The House of Commons endorsed regular video meetings and one in-person gathering a week, rejecting calls from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer for MPs to meet more frequently on the floor of the House of Commons.
The Official Opposition Leader argued that Parliament is an essential service and should continue in reduced numbers while respecting the physical-distancing guidelines in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Conservative Party refused to support the deal reached over the weekend by the Liberal Party and the other opposition parties that allows for one in-person sitting a week with a reduced number of MPs present.
The Liberal deal was put to a vote Monday afternoon and agreed to by a small meeting of MPs in a 22-15 vote – over the objections of Conservative MPs – after several hours of debate. The government motion suspends all regular sittings of the House of Commons until May 25. The motion also creates a new COVID-19 committee that will meet in person on the floor of the House of Commons every Wednesday, starting next week, and by video conference on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The House of Commons has already met twice recently in reduced numbers – on March 25 and April 11 – to pass legislation approving new government programs in response to the pandemic. During those sittings, about 32 MPs were in the Chamber, with party representation in proportion to party standings in the full House of Commons.
The temporary suspension of Parliament expired Monday and the House resumed at 11 a.m. without a formal arrangement to reduce the number of MPs in the 338-seat Chamber.
Speaking with reporters Monday morning, Mr. Scheer said his party initially proposed four sitting days a week, but would be willing to accept two days. He added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are holding news conferences nearly every day.
“Mr. Trudeau needs to explain why he is trying to replace Parliament with press conferences,” Mr. Scheer said. He also pointed out that the House of Commons would have needed to meet Monday anyway to approve a new sitting schedule.
“So this argument that today’s session is somehow an extraordinary occurrence is completely bogus and disingenuous,” he said. “I believe that if members of Parliament can go to the grocery store, they can come inside a chamber that’s built for 338 people and ensure that programs and services that are being designed for Canadians are the best they possibly can be.”
During his daily news conference with reporters, Mr. Trudeau expressed hope that a deal would be reached before the end of the day that balanced the need for accountability and respect of health and safety guidelines.
“I think it’s all of our collective responsibility to do the best we can through this difficult situation,” he said Monday morning. “It is really important for me that we continue to uphold our democracy, our democratic principles, the principles of accountability, the ability to move forward with new legislation to help Canadians. That really matters. But it really matters that we do so responsibly.”
In London this week, the British Parliament will launch a virtual House of Commons that includes up to 50 MPs who will be physically in the chamber. The process will also accommodate up to 120 MPs taking part remotely through video link.
In Washington, the U.S. Congress initially suspended full in-person sessions until April 20 and then extended that suspension last week to May 4. Special sessions to pass emergency measures may still take place.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he wants the House to sit once a week, which would allow Parliament to adopt legislative amendments and improve benefits to Canadians affected by the pandemic.
“We know there are still numerous people who are falling through the cracks,” Mr. Singh said.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet denounced the “silliness” of the continuing debates among MPs over parliamentary procedures. He accused the Conservatives of using negotiations over the return of Parliament to engage in “blackmail and hostage taking.”
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