Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer rose in the House of Commons on Wednesday to ask the very first face-to-face question in Canada’s corona-curtailed Parliament. It will not be remembered as a high point in the history of the Westminster system.
Would the Prime Minister, Mr. Scheer asked, update him on the case of a tractor dealership in his Saskatchewan riding that is ineligible for the federal government’s emergency wage-subsidy program because of a technicality, but which desperately needs assistance?
After a brief reiteration of the bailout measures adopted by Parliament, Justin Trudeau responded that he would look into the issue Mr. Scheer brought up “in regards to the company in his riding.”
And thus the largely sidelined and mostly empty Parliament that lies at the heart of Canada’s democracy got off to a not-so-rollicking start under rules adopted last week.
Those rules, proposed by the minority Liberal government and passed with the help of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois, were designed to allow MPs to convene while respecting physical-distancing requirements.
They were also designed to suit the Liberals, who would have been happy to let Mr. Trudeau’s daily briefings stand as the only bit of government in operation during the crisis – other than intermittent House sittings to pass emergency legislation.
The Liberals compromised by forming a small whole-of-government committee on the COVID-19 crisis that meets twice a week, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Tuesday meetings are held remotely, by videoconference, and the Wednesday meetings are held in the House of Commons. (A third weekly meeting, to be held remotely, will start in May.)
The time allotted for MPs to pepper ministers with questions is not the same as the 45-minute Question Period that takes place when Parliament is sitting normally.
These sessions are committee meetings, which have a different tone than the harsh give-and-take of Question Period. And there is only one subject allowed – the pandemic.
This is something we should be wary of, though it does have its upsides.
Most notably, this week there was none of the tiresome theatrics of Question Period – no choreographed outrage, no annoying heckling, no pointless standing ovations. Instead, our politicians were more polite and collegial than we’re used to.
The lengthy sessions were in fact a glimpse into the non-partisan cooperation and measured competition that takes place in Parliament on a regular basis, but which is rarely seen.
The virtual meeting was especially so. Ministers answered questions without reading from notes, and offered to share information with opposition critics. Everyone agreed to collaborate on the roll-out of government assistance programs, especially when it came to technicalities that left some workers, charitable organizations and businesses ineligible for much-needed help.
The only interruptions came from MPs with technical problems. A lot of technical problems.
The live session on Wednesday was similarly sedate. Some of the questions were important: Would Canada join Australia’s call for an investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak? (No.) Would the government deny taxpayer-funded financial assistance to companies that register themselves in offshore tax havens? (No.) Would Canada change the way it manages the National Emergency Stockpile, which was supposed to include personal protection equipment but was somehow out of the stuff? (Yes.)
But there was little urgency to the proceedings. It was a reminder that Question Period can be a terrible advertisement for the good work that gets done in Parliament, but also that its operatic drama and affected outrage are what engage voters in the stakes at play in their federal democracy.
It may be true that there is little appetite for business-as-usual politics at the moment, but that shouldn’t exempt cabinet ministers from feeling the heat of accountability.
The pandemic has allowed the Trudeau government the luxury of insulating itself from the cut and thrust of Question Period. As a result, the Canadian public is in danger of sleepwalking through Ottawa’s handling of the crisis.