MEPs wonder if virtual procedures have a place in post-pandemic parliament


OTTAWA – Like millions of Canadians, Members of Parliament look with mixed emotions at the prospect of returning to their usual activities after 15 months of working from home.

For most MPs, a return to normalcy means grueling trips, long stretches away from family and long stretches of warming seats in the House of Commons when they could do something more productive.

Even so, they seem surprisingly eager to get back to this routine once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over.

As of last September, the Commons and its committees have been fully operational in a hybrid format, with only a small contingent of MPs physically present while the rest participate and vote virtually from their homes or constituency offices.

Prior to that, the Commons had spent nearly six months sitting only sporadically for a day or two at a time, with a minimum number of MPs in the chamber, to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Liberal Whip Mark Holland says he was “blown away” by how House of Commons staff managed to make the hybrid format work. But he still doesn’t want to sue him once the pandemic is over.

“There is no doubt to me the importance of meeting in person and how much we missed in the inability to do so,” he said.

“I really think the physical presence in Ottawa is so essential to the work that we do. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas, a lot of speaking opportunities that are spontaneous and connections that are made which I think are a really important sauce in the business of making Parliament work that we really missed. . “

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie also doesn’t want to keep the debates virtual, despite the perks of working from his home in Winnipeg.

“It has been really nice to be close to my children for the past 15 months,” he admits. “It’s nice to be home and close to your comforts and it’s so nice not to travel 10 hours a week in my case and so much more for many other MPs and this is the time when you don’t. can’t come back. “

Nonetheless, Blaikie says: “I cannot say that I am a big supporter of Virtual Parliament.

“It’s a totally different vibe and culture that came with this Parliament and it’s been very isolating in some ways, which is really against politics,” he said.

“Like, politics is the art of figuring out how we can all get along, I think it’s better anyway… and it’s harder to do when you never see each other.”

For the member of the Bloc Québécois and deputy House leader Christine Normandin, “the distant Parliament has in a way become my reality”.

Newly elected in October 2019, she only had a few weeks to experience a normal Parliament before the pandemic struck and changed everything.

Normandin says she still got to know her 31 fellow Bloc MPs, but admits that “it’s not the same as having caucuses in person or being in the House all together and having side conversations all the time, things you can’t really have while being in Zoom. “

Blaikie also “really missed the collegiality” of the 24-member NDP caucus, noting that the “sense of solidarity” that normally prevails helps support MPs in what can be “sometimes very thankless” and ruthless work.

For Holland, whose job it is to maintain a much larger Liberal caucus of 155 members, the lack of in-person contact has made it “very difficult to get everyone on the same page.”

Beginning MPs, in particular, feel “they haven’t had the chance to participate” or get to know their colleagues, he says. And it has been even more difficult to get to know new MPs from other parties and to make connections that can be essential to the survival of a minority government.

“Usually you get to know them in the hallways and in the committee rooms and that hasn’t happened. So there’s a lack of cohesion in some respects that comes from not being able to build those relationships,” Holland said.

Normandin believes that virtual procedures have made the government less accountable.

It is more difficult, she says, to press for answers from ministers who are not actually in the House of Commons and impossible for reporters who would normally pursue them with questions after an appearance in the House or in committee.

“If they are online, they just need to log out and then that’s it, they are no longer responsible and no one is asking them any more questions.”

Blaikie believes virtual procedures have also made it more difficult for opposition-dominated Commons to gain respect from minority liberals.

Having to “face the House of Commons every day really gives the House a presence and a gravity that is just hard to grasp otherwise,” he says.

The Conservatives have been the most reluctant to embrace the hybrid format and are the most keen to see it end.

“Anyone who has watched the debates in the past year will tell you that video conference debates are not a substitute for reality,” Conservative whip Blake Richards said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

“From the very beginning, we have argued that these measures should be temporary for the duration of the pandemic and that Members of Parliament should return to work in person when it is safe to do so. “

Still, there are aspects of the pandemic format that might be worth retaining at least in part. If so, Holland, Blaikie and Normandin all stress that this should only happen with all-party consensus.

“There were definitely some good things that came out of it,” says Normandin.

For example, she says some remote participation can encourage people with young children or who want to start a family to get into politics. She also wonders if it would make sense to continue virtual participation in certain circumstances, such as a bad snowstorm.

“No one will tell you, ‘I want the House to go 100% virtual,’” she says. “Nobody wants that. There will have to be a balance.”

Holland vividly remembers his late Liberal colleagues Mauril Belanger and Arnold Chan who stood for votes in the House of Commons despite struggling with painful and debilitating illnesses. Perhaps, he suggests, there could be a remote voting allowance for deputies in poor health in the future.

While not himself a fan of virtual procedures, Blaikie is hopeful that the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, on which he sits, will do a thorough review of what worked and what didn’t. didn’t work during the pandemic and looks to the future with a “willingness to try new things.”

“I think one of the things we have learned in this pandemic is that you can change the way Parliament does its business and the skies don’t fall,” Blaikie said.

“It would be strange to go through an experience like this and decide that nothing should change at all. But choosing the right changes is an art, not a science, and there is no right answer.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 27, 2021.

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