The Conservatives pushed back against the Liberals’ proposal to suspend full House of Commons sittings through the summer, as MPs debated how Parliament should function amid the pandemic when they returned to the House on Monday.
The Liberals are proposing four sittings per week of a special COVID-19 committee to talk about the pandemic and how the government is responding to it, using a hybrid system with some MPs in the chamber in Ottawa and others participating by video conference.
The Conservatives have said they want to do away with the special COVID-19 committee and bring back House sittings, albeit with no more than 50 MPs in the House at any one time.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer underscored the need for Parliament’s immediate return in his address to the House on Monday, citing the ballooning deficit, billions in new pandemic-related spending, and the Liberals’ weakness on China relations as some of the reasons for MPs to be able to ask questions on behalf of their constituents.
“We can get better results for Canadians, but to do so the House must sit,” Scheer said.
Opposition House leader Candice Bergen laid out some of the key differences between a normal parliamentary session and the special committee.
These include a lack of opposition days, private member’s motions, and the ability to submit order paper questions, which is one of the key ways opposition parties have to get information from the government.
“Although the special committee is one where questions can be asked, we certainly are not seeing questions answered,” said Bergen.
“And there are many things that the Opposition can do when Parliament is actually sitting in order to try to get answers and to try to hold the government to account. That is not going to be happening if this motion passes.”
The Liberals and NDP argue that the Conservatives’ plan essentially disenfranchises the majority of Canadians, as MPs who live far from Ottawa or with potential health risks will face extreme difficulties attending in-person sessions.
However, all sides agree there are technical limitations to establishing a full virtual Parliament right now that do not exist for committees.
Those limitations were highlighted in a report by a Commons committee earlier this month, including concerns about hacking when it comes to MP votes and procedural questions such as how to handle points of order and privilege.
The Liberals say that is why they have proposed expanding the current COVID-19 committee by adding an additional meeting per week and using a hybrid format that will allow all MPs to participate through either in-person or virtual attendance.
“Under this motion, with a hybrid Parliament, there would be more time for questions,” government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said.
“There would be MPs in the House and there would be MPs via video conference regardless of the party. And this would allow our democracy to function. MPs would be able to ask questions because they were elected and not because they live close to Ottawa.”
The Liberals are seeking the NDP’s backing for the plan, which they need to pass the motion, after the Bloc Quebecois said they would not be involved in negotiations.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to work with provinces to give workers 10 days of paid sick leave per year is “a good start,” but more action is needed before federal New Democrats will agree to suspend full sittings of the House through the summer.
The government must also make good on a promise to provide more support to Canadians with disabilities who are struggling during the pandemic, Singh said.
With files from The Canadian Press