New Democrats joined forces Tuesday with the governing Liberals to waive normal House of Commons proceedings for another four months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, they voted in favour of a government motion to continue with an expanded version of the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a stand-in for the chamber over the past month.
The motion passed by a vote of 28-23 in a skeleton House of Commons, with Liberal, NDP and Green MPs supporting it.
The Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs — who had argued for a resumption of normal Commons operations with a reduced number of MPs in the chamber — voted against.
As a result, the special committee will resume sitting Wednesday but in a new hybrid format, with a small number of MPs in the Commons and others participating virtually via two large screens set up on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
The committee — which has been meeting twice a week virtually and once a week in person with reduced numbers in the Commons — will now meet four times each week for the next month and four times over the summer.
A previous restriction that prevented MPs from asking questions on issues other than the pandemic will also be lifted.
The Commons has been largely adjourned since mid-March, when the country went into lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19. It has met only briefly to pass emergency aid legislation and several times to come to agreement on how the chamber should function while the pandemic continues.
The last agreement expired Monday, triggering a brief resumption of “normal” proceedings in the Commons, with only about 50 of the country’s 338 MPs actually in the chamber.
Prior to the vote, Conservative and Bloc MPs contended that continuing normal operations in the Commons is necessary for the proper functioning of Canada’s democracy.
They argued that the special committee structure does not allow MPs to use all the tools they would normally use in the Commons to hold the government to account, including opposition days, introducing motions, posing written questions and debating and voting on legislation on topics other than the novel coronavirus.
Conservative House leader Candice Bergen called the special committee “feeble” and a “fake Parliament.”
However, until the issue of how MPs can vote electronically is resolved, Liberals and New Democrats maintained the special committee is the best way to continue since it allows all 338 MPs to be involved in the proceedings — not just those who are in the chamber.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier Tuesday that there are still limitations in allowing MPs to vote virtually that would effectively disenfranchise millions of Canadians whose representatives would have no official say on government policies.
“I think it would be important to ensure that Canadians across the country have an ability to make their voices and decisions heard in Parliament through that process. That continues to be something we are working on,” he said.
The motion calls on the procedure and House affairs committee to further study how a secure electronic voting system could be set up.
The committee has heard from experts that there may be constitutional and technical concerns over electronic voting, which may also violate traditional principles of parliamentary procedure.
But Bloc MP Stephane Bergeron contended that the issue of voting is a “fallacious argument” being used to “silence Parliament.” He maintained that a solution to electronic voting could have been found had MPs put their minds to it.
Bergeron also accused the government of secretly negotiating a deal to secure the NDP’s support for continuing with the COVID-19 committee format, including a promise to work with the provinces to ensure workers are allowed at least 10 days of paid sick leave during the pandemic. That is an intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, he said.
Because the Liberals hold only a minority of seats in the Commons, they need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass the motion.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez chided the Bloc — which had refused to take part in the most recent negotiations about the future of the Commons because it maintained the government had reneged on previous agreements — for going off to “sulk in a corner.”
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus went after the Conservatives, saying it’s “pretty rich” for them to complain about shutting down Parliament when the previous minority government of Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament altogether in 2008 to avoid defeat in a confidence vote. They’ll be able to resume “howling at the moon, the abuse of the privileges of the most privileged people in Canada” in September but, in the meantime, he argued there’s work to get done to help Canadians weather the COVID-19 crisis.
“I want to get to that work tomorrow so that we can start to drill down and ask serious questions of ministers, where we have a good period of time to actually go through the issues, push, find out and insist on responses. So let’s just get down to it,” Angus said.