The House of Commons is scheduled to return Monday. Obviously, all 338 MPs must not convene. But the time has come for regular sittings of the House, either real or virtual. Despite the COVID-19 emergency – no, because of it – we need the return of politics in Canada.
Over the past month, federal and provincial leaders and governing and opposition parties have worked together to confront and contain the pandemic. We’ve never seen such close co-operation, not even in wartime.
The Premier of Quebec asked the federal government this week to deploy the military in his province in support of stricken nursing homes. Who would have thought?
All federal political parties have joined in supporting unprecedented fiscal measures to aid workers and businesses affected by the coronavirus. Although there have been missteps, some of them with tragic consequences, over all, the country has pulled together and is pulling through this health and economic emergency.
But there are big decisions to make in the weeks ahead, and Parliament is the place for debating what to do. The Conservatives want the House to meet regularly, with a bare-minimum number of MPs. The Liberals, while not ruling out in-person sessions, lean toward creating a virtual House of Commons, with MPs debating online.
There are problems with both approaches. The former could put support staff at risk; technical challenges could hamper the effectiveness of the latter.
On Friday, each side was accusing the other of obstruction, even as negotiations continued.
Enough. One way or another, Parliament must return.
Two huge political questions need public debate in the House. The first is when and how to relaunch the economy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers agree that governments must be guided by the advice of public-health authorities. Opposition parties at both the federal and provincial level concur.
But as the economic wreckage worsens, and tempers wear thin, people will begin to resist. Those who argue that schools and some non-essential businesses should soon reopen need to be heard. How and when to reboot the economy will increasingly become a political question, as well as a question of public health.
While provincial governments will have the final say, Ottawa plays an important role as well. Conservatives and Liberals are bound to differ on how to restore economic life in Canada. The floor of the Commons is the best place to debate those differences.
Second, Canada needs to reconsider its relations with China. There is growing evidence the government in Beijing suppressed information on the virulence of the coronavirus. If so, all of us have paid the price, some with their lives.
Political leaders in Washington, London and Paris have openly criticized China’s secrecy. But on Friday, Mr. Trudeau dodged repeated questions from reporters on China, as he has in the past. The national parties must debate how Canada will deal with China going forward.
There are other big issues: whether and how to change the nature of supply chains; whether the Liberal aid announced Friday for the stricken oil-and-gas sector is anything more than a sop.
Everything that is being debated on Twitter and Facebook and in the news media needs to be debated on the floor of the House and in Question Period. Canada is a parliamentary democracy, health emergency or no health emergency.
The Liberal government deserves high praise for its emphatic and effective response to this pandemic. Our per-capita mortality rate is far lower than in the United States. Federal supports for workers and businesses offer people real hope and could quicken economic recovery.
But the Liberals might also have made serious mistakes, in when and how Ottawa closed its borders, in failing to understand the vulnerability of nursing homes, and in botched efforts to develop tests and trace infections.
The opposition parties have every right to raise these issues, and the governing party has every right to defend its record. The place to do that is in Parliament, not just once a day in front of a microphone.
Other parliaments, including Westminster in London, are finding physical and virtual ways to convene. Canada must be no exception.
“Now more than ever, Parliament is an essential service,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Friday morning.
He’s right. It’s time to bring back the People’s House.
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