As MPs launch a study into the future of the House of Commons’ use of a hybrid sitting structure, Speaker Anthony Rota asks MPs to look at the ‘big picture’ by making their recommendations as to whether it is time to retire the virtual elements of the proceedings that were inaugurated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) began a review of the hybrid sitting model, hearing from senior House of Commons officials as well as current and past MPs on the use of the hybrid sitting model and of the voting app to see what worked, and what didn’t, in the context of potentially sustaining these long-term measures.
The study was requested as part of the government’s motion that locks down hybrid provisions – allowing MPs to continue to participate in debates and committee meetings virtually, as well as vote remotely from anywhere in Canada. – until 2023, pending the conclusions of the PROC and the state of the situation. the pandemic.
While arrangements remain in place giving MPs the ability to participate remotely, overall the majority of federal elected officials have been showing up in person in the House of Commons since the start of the fall sitting in September. The House of Commons relaxed COVID-19 public health measures, such as vaccine and mask mandates, at the end of the spring sitting.
During his testimony, Rota spoke both of the flexibility the hybrid format allowed as well as the challenges it presented both technically and for decorum, telling his colleagues that there has “general questions” that the committee might want to explore as part of this review.
“For example, should the House continue to allow remote participation for all Members in any situation at any time? Or should this option be available in specific circumstances to be determined by the House? And, will these provisions apply differently in the chamber, in committees, or in other parliamentary activities?” Rota said. “For example, if the Chamber retains its use of the electronic voting application, can the videoconferencing system be maintained and used as a backup?”
Speaking in favor of pursuing “parameters” under which MPs could choose to continue to participate remotely if the hybrid structure was maintained, Rota said he does not think deciding not to fly or drive in Ottawa should being something that deputies do “willy-nilly,” rather something used in times of illness or other special circumstances.
While the House of Commons Administration has been working quickly to find new, innovative and historic ways for Members of Parliament to adapt to the reality of COVID-19 while continuing their work of debating and passing legislation, the provisions were not meant to be permanent.
As MPs have adapted to this option, many have explained that it allows them to essentially be two places in one: available to their constituents and able to participate in deliberations in Ottawa. However, in the nearly two years of use, there have been several snafus and more serious transgressions associated with the hybrid seating pattern.
From poor audio and video quality and connectivity issues to MPs who have to apologize for taking the debate down the toilet with them. There is also the significant impact on parliamentary interpreters and, consequently, the restrictive schedules of committees.
Ministers have also been accused of dodging questions in person by zooming in from Ottawa rather than appearing in the House in person. It has become a less widespread concern as more public health rules have been lifted.
Before the pandemic-era sitting structure came into effect, MPs found workarounds to have their votes counted if they could not be present through procedural measures such as paired voting , but did not have the opportunity to participate in the debate without being in the House in person.
SPLIT MPS ON HYBRID END
At Tuesday’s meeting, some MPs made their positions clear on both sides of the issue, including a few who shared their personal experiences.
Testifying before the PROC, BC Liberal MP Parm Bains shared with his colleagues how the Hybrid Parliament allowed him to continue doing his job as an MP while receiving dialysis and later recovering from a transplant you’re welcome.
“Hybrid arrangements are vital to the pressures caused by Ottawa’s long, uncontrollable absences,” he said. “The hybrid arrangements allowed me to fulfill my parliamentary obligations, limit my exposure, maintain good mental health and reduce my family’s fears as they supported me through my health journey.”
During the hearing, some Tory MPs expressed reservations about pursuing the hybrid format as something that would appear to make their working life easier when many Canadians are struggling. The federal Conservative caucus was generally strongly opposed to maintaining the virtual arrangements ahead of the fall sitting.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk warned her colleagues of the ramifications of “setting a precedent by working while you’re sick”, and said that in her experience as a mother trying hybrid work in the House of common, she often found family obligations and local events. were competing for his time.
“There seems to be an expectation that because you’re physically present, you can do all of this and you can do it to the best of your ability. And I would say that in reality, it’s actually at the expense of the carrying out our parliamentary responsibilities,” Falk said.
Although during the hearing, two former Conservative MPs, Dona Cadman and Leo Duguay, both suggested there might be benefits to keeping hybrid arrangements as an option for MPs, citing their experiences with long trips to their riding, personal sacrifices made to be in Ottawa, and developments in technology since their time in the House, as factors.
The NDP is broadly supportive of hybrid sittings continuing, with B.C. MP Laurel Collins advocating making the format permanent, saying hybrid sittings allowed her to continue working through the final months of her pregnancy.
“Not every woman wants to do this, but every woman deserves the choice and women deserve the choice to participate,” Collins said, noting that she was also able to participate in Parliament through the hybrid when she contracted COVID-19, and when her father died.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you want more young women to enter politics, if you want more women to stay in politics, make parliament more family-friendly. And hybrid parliament is a tangible way to do it,” Collins said.
New Democrats are calling for the hybrid format to be “strengthened”, citing the need to secure more accountability requirements for government, as well as to ensure that interpretation and translation resources are not continually stretched.
The PROC is expected to continue its study in the coming weeks and welcomes comments from other MPs before reporting back to the House of Commons with its recommendations.