The federal Conservatives say “under no circumstances” will the party support virtual parliamentary proceedings when the House of Commons returns this fall, despite a new COVID-19 vaccine mandate set to take effect within weeks for members of Parliament and their staff.
Blake Richards, Conservative MP and the party’s whip, said the vaccine requirement announced on Tuesday is something the party will not agree to, and said the party believes all MPs should be able to enter the House of Commons.
“As we said during the election, workplace health and safety can be assured through vaccination or the demonstration of a recent negative rapid test result,” said Richards, who is one of two Conservative MPs on the powerful Board of Internal Economy that issued the ruling on Tuesday.
“While we encourage everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents.”
“Regarding the return of Parliament, Canadians deserve a government that is accountable to its constituents and that’s why under no circumstances will Conservatives support virtual Parliament,” he added.
In a readout issued after a conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole did not directly address the vaccine mandate for MPs and their staff, including others.
“Mr. O’Toole asked the Prime Minister to stop using vaccines as a political wedge tool and to prioritize addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy in Canada,” the readout said.
“The Prime Minister did not answer, and Mr. O’Toole informed him that Canada’s Conservatives would put forward ideas to reduce and address vaccine hesitancy in the coming weeks.”
The Board of Internal Economy governs the House of Commons and is made up of MPs from all parties with official standing. It meets behind closed doors and makes decisions by majority, with the Liberals holding four seats, the Bloc Quebecois and Tories each with two, and the NDP with one.
The Speaker of the House of Commons serves as chair of the nine-person board, which “makes decisions and provides direction on financial and administrative matters of the House of Commons, specifically concerning its premises, its services, its staff and Members of the House of Commons.”
On Tuesday night, the Speaker of the House of Commons announced that the Board of Internal Economy had decided anyone entering the House of Commons precinct must be fully vaccinated.
The precinct includes the House of Commons itself as well as MPs’ offices and Commons committee rooms in the surrounding buildings around Parliament Hill and the adjacent blocks.
That requirement will apply to members of Parliament, their staff, political research office employees, administration employees, journalists, parliamentary business visitors, contractors and consultants.
It’s a decision that parliamentary expert Philippe Lagassé said is within the bounds of the powers held by the House of Commons to set its own rules of operations.
Lagassé is an associate professor at Carleton University and specializes in the role of Parliament and the Westminster parliamentary system used by countries like Canada. He noted while MPs have parliamentary privilege to be able to fulfill their duties without undue obstruction or interference, those powers derive from the broader powers that the House of Commons has to set its own rules.
“Put differently, individual parliamentarians only have privileges because they are members of a House of Parliament,” he told Global News via email, noting this is the reason MPs can be expelled from the House of Commons or sanctioned for things like unparliamentary language.
“In this case, the collective privilege to determine who enters the Commons trumps the individual privilege to perform one’s parliamentary work without interference.”
Effectively, that suggests there will be few options for parties or MPs who want to challenge the requirement to be fully vaccinated, barring medical exemptions.
Mark Holland, the Liberal whip who also serves on the Board of Internal Economy, billed the decision as one that will put many minds at ease. He added the use of a hybrid Parliament model, where members can participate either in-person or virtually, will ensure any unvaccinated MPs without a medical exemption are still able to carry out their duties.
“Knowing that all visitors, all MPs, all staff on-premise are going to be vaccinated is a huge sense of relief and I think entirely appropriate given the public health circumstances,” he said.
“I think the hybrid model worked exceptionally well and it allowed people from across the country to work well together. I think we can have more people in the chamber, but we don’t know where this pandemic is going. We obviously are going to need some flexibility.”
All candidates running for the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois were required during the election to be fully vaccinated unless they had a medical exemption.
O’Toole has repeatedly refused to say how many of his MPs were vaccinated.