the economy and the requirement to stay home as much as possible.
They are patiently standing in line to shop for food, while employees inside the stores risk their health to restock shelves. Hospital and long-term care workers are showing up for their shifts; at times they haven’t had all the protective equipment they need. Small-business owners are hanging on for dear life.
And meanwhile, the Liberal government is arguing that it’s dangerous for a scaled-down House of Commons to sit more than one day a week.
Here’s a thought: If it’s possible to safely physically distance in grocery stores, on transit and, as is now allowed in Quebec, in garden centres, then 30 to 40 MPs representing a proportionally scaled-down version of the full House – as was done twice to pass emergency legislation – can safely gather in a chamber designed to hold 338 MPs.
And given the necessity for Canadians to self-isolate for a while longer, if a small number of MPs have to spend the next few weeks in Ottawa, without flying home on weekends, so be it. Life is difficult right now. There are mourning people in Nova Scotia who won’t be able to attend loved ones’ funerals.
Above all, it should have been a given, from Day One, that Parliament must continue to operate as normally as possible during this crisis.
There are big questions ahead of us: when and how to restart the economy; when to reopen the border; and how to ensure there are adequate supplies of testing kits and contact-tracing tools so we can avoid more outbreaks.
This is no time to reduce our most vital democratic institution to a sideshow to the Prime Minister’s daily press briefings. As welcome as they are, they are not a substitute for responsible government.
Canadians could actually be forgiven for thinking these days that Justin Trudeau is leading a majority government. He isn’t; that’s not what voters gave him. His party needs the support of at least one other party to pass a bill or a motion in the House.
And yet, other than the two times Parliament has convened to pass emergency legislation, Mr. Trudeau has had the national microphone to himself. There has been little room for opposition voices, and it appears Mr. Trudeau has now managed to keep it that way. Parliament will not resume its normal functions until May 25 at the earliest.
The whole thing seems strange. If it’s safe for MPs to meet in person on Wednesdays, why not Tuesdays and Thursdays, too? A virtual Parliament is fine in theory, but the signs are not there that Parliament has all of the needed video-conferencing technology in place. These sessions won’t be coronavirus cocktail parties on Zoom.
The only thing that is a certainty is that Parliament must not be sidelined. The surest way to keep democracy vibrant is for the House to sit at least two days a week, with a reduced number of government and opposition MPs facing off across the aisle.
The MPs involved would not be taking more risks than the average Canadian still reporting to a workplace every day. And Canadians would get to see their government continuing to function through extraordinary times.
Instead, we are getting a weak compromise that is a betrayal of everyone who expected Ottawa to be as diligent and responsible as Ottawa expects them to be.