Another year of hybrid Parliament? No.
If the Liberal government wants to extend this semi-artificial version of the people’s house, it can come back to the House of Commons in September and ask for a month. If it absolutely feels another 30 days is needed, it can ask MPs to vote again.
After that, they should start rushing back to the public square.
The Liberals have become comfy in the cocoon of a pandemic Parliament, where MPs don’t have to show up in person to cross swords in committee or Question Period or debate on a bill in the House of Commons.
Liberal House Leader Mark Holland said on Monday that the government wants Parliament to work that way for another year – ensuring “predictability.” But instead, they should be feeling pressure.
No, the pandemic is not over, but there are other ways to deal with MPs who are sick – the tradition of pairing MPs who will vote on opposite sides of an issue is a good place to start, and technology can perhaps be used as an exception. But the days of cabinet ministers beaming in to read lines on the screen have to go.
There is danger here of the government walking the nation sleepily into a new era of virtual Parliament under guise of convenience.
The hybrid Parliament was an emergency measure. In the spring of 2020, there was need to compromise on the niceties to get through the COVID-19 crisis. But when the necessity abates, the measures have to go as quickly as possible.
Instead, the Liberal government is just rolling them over for another year, and talking about the virtues of hybrid Parliament as though they might want to keep it indefinitely.
But for that they need a broad consensus – and not just the support of the New Democrats. The NDP, with a B.C.-based caucus that has to travel, seems to like it. But that’s not enough.
Ordinary Canadians who don’t spend their afternoons watching Question Period and committees should still be concerned about crisis measures being prolonged indefinitely. This is more than just turning the bad theatre of the House of Commons into bad TV.
The Commons could be setting an example for the country even if COVID-19 is not completely in the past.
But more importantly, it’s about a lazy extension of crisis rules in Parliament that could lead to an erosion of accountability and a loss of some of the good things that get done in the public square.
There is also the dysfunction of virtual proceedings, including technical issues and clunky process in a setting with dozens of speakers, complex procedure and interpreters. Committee chairs can’t whisper to clerks about the rules when they are operating from their living rooms. Procedural argument with MPs raising points of order bog down meetings in confusion.
And as it happens, the option to show up in Parliament on a screen from anywhere is the accidental culmination of a dream of governments of all stripes, which have wanted to find a way to get under-fire cabinet ministers into the Commons without having them walk past the press. Now they don’t even have to sneak out the back.
There is real accountability lost if ministers don’t have to walk past MPs in their caucus and stand up across from the opposition.
And parliamentary democracy isn’t just the performance. The few initiatives that reach across party lines usually start with MPs chatting in a corridor.
“The most important stuff happens on the way to washroom and in the ante-room,” said John Milloy, a professor of political science and public ethics at Wilfrid Laurier University who served as a Liberal MPP in Ontario and in Jean Chrétien’s Prime Minister’s Office. “Just those hours of being able to talk to each other, and dare I say, talk to the opposition.”
Mr. Milloy sees some good things in hybrid Parliaments that are worth keeping in some form. There could be a way of using virtual attendance or voting for an MP who is ill, has a family concern or has an emergency, he believes – as long as the default is attending in person. Perhaps MPs could get 10 virtual days a year.
“I’d like to see a system where there is a hybrid option, but you have to justify it,” he said.
That’s the sort of permanent change to Parliament that MPs might want to work out for the future. But it’s not something that should happen by accident, by lazily prolonging crisis measures for another year.
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