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Coronavirus: Committee recommends moving to fully virtual Parliament

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota speaks during a virtual session of Parliament Tuesday April 28, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

An all-party committee is recommending the House of Commons hold additional virtual sittings to conduct all its regular business — including voting — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendation was included in a majority report released Friday by the procedure and House affairs committee, which has been studying how to move toward a fully virtual Parliament.

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But while the governing Liberals and most opposition parties supported the move to more virtual proceedings, the Conservatives issued a dissenting report that renewed their call for more in-person sittings of the Commons.

The Commons has been adjourned since mid-March, except for several single-day special sittings to pass emergency aid legislation, as part of the countrywide effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

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However, since late last month MPs have been meeting by videoconference twice a week and a small number have gathered in person once a week in modified Commons proceedings devoted strictly to the COVID-19 crisis.

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Given the success of those online proceedings, the majority committee report says the Commons should move towards additional virtual sittings for all its regular business.

Moreover, it says the Commons should set up a secure electronic voting system as soon as possible, rather than the usual practice of allowing only MPs who are physically present in the chamber to vote on motions and legislation.

Electronic voting would “guarantee the right of members to vote safely in the event of a pandemic or any other exceptional circumstances threatening their safety and/or that of their families and communities,” the report says.

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However, the Conservative minority report recommends that the Commons adopt a “hybrid model,” whereby some MPs would be in the chamber while those unable to be present due to pandemic-related issues could still participate via videoconference “in the House’s constitutional duty of holding the government to account.”

Still, the Conservatives argue MPs who participate virtually should not have the same rights as those actually in the chamber.

“We strongly oppose … the use of any virtual proceedings to consider legislation, a budget or an address in reply,” the minority report says.

“The official Opposition will strongly resist any effort to exploit the pandemic as a cover to implement a permanent virtual Parliament, with its reduced ability to hold the government accountable, gravely undermining our democracy.”

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In anticipation of the committee report’s release, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer contended earlier Friday that it’s more essential than ever for the Liberal government to be held accountable for the billions it’s thrown into emergency aid programs, now that the country is beginning to embark on an economic recovery.

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He said regular in-person sittings of the Commons need to resume as currently scheduled on May 25.

“We’ve always said that virtual sittings can be used to augment, to facilitate members who may not be able to come to Ottawa, but it certainly is no replacement,” Scheer said.

“(Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau should not be using a health pandemic to avoid accountability and oversight and should not be eliminating the role of the people’s representatives.”

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For his part, Trudeau said virtual proceedings have worked well and allow MPs who aren’t close to Parliament Hill to have their say on the issues, as most who attend in person are from relatively nearby.

“We all agree we need to continue with a strong democracy and a functioning Parliament in a way that ensures that concerns of Canadians from every part of this country get heard,” he said.

During this week’s in-person sitting, some MPs representing ridings across the country were in attendance.

Among them, the Green party’s Paul Manly, whose riding is in B.C, several Conservatives from the Prairies and Bloc Quebecois MPs from all parts of Quebec.

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The Liberal side was mostly Toronto-area cabinet ministers, but Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan from B.C., and Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos from Quebec City were there, as well as some Liberal backbenchers whose ridings are within a few hours’ drive of Ottawa.

The majority committee report includes some recommendations to deal with technical glitches that have plagued virtual proceedings, particularly those related to injuries sustained by interpreters due to poor audio quality and occasional feedback loops.

It also includes recommendations designed to deal with some of the breaches of decorum that have occurred. Among other things, it suggests that a uniform sign or screen symbolizing Parliament be set up behind each MP participating in videoconference sittings “to avoid any form of partisanship” and maintain the privacy of MPs.

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Virtual proceedings so far have given Canadians a glimpse into MPs’ homes and offices, while some MPs have taken the opportunity to display what might be considered props that are normally prohibited in the Commons.