A working Parliament is more critical than ever

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on April 26, 2020.

Though it was justifiably overshadowed by last weekend’s tragedy in Nova Scotia and the ongoing pandemic itself, parliamentarians this week resolved an important debate over when and how the House of Commons and its committees will convene during this state of emergency.

This debate seemed like a distraction or even a nuisance to most. After all, the pressing concerns of the nation are immediate: getting payments to those in need, producing ventilators, sourcing raw materials for testing. But far from being an academic concern, the smooth and proper functioning of Parliament is actually now more critical than ever.

The compromise motion approved this week suspends regular sittings of all 338 MPs until May 25. Instead, it strikes a new COVID-19 committee whose members will meet on the floor once weekly, and virtually twice weekly. While the plan had the support of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc, the Conservatives objected to this proposal, arguing that the prime minister has effectively replaced Parliament with daily press conferences; pointing out that even as MPs refuse to meet, construction workers continue to work daily renovating Centre Block.

The Opposition had a point: there is no reason that if other essential businesses have found a way to carry on by respecting social distancing and implementing necessary health and safety measures, the most essential business of all — government — cannot, or will not, bring itself to do the same.

But with this motion’s passage, an institution, much of whose strength flows from its aversion to change, has now itself changed. But it has hardly, as the expression goes, changed on a dime.

Real challenges remain for the speaker and his staff. There are MPs who represent rural ridings where broadband connectivity is spotty at best. The most popular teleconferencing software is insufficiently secure. Many MPs struggle with the technology. There is, surprisingly, no easy way to arrange for simultaneous translation. It is not clear if the laws of parliamentary privilege that protect members from defamation and libel lawsuits apply in the virtual realm. And, of course, other quaint, many would say anachronistic, customs, such as the tradition of directing remarks to the speaker instead of a specific member, may also need to be revisited. As you can see, the list goes on and on.

But beyond those challenges, Andrew Scheer and his party face a more substantial one: how to hold the government to account in the face of this new reality. Fortunately, he has some promising international examples to look to.

Westminster, the mother Parliament in the U.K., has adopted a similar “hybrid” approach to its sittings, in which a proportional fraction of members remains physically present while up to 120 participate virtually; either group may put questions to ministers.

And while it is not the same, they are making it work. It was, for example, hardly the end of the world last week when Sir Keir Starmer had to make his House of Commons debut as Britain’s opposition leader during prime minister’s questions without the customary cheering and hissing that mark such occasions.

All opposition parties struggle to find their voice in times of crisis. In Canada, it doesn’t help that not only is our opposition leader someone who has quit his job, the race to replace him has been suspended.

Yet the pressing need for checks and balances remains. As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, democracy is never as precarious as during a pandemic. The government has already shown itself unafraid of anti-democratic overreach. Its attempt to invest the minister of finance with sweeping emergency powers that would last 18 months being exhibit A. Only in the face of fierce public criticism, led by the opposition, did the government back down.

Make no mistake about it: there are legitimate questions to ask. And forget questions about what the government has done. That’s water under the bridge. No, questions need to be asked about this government’s plan for when and how it plans to reopen the economy and about when and how it plans to rebuild Canada.

And those questions need to be both asked, and answered, in our house, the House of Commons.