As Parliament’s spring sitting comes to an end this week, the Liberal government is proposing that MPs be allowed to participate virtually in House of Commons business for another year.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, in early 2020, MPs have been able to fulfill their duties in Ottawa remotely, using videoconference software and an app that allows them to vote on their phones. Government House Leader Mark Holland announced the plan to preserve those “hybrid Parliament” privileges on Monday.
Conservative House Leader John Brassard criticized the idea, saying MPs need to be in Ottawa doing their jobs.
In a news conference, Mr. Holland said he has told his counterparts from other parties that, despite the availability of remote work, the government is committed to having ministers answer questions in person, barring serious health issues or the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant.
“I was in opposition for a long time and I understand very well that accountability is essential, and the ability to pose questions in Question Period and get answers in person is extraordinarily important,” he said.
But, he added, there is a need to be mindful of COVID-19. He noted that last week five MPs, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were sick with the virus and could only participate remotely.
“So this pandemic continues and so does the need to have flexibility,” he said, adding that a motion on the issue will be reviewed by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, which deals with procedural and administrative issues related to the Commons.
He said the committee will be given time to properly consider the plan.
Parliamentary interpreters, who translate the business of Canada’s government from English to French and French to English, have raised concerns about hybrid Parliament, suggesting aspects of the new routine have caused them to develop tinnitus, headaches, nausea and other workplace injuries.
Mr. Brassard cited stresses on interpreters among his reasons for rejecting Mr. Holland’s proposal.
“When the Liberals talk about a hybrid Parliament, what they are really talking about is setting up a Parliament where they can be less accountable,” Mr. Brassard told a news conference.
“Having MPs in this place, debating, standing up and having their vote counted is critical to not just this institution, but the way our Parliamentary democracy functions.”
Mr. Brassard said he had spoken to Mr. Holland on Monday morning. “We’re preparing some things we think are going to make the motion better,” he said.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian said his party supports a hybrid Parliament.
“COVID-19 is still very much a part of our reality,” Mr. Julian said in a statement. “That is why we support hybrid Parliament. This will allow us to keep everyone safe while continuing to do our job to represent Canadians and work for them.”
“Being able to participate remotely ensures that, even if an MP gets sick, they are still able to make their constituents’ voices heard by voting on issues that matter to Canadians.”
Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said in a statement that ministers need to be in the House to answer questions, but that his party does not exclude the possibility of extending the hybrid Parliament as the COVID-19 situation evolves and changes.
Mr. Therrien added that hybrid Parliament must not become the norm, and that it might be best to make a decision on the issue in the fall, once there is more information on the progress of the pandemic.
“There is no urgency to decide now,” he said.
The House is scheduled to break on Thursday for the summer, but could rise sooner. House sittings are scheduled to resume on Sept. 19.
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