When New Brunswick’s legislature resumed Tuesday afternoon, it did so with 11 MLAs participating remotely.
It’s the first time a regular sitting of the province’s legislature has been allowed to happen virtually – approved just one week prior.
Debate over the matter has spanned much of the past year, with many other jobs incorporating virtual or hybrid meeting models in the early days of the pandemic.
It was only approved for this week out of necessity – with 14 MLAs potentially exposed to COVID-19 at a Fredericton-area hotel.
The rules require three days’ notice for any MLAs to participate virtually – a criterion that was met because legislature staff began looking into making the shift on Friday, as cases and public exposure lists grew in the Fredericton area.
Now that it’s happening, any MLA can participate virtually regardless of whether or not they were one of those impacted by potential exposure.
Seven PC, three Liberal and one Green member did so Tuesday.
The rule also requires at least 14 members, including Speaker Bill Oliver, to physically be in the chamber.
Liberal MLA for Campbellton-Dalhousie Guy Arseneault was there in person Tuesday – but thinks the option to appear virtually should extend beyond the pandemic.
“It should always be an option,” he says.
Arseneault points to examples of extreme weather or flooding that could stop a member from reaching the legislature.
He also says the option would remove a barrier that might be keeping women out of politics.
“There’s a committee in place that’s studying family-friendly provisions for the legislature and how to increase women participation,” says Arseneault.
“One of the things they do mention is virtual-hybrid sittings. All of our witnesses so far have mentioned it as a plus.”
There’s a pregnant MLA in the group now – for the first time since the mid-90s.
Green MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar Megan Mitton is expecting her second child in June.
She sat virtually Tuesday, one of the batch of members potentially exposed.
“The legislature is kind of unique in that it has potential to be a super-spreader event because you have 49 MLAs plus other people who are travelling from every corner of the province to sit in the same room,” says Mitton.
She says she received a negative COVID-19 test result Tuesday, which would allow for her to return to the capital for work-isolation while self-monitoring – but remains adamant the option for the model should remain.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to modernize the legislature and make it more accessible,” she says.