As early as next week, Canadians will have a front-row seat to something that’s never been done before: virtual meetings of members of this country’s Parliament.
But it won’t be an easy task, warned House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota on Tuesday.
Rota joined members of the House of Commons procedure committee for a virtual meeting to discuss how to move forward with plans to implement virtual meetings on a much larger scale.
“Not everything is possible during this pandemic,” he told members.
“It will be necessary to establish priorities.”
His appearance came one day after a small group of MPs from all parties returned to Ottawa on Monday to vote on a government plan to have in-person meetings in the House of Commons once per week.
The idea is for that weekly, in-person meeting to be supplemented with two virtual meetings.
Making those virtual meetings a reality, though, will be difficult, Rota told the committee.
Those challenges have to do with everything from making sure simultaneous translation is available for MPs — an issue that has already led to repeated delays and interruptions in the limited number of committee meetings so far — to the fact that many rural ridings don’t have reliable internet.
“Not all MPs or not all ridings are treated equally when it comes to internet connectivity,” Rota said.
That’s not just talk. The CRTC has noted that while 86 per cent of Canadians nationally have access to reliable broadband internet, that number drops to just 41 per cent in rural communities.
Rota also noted another potential problem.
“Some of our MPs are not tech-savvy, shall we say,” he added. “Getting them on board might be more difficult. It’s a small minority but they have the same rights as everyone else.”
When the virtual meetings get running, they won’t technically be a means of passing and debating legislation like normal sittings of the House of Commons would do.
Instead, they are designed to be more of a question-and-answer format to give all members the chance to question ministers on announcements and hold the government to account.
It’s similar to, though different from, the approach being taken in the United Kingdom, which also moved last week to try out what it is billing as “hybrid” sittings.
Those will see daily question periods for the prime minister or someone designated in his place and will allow up to 50 British MPs to be present in the House of Commons with another 120 video calling in.
That still leaves roughly 170 British MPs out of the loop for that process and similarly is not designed as a way to be able to debate and pass legislation.
But the U.K. also has a very different geographic and political landscape than Canada.
Paul Thomas, a senior research associate with the Samara Centre for Democracy, said the factors mentioned by Rota along with issues like multiple different time zones add up to a more challenging situation for Canadian parliamentarians to wrap their heads around.
Thomas noted that simple procedures, such as the fact that MPs always address their comments through the Speaker of the House of Commons and not directly to other members, will need to be adapted.
But he added that the reasons behind the switch are important for Canadians and will help ensure that regional voices get the chance to voice regional concerns.
“The reason they’re looking into this is to try to overcome some of the shortcomings that we’ve seen with the sittings that have taken place since COVID-19 emerged and social distancing began,” Thomas said, pointing to the fact that no MP from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland or the territories was present for the last two sittings.
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That includes the one on Monday following a devastating shooting rampage that left at least 23 dead in rural Nova Scotia over the weekend.
While many members — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — offered condolences to the victims and their loved ones, no one from the province was actually there.
“A virtual sitting could hopefully help if there are instances where having a voice from a particular community would be helpful,” Thomas said.
“So that people are not just talked about — they’re able to put their own views forward.”