Imagine for a moment a science-fiction future where people immune to a virulent pathogen are a key buffer for vulnerable swaths of society and where everyone’s human contacts are traced by a cellphone app. For the sake of argument, let’s call this sci-fi future August.
Then let’s imagine the Canadians in that August looking back at the policy debates now. They will matter.
When will a program of antibody testing start, so scientists can determine how many were infected, how many are now immune to COVID-19 or whether there even is any lasting immunity? Where are the armies of contact tracers that would be needed to ensure there is no second wave after restrictions are lifted? Will Canada use the invasive surveillance apps to track citizens, as other countries have?
The great societal reopening debate of 2020 is beginning. Let’s hope it goes better than the debate about reopening Parliament.
The governing Liberals initially wanted to call Parliament back from crisis hiatus only when emergency legislation had to be passed. The Conservatives initially wanted in-person sittings, with reduced numbers of 30 to 40 MPs, four times a week. There was some bending. There was a lot of brinkmanship.
But this is a time for rough compromise. Cut the baby in half. Do it for all such issues. Then get on to urgent questions we need answered by August.
Instead, we have seen a game of parliamentary chicken. The Liberals started it. The Conservatives took it too far.
An important principle is at stake. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers have been governing by press conference, and it is high time they face regular opposition questioning. The Liberals recalled Parliament twice to pass legislation, but didn’t make it a regular thing. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was right to howl.
Then the brinkmanship: Under terms agreed in March, the House of Commons was scheduled to resume sitting regularly on Monday. None of the parties wanted all 338 MPs to take their seats, but unless there was some kind of all-party agreement, there would be no special rules.
The Liberals didn’t really move until a few days ago, offering to hold one in-person session with reduced numbers, and one virtual session. On Sunday, they accepted an NDP proposal: one reduced in-person session and two e-sessions each week, ramped up over three weeks.
All parties except the Tories agreed. Mr. Scheer insisted to reporters his Conservatives can only accept three in-person sittings a week, with reduced numbers, rather than one in-person, plus two e-sessions. He dug in his heels.
He complained e-sessions will disadvantage MPs from remote ridings that have poor broadband, which is true, but most of those MPs won’t travel to reduced in-person sessions of 30-odd MPs, either. The NDP wanted e-sessions so MPs far from Ottawa could ask more questions.
The Conservative Leader argued that Parliament is an essential service, which is true, but then he didn’t show why it can’t be delivered differently, in a crisis.
Those e-sessions have another big drawback, in Conservative eyes: They make terrible TV. They want their own high-profile platform to take on Mr. Trudeau, and the Liberals were happily denying it.
There is a kind of corollary. Mr. Scheer demands Parliament open while some of the Conservative base appears to be growing impatient to lift some restrictions soonish and get the economy rolling. Mr. Trudeau suggests that could be months away and stresses staying the course.
That’s where future Canadians from August will need MPs to stay focused, and cut down on process quarrels. They don’t yet need the debate on the great societal reopening to be about when it will happen, for that matter. They need answers about how.
Before restrictions are lifted, Canadians should know whether the virus has infected 35,000 or 350,000. It is important to track whether those who recover have some immunity. That will take serological testing for antibodies, which hasn’t been approved in Canada yet. MPs should be asking for the plan.
When restrictions are lifted, it will take an army of contact tracers to follow new cases to prevent a new wave. Are they being trained? Will Canada use electronic surveillance apps to track contacts? When Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains was asked that last week, he said all options are on the table. Let’s hope not.
Those questions will matter in a few months. The format for next week’s sitting won’t. Compromise, and focus on getting us to August.
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